OAKLAND — There comes a point in every NBA playoff series — particularly a Finals series — where a coach realizes that he is about to lose, that what has worked to get them there is no longer good enough. When that happens, you see desperation moves. Heck, in 2008 Phil Jackson tried to roll out Chris Mihm against the Celtics front line because he needed a desperation move.
Cavaliers coach David Blatt reached that point early in Game 5. The Warriors had gone small in Game 4, subbing Andre Iguodala in for Andrew Bogut. It worked.
Blatt had tried to counter by staying big with Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson in at the same time, and Mozgov had 28 points in Game 4. And the Cavaliers lost by 21.
To open Game 5 the Warriors missed a couple threes and had a couple turnovers, but then really started to expose Mozgov — Golden State hit four of their next five. There was Stephen Curry with a layup, Draymond Green with a dunk in transition, followed by Green with another dunk — Green and the Warriors were exposing Mozgov’s inability to get out on the perimeter and still protect the rim, plus the fact Mozgov is not fast in transition. Golden State was getting the shots it wanted and early on was starting to pull away (already up 8-2). They had solved the Cavaliers. This game was going to get ugly.
Blatt knew it. So he made a desperate move and decided to match the Warriors small lineup. Out came Mozgov and in came J.R. Smith.
After the game Blatt took a lot of criticism for going small, including a number of questions about why he went away from his big man and trying to pound the Warriors inside as they had Game 4. Blatt responded by noting they lost the lost Game 4 by more than this one. Game 5 was a one-point game with just more than five minutes left, which is a lot closer than Game 4.
“I thought (going small) was our best chance to win the game, and we were definitely in the game with a chance to win,” Blatt said. So that’s the way we played it.”
The Warriors beat the Cavaliers to some offensive rebounds late in Game 4, and there were no solid second scorers behind LeBron James in Game 4 like Mozgov in Game 4. On the surface you can make the staying big argument, but it misses the real picture.
The reality for Blatt was obvious and simple:
If he stayed with the big lineup, he was going to get blown out. Again.
Going small played to Golden State’s strengths, but it worked a lot better than staying big did or would have.
The problem for Blatt and the Cavaliers is it doesn’t matter what style he plays — the Warriors are the better, deeper team. The Warriors have more pieces on the chess board and can adjust. The Cavaliers made some nice adjustments in this game to get J.R. Smith open off some pindown actions, and he hit his first three from beyond the arc. Then the Warriors adjusted how they defended the action (switching more) and that play went away, it didn’t work. The Warriors have the depth, the personnel to counter anything the Cavaliers try.
Blatt was getting beat playing big. So, he took a gamble playing small. It didn’t work out.
But he had to try something. The status quo was his team getting blown out again.