Sunday night at Oracle — Game Five of this roller coaster NBA finals series — will no doubt be another great chapter in this great drama. The undermanned, overachieving Cavs, led by unlikely heroes and King James, facing off against the Warriors who had been underachieving but finally found their identity.
As the momentum has shifted from game to game, quarter-to-quarter since the start of these finals, Golden State comes in with the needle firmly shifted in their favor. After handing the Cavs one of the largest home losses in NBA playoff history, they see a Cleveland team on the ropes, struggling to keep up with the deep Golden State roster. It was hard to see the six-man rotation for Cleveland holding up, and we finally saw huge drop-offs from role players who had carried them up till now (Dellavedova, e.g.). In Game Four, it was as if the tricks and illusion finally went away, and the Warriors played like the best team in the league — and not a moment too soon.
The series is now a best of three, and thanks to the Warriors having a historically great season; they still get two of the last three (*if necessary) in Oakland. They return back to Oracle, with a hyped up hoard of fans waiting to see a repeat of the trouncing last Thursday. Let's break down some keys to these final three games:
Will the Splash Brothers have a signature game?
Steph had arguably his best game of the Finals on Thursday, putting up a respectable 22 points while consistently running from Shumpert and Dellavedova choke holds and grabs. He has struggled with his outside shot all series (except for the fourth quarter of Game Three), but overall had a very effective showing Thursday. Much has been made of the defense played against him — which may have less to do with defense than with overall nerves of the playoffs. Both Klay and Steph have looked to push their games a bit too much at times during these finals, showing up with bad, quick shot selection, missing wide open shots, and lacking rhythm.
To think: the Warriors find themselves tied with the Cavs and we have yet to have a standout game from either shooter. Sure, they have had moments, but either Splash Brother can put up massive numbers, and maybe it will take a return home in Game Five to bring it out of them.
Can the small lineup hold up against the Cleveland bigs?
Much has been made of the use of the smaller lineup against the Cavs with great success. The obvious knock against this lineup is the big two forwards that the small-ball squad has to keep off the court in the form of Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. Will Mozgov set more personal bests against this small front line? He looks dominant in his post game, and his activity on the boards slows the game down by giving Cleveland second chance points. Also, Thompson is for real. The guy is developing his post game, is a beast on the offensive and defensive glass, and definitely makes this team that much better than Kevin Love ever would. Can you imagine Tristan Thompson not being on the court at this point? How happy would this make Warriors fans? This team has always had problems against bruising teams (Memphis, Utah during the season with their big front line) and it shows when Thompson and Mozgov fly around the court.
How do you beat them? Continue to gang rebound, and then hit the break. No leaking out for the fast break like you usually do, more bodies have to tip to the open area and control the ball. This also means the guards have to stay back longer so no sprinting to the three point line. There is a happy medium between jumpstart offense and grind-out ball. The two Warriors wins so far in the Finals have actually been the two slowest-paced games. Draymond is the obvious start on the boards, but with Iguodala doing his one-man show on James, the rest of the wings have to come and crash to get those lose balls. When the 50/50 balls start going the Warriors way, so does the momentum.
Who gets the starting nod?
Steve Kerr set himself up for Liegate 2015 with his curve ball starting Andre Iguodala on Thursday. This wasn't that big of a deal — the numbers had shown that the small ball lineup all year was the most effective on the court, so going to it to start was the obvious product of a seven-game series adjustment. Much was made out of him bending the truth to local reporters and unveiling his surprise. I think a lot of fans who watched the team all year, when seeing this lineup actually said "FINALLY!" Not that Harrison Barnes hasn't had flashes of brilliance during the playoffs, but Barnes is showing that, when the wrong matchup goes his way, he can absolutely fall off the radar at times for the Warriors (Games Two through Four have not been good for his contract conversations).
I would think Kerr goes back to his Game Four lineup for the start of Game Five. The key is, even if Cleveland beats them up on the boards, the Warriors will run the six man rotation off the court in the first half, and wear them down with their incredibly deep rotation until the Cavs again fizzle out at the end. They key now is the contributions from the usual-starters now coming off the bench. We know that Barnes throws a tantrum when he isn't in the starting five, but his offense is essential to the second unit pulling away when LeBron sits. Also, can Bogut come in and be effective from a cold start? He had some physical court time on Thursday, picking up a few quick fouls and throwing around bodies. Maybe his role is the enforcer for the rest of this series, coming in and giving Mozgov a few shots before retiring back to the bench. Since he hasn't been the usual facilitator on offense that he usually is, this might be his best role in the series — ten minutes of physical pounding in the paint to wear down the big two for Cleveland.
Finally, not enough can be said about the continued performances of great role players on this team. Shaun Livingston played a fantastic two way game on Thursday night, providing floor control and great defense during his valuable minutes. And, dare I say it, David Lee even looked serviceable out there on the court. He plays a bit better against this Cavs team than Marreese Speights, and with his great offense on the pick and roll Thursday, I think he will continue to get minutes for the rest of the Finals. Who would have thought just a few weeks ago that David Lee would be making serious contributions toward our title hopes?
Will the Warriors look nervous at home?
The Warriors love to show off — behind-the-back passes, deferring from the easy layup for the more difficult three pointers. They have done their best during the duration of the playoffs to give the home fans the best show they can. What they have learned is that teams are smarter, mistakes are bigger, and that nerves are higher when the trophy is sitting within reach.
They have had some miserable performances this postseason in front of the home fans, with more turnovers and bad shots to show off for the Oakland crowd. Will they continue to play the same smart ball they have shown on the road? A great first quarter would go a long way to settle the nerves and put the team in the right frame of mind. There is also the fatigue factor: an early deficit paired with a great pace would definitely wear Cleveland even thinner.
At this point, this series has been talked about to exhaustion. Every matchup has been overexamined; every decision has been ridiculed and picked apart. As a fan, it is almost to the point of being overwhelming how much these two teams have been talked about. As players, I can only imagine that the spotlight being even brighter can be that much more distracting and disruptive to their normal routines.
The best part, though? When that ball tips Sunday night, nothing else will matter. We will be back at square one — all even in a series where the Warriors have a talent and a home court advantage. Both teams know each other's tricks, know each other's plays. It's about execution at this point, and it's time for the Warriors to show they can finish this off.
I, for one, cannot wait for Sunday to roll around and this game to be for real. The Warriors have too many advantages left here as the series finishes out, and I can confidently put a 101-89 prediction on the board, with the Warriors walking away ready to finish off back in Cleveland next week. I think they come out to a fast start, and we all watch LeBron hero ball try hard all night to catch up, but in the end fall short. Let's hope I'm right.