The Warriors disemboweled the Cavaliers last night, winning by 33 in a game that didn’t feel that close, and while there are a million different reasons why, one of the biggest is how effectively Golden State played small. Down two to begin the second quarter, the Warriors went the next 12 minutes without a traditional center and ended the quarter with an eight point lead. After Andrew Bogut played the first 3:20 of the third quarter, Draymond Green played center for the remaining 8:40, and the Warriors were +10. In 20:40 of game time, various Warriors smallball lineups were +20.
To even casual basketball observers, the Warriors dominating with a smallball lineup came as no surprise. They went small for short stretches last season, and relied upon their small Death Lineup to beat the Cavs in overtime of Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals. They played small even more this season, and the Thunder figuring the Death Lineup out for a few games is one of the biggest reasons they went up 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals. The Death Lineup reasserting itself is one of the biggest reasons the Warriors turned the series around and won.
All of this to say that any team trying to beat the Warriors obviously needs to plan and strategize for the Death Lineup. Your brother-in-law who starts watching the NBA during the conference finals probably had takes about how this was a key thing for the Cavaliers; so did his friend who doesn’t watch the NBA at all, for that matter. And yet this seems to be something actual Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue neglected. After the Game 2 shellacking:
Q. When you’re in Toronto, you talked about hitting them first and not being the ones to be hit second. Was that a problem today? Is that something you need to do going forward?
COACH LUE: I thought early we did hit first. I just thought when they went to the small lineup, their small lineup was a lot faster than what ours was. Being faster and being longer and athletic gave us some trouble. It gave us some problems. So we’ve got to try to figure that lineup out, and we’ll be fine. But I thought we came out with the right intentions.
And, a bit later:
Q. The first two games really haven’t been close. Do you feel like the guys are either surprised or bewildered by how good or how quick the Warriors have turned out to be?
COACH LUE: I think we’re surprised the way they won, yes, but that’s what the playoffs are about.
Look, I have no idea how the Cavs are supposed to win when the Warriors go small. The Thunder were able to for a short while because they’re the only team in the league that can play small while remaining big because they have Swiss army knives named Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant. The Cavs don’t have that luxury, and are forced into the same unenviable binary choice every non-Thunder team must make: go small and get into a track meet with the Warriors and get killed on the boards, or stay big and watch your slow-footed ogres get punished.
But at least I know that’s the most important dilemma to solve! The Cavaliers swept their first two playoff series, polished off the Raptors a full six days before they met the Warriors in Game 1, and had three days between Games 1 and 2. The Cavaliers coaching staff and GM LeBron have had plenty of time to figure the lineup out, yet Lue was still surprised at how good it was.
Maybe Lue is lying to obfuscate the fact that his stars played like garbage, or playing coy about the revolutionary adjustment he’s about to drop in Game 3. But it sure seems like he’s the only one that didn’t know that the Warriors being small, fast, long, and athletic was going to be a problem.