Even before Kyrie Irving was injured, the Cavaliers bench more closely resembled a basketball old folks home than something that could actually help a team in 2015. Kendrick Perkins? Brendan Haywood? Shawn Marion? Mike Miller? I’m not even sure who Joe Harris is.
That truncated bench has manifested itself in the Cavaliers noticeably fading late in games in the NBA Finals. Across the series the Warriors are +34 in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a monster +15 in their 103-82 Game 4 win. LeBron James played 142 of 154 minutes in the first three games of the series, and only grabbed 2:12 of rest in the first half of Game 4. When he tried to recharge at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Warriors immediately got a dunk and a layup, and he only sat for 1:49.
But the bench has another function besides simply allowing the starters to catch their breath, and that is providing the coach with different looks. In Game 4 Steve Kerr was able to riffle through his junk drawer and pull out an Andre Iguodala and a Shaun Livingston, while David Blatt didn’t bother to waste any energy because he knew it was empty.
David Blatt thinking about his bench. Photo via AP
For the first time this season, Andre Iguodala started a game. And he didn’t replace brick machine Harrison Barnes or the suddenly unconfident Draymond Green, but Andrew Bogut. This is the Warriors lineup that I have previously called “unstoppable,” but even I wouldn’t have opened the game with it. It is—I thought—unsustainable over long periods, and works best later in the game against a tired team as a change of pace option.
But it worked. Not immediately, as the Cavaliers jumped out to a 7-0 lead and the junior basketball analysts of Twitter tripped over themselves to declare it a failure, but as the quarter wore on. The Cavaliers—and I cannot stress how much they should not have done this—inexplicably played exactly how the Warriors wanted them to play, and did what they had avoided doing the entire series: they ran. For the first time, the game was played at the Warriors’s pace, and they won the quarter 31-24.
This has been a brilliant series for defensive tactics, and neither team has run anything approximating a good offense. LeBron James is averaging 36 points in the series, and while it is efficient within the context of how poorly the teams have played offensively, the 39% (33% from three) he is shooting is not great! Similarly, the numbers for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are ugly.
To find an option instead of his struggling starting lineup, Steve Kerr has gone through almost his entire bench trying to find something, anything, that works. At one time or another he’s tried Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, David Lee, Shaun Livingston, and Andre Iguodala. Besides the two rookies at the end of the bench, he’s tried everybody. Iguodala has been the Warriors’s best player all series long, but that’s about all Kerr has gotten. But finally, in Game 4, two “bench” players showed up. Iggy dropped 22 points (4-9 on threes) and Livingston finished with seven points, eight rebounds, four assists—and most impressively—a game-high +25. Andrew Bogut was a vital part of the Warriors’s success this season, but Kerr was able to play him only three minutes because he had other options.
Iguodala’s insertion into the startling lineup was directly responsible for the Warriors’s hot first quarter. He got out and ran on the break, and his presence opened up the floor for everybody else. When Livingston finally checked into the game with 2:16 left in the quarter, the Warriors were up two. On his first two possessions he assisted a dunk and a layup, and the Warriors ended the quarter on a 7-2 run. The lead had a knock-on effect too, as slowing the game down and pounding the ball with LeBron doesn’t work as well coming from behind.
The Cavs are counting on this shooting form. Photo via Getty
It’s not that David Blatt isn’t willing to try and find a spark on his bench—it’s that he knows he can’t. Literally nobody on the Cavaliers bench besides J.R. Smith or James Jones is remotely close to even being a replacement player. He has seven guys that can play, and one style that they can effectively play. For three games it worked, and in the fourth it failed miserably.
After Kyrie Irving went down, this shouldn’t have been a series. You shouldn’t be able to beat one of the best teams in NBA history—and no matter what happens in this series that’s what the Warriors are—with LeBron James and a bunch of rejected Knicks. But the brilliant play of James, the steadiness of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, and War Boy Matthew Dellavedova temporarily morphing into Stephen Curry’s equal was enough to win two games, and almost three.
In one game, anything can happen. But over a long series, the deeper, more well-rested team with the better players should win. For the Cavaliers to buck that, LeBron James will have to be superhuman over the final three games, and that presents David Blatt with a near-unsolvable problem. If LeBron plays 48 minutes, he has to take a bunch of possessions off and isn’t nearly as effective in crunch time. If LeBron is given an adequate amount of rest, the Cavaliers have no offense or defense. (In the 19 minutes James has sat this series—only 19 minutes in four games!—the Cavaliers are -11).
In the first three games of the series, the Warriors rarely double-teamed LeBron. After Game 1, he bristled at the notion that in focusing on shutting down his teammates, the Warriors had “let” him get 44 points. In Game 4 the Warriors probably doubled LeBron more than they had in the previous three games combined, tacitly admitting that their strategy had failed. Accordingly, he kicked it out to open teammates, and besides Mozgov’s monster 28-point game, they combined to shoot 13-50. They probably won’t shoot 3-23 in Game 5, but the fact remains that the Cavaliers have to rely on Dellavedova, Shumpert, and Smith.
That is a scary proposition.