What the hell else are the Cavaliers supposed to do? In Game 5 they conceded that the Warriors’s small ball unit was too good, and barely played Timofey Mozgov. LeBron James went off for a monster 40 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists (and only two turnovers). J.R. Smith finally (at least for awhile) showed up to the Finals. And still, the Warriors won by 13, and are one win away from the NBA title.
The Finals has been a masterclass in dueling tit-for-tat strategies. In Game 4 the Warriors began double-teaming LeBron, and only played Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli for a combined three minutes. In response, in Game 5 David Blatt only played Timofey Mozgov for nine minutes. It was as if the two coaches had a handshake agreement to only play the smalls.
It was the right decision by Blatt. Draymond Green might be a good small ball center, but LeBron James is the best small ball center. When both Mozgov and Tristan Thompson are on the floor, the Warriors are better able to double-team LeBron, as the Cavs only have two three-point shooters. But once J.R. Smith is in the game instead of Mozgov, doubling becomes much more risky. Smith made three of his first four shots in the 1st quarter, including two threes, and the Warriors didn’t really try it.
Not playing Mozgov is not without its downsides, though. One of the louder storylines before the game was whether the Cavaliers would open up their rotation to get the starters more rest. In a way they did, as Mike Miller played 14 minutes, by far his most in the series. But that was balanced out by Mozgov’s paltry nine, meaning Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, and Iman Shumpert all logged heavy minutes, and LeBron played his now-typical 45.
The Warriors began the fourth quarter leading by six. As usual Steph Curry was sitting, but in fewer than three minutes the game was tied, and he quickly re-entered. From that point on, in just nine minutes, the Warriors exploded for 29 points. Their ball movement was good and they played hard, but the deciding factor was really fatigue.
The telling play, that didn’t even result in a basket, came with 5:30 left and the Warriors up three. With Curry inbounding the ball, Iguodala walked into the corner. LeBron—who rarely makes mental mistakes—just sort of forgot about him, and Curry passed it to Iguodala for a wide open three-point-attempt. LeBron was too tired to bother contesting it.
Playing against a tired team and a small lineup, the Warriors flipped the script on the Cavs. They crashed the boards heavy, especially when poor free throw shooter Iguodala was on the line, and got numerous second chances. The Cavaliers were getting few stops as it was, and having those stops turn into extra possessions was deflating.
For three quarters Curry had a good, efficient game, but was prevented by Dellavedova’s now-trademark doggedness from really going off. But in the fourth quarter, for really the first time all series, Curry did his Curry thing. He went 5-7 for 17 points, and did things that are better witnessed than described:
For the Cavaliers, the schedule offer no respite. After getting two days off between Games 4 and 5 to refuel, they’ll only have one before Game 6, played on Tuesday. LeBron James has been a statistical marvel all series, and Game 5’s triple-double was no exception, yet it still wasn’t enough. Barring J.R. Smith going 8-9 from behind the arc or Matthew Dellavedova succeeding again despite his ugly shooting form, the Cavaliers’s only hope is that LeBron James plays even better. It seems impossible, but don’t rule it out.