2015 NBA Finals Game 5: Cavaliers @ Warriors

Curry (30) and his starter teammates had much to celebrate in their thrilling Game 5 victory (AP Photo/Ben Margot).

Curry (30) and his starter teammates had much to celebrate in their thrilling Game 5 victory (AP Photo/Ben Margot).

Impact of Pace 

For much of the game, it felt as though the Warriors had further returned to their preferred style of play–having experienced shooting and effective passing resurgences in Game 4–but this time in terms of pace. Such a notion manifested itself immediately, as Golden State scored six of its first eight points in the first quarter off fast breaks, using sloppy Cavs play (five turnovers committed in the first five minutes) to run out on the floor and push tempo for easy baskets. Only two fast break points in the second half followed the 16 in the first two quarters, but the flurry of long-balls and high octane offense display–at least relative to slow pace induced by Cleveland in the first few games–gave the impression of a Warriors team back to its regular season capacity.

To an extent, a heightened pace of the game did occur on Sunday night. In some part, this could explain why Golden State thrived in Game 5, as an electric and quick style–resulting from a greater number of possessions per 48 minutes, as Pace factor measures–has keyed this team’s plentiful regular season successes, as well as formed a considerable part of its identity. On Sunday, Warriors players averaged out to a pace of 95.10. This marked a notable increase from the slog–what the Cavs aimed for in shooting late in the shot clock and playing suffocating defense, and for a few games benefited greatly as a result–that was a 93.23 pace in the previous four games of the Finals. In further contextualizing Game 5’s results, Golden State established a rapid 100.69 pace during the regular season that ranked top in the league. In the playoffs however, that number plummeted to 95.85, slotting the Warriors at 10th out of 16 playoff teams (take the drop with a grain of salt, as five of the teams ahead had the small sample size of only a first round series). So while well below the lofty tempo standards of its 67-win campaign, Golden State nevertheless saw some climb in pace on Sunday. At the very least it was an improvement from the prior games that met the playoffs average, but still far below than what he have seen all season from the fastest team in the NBA.

More smallball success

Of that 95.10 pace for Golden State noted above, the group with the highest contributors to that number included Draymond Green (97.63), Harrison Barnes (97.36), Klay Thompson (96.26), Stephen Curry (95.98), and Andre Iguodala (95.21). It should not be any surprise or coincidence that these five players compose the starting lineup sent out by Steve Kerr and the coaching staff, as the unit played even better than it did three nights ago. In Game 4, the implementation of a smallball approach–with these same five players–essentially won the Warriors the game at hand, and changed the course of the series in the long run (i.e. David Blatt playing his center Timofey Mozgov only nine minutes in Game 5). But though each of these five members independently found success on the floor (plus-minuses ranging from +9 to +18) in Game 5, the group as a whole had just a -1 plus-minus total in 14.4 minutes together. (Recall that their success as a group should be understood more so in terms of their playing the primary role in setting the smallball tone for Game 4 and this Finals series.)

Yet on Sunday, it was this specific smallball group that started the contest that ultimately found the most success. In 20.9 minutes of action, this unit collected a +14 mark together–far ahead of the +5 posted by the next closest five-man group on the floor at any time–and scored 46 points off five three-pointers and .457 shooting, adding four steals, which fostered some pace increase, as well.

Furthermore, the distribution of minutes on this Golden State team has gone even more in the way of wings and guards in recent games. After playing Andrew Bogut for a measly three minutes in Game 4, Steve Kerr elected to sit his Second Team All-Defense center for all of Game 5, and handed just 12 total minutes to non-Draymond Green bigs. Here are the minute percentages for Warrior big men by each game in this series, excluding Green who acts more like a small forward anyways: Game 1- 18.5%, Game 2- 13.6%, Game 3- 20.0%, Game 4- 8.3%, and Game 5- 5.0%. Amid this gradual decline of big men minutes, Golden State has continued to reap benefits in an all-in approach towards smallball philosophy. Apart from one group, each Warrior five-man lineup that reached a positive plus-minus total had some combination of four wings/guards paired with Green, or five without Green. Moreover, the top four performing lineups in terms of plus-minus had these same smallball qualities as well, and in total made up 32.9 of the total 48 minutes played. In sum, the more Golden State turns to smallball lineups, the more success they yield–a trend Cleveland looks unequipped to halt.

Superstar battle 

With LeBron James once again taking the bulk of the workload–41.0 usage percentage, highest of any team’s players–a triple-double, made up of 40 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists, naturally and easily came within his grasp, not even needing a fourth quarter of play to complete it. Yet it was this last quarter that contained the decisive duel between the two Finals teams’ superstars, and the hot-shooting fireworks by Stephen Curry that defined it.

Prior to this, LeBron had taken the onus of leading the Cavaliers on offense as he had done in the four previous games. Despite receiving greater help from his key supporting cast core of Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert–collectively six three’s and 23 points in the first half among them, though only two more three’s and six more points in the second–James nevertheless stood at the brink of a triple-double by halftime from all his efforts. Below are his shot charts from each quarter to help illustrate the progression of his shooting success and tendencies:

Shot charts from first quarter (left) and second quarter for LeBron James (ESPN game box score)

Shot charts for first quarter (left) and second quarter for LeBron James (ESPN game box score)

Shot charts from third quarter (left) and fourth quarter for LeBron James (ESPN game box score)

Shot charts for third quarter (left) and fourth quarter for LeBron James (ESPN game box score)

Though in the first quarter he powered through in the interior for six points in the paint, LeBron looked most unstoppable later on in the half, reeling off a mid-quarter heat check that importantly saw him settle into a nice jumpshooting touch. At this point, no matter how tight the opposing defensive coverage or off-balanced the look was, he could knock down most of these tough shots. While he did all of this above-average in terms of efficiency in the first half (shooting 8-15), James dipped below the .500 shooting mark for good in the subsequent quarters. In the fourth quarter, LeBron, although adding a hot three-point stroke to his repertoire, began to tail off a bit. In addition to missing his five closest shots to rim, James went 3-9 from his favored left block area, and ended up misfiring on five of his last seven shots in this final quarter.

On the other end of the floor, Curry was having himself a steadily strong game, that only boiled over into something more in the fourth quarter. In the first half, while converting three long-balls from above the break, the league MVP focused many of his efforts penetrating the paint on drives–some coming as part of fast break opportunities–and went 3-4 on layup attempts within two feet of the hoop. Following a poor 2-7 mark from the floor in the third quarter, Curry entered the game for Shaun Livingston with 9:22 left in the fourth. For a fiercely contested game that featured 18 ties and eight lead changes around the time of his entrance, Curry quickly allayed any doubt as to who would win on Sunday night. Two possessions later, Steph drained a 20-foot midranger from the right side. His imminent decision to step back a few feet on his later shots would alter the game for good. One minute later, he knocked down a three from that same right wing–countering an effortlessly-executed 34-foot three by LeBron 14 seconds earlier–and in doing so permanently built a lead for the Warriors. Closeout duties came even more spectacularly for the MVP, with two three-point makes under the three-minute mark that sent an already ecstatic Oracle Arena crowd into further delirium. By the end of Game 5, Curry scored 37 points–17 of which coming in the fourth quarter–on a sublime 13-23 (7-13 from three) shooting line. At the same time, he finally had his signature game of sorts in the Finals, and demonstrated he could match up offensively with the superstar on the other team–though one with certainly less surrounding help in LeBron.

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (NBA.com/Stats)

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (NBA.com/Stats)

Fatigue setting in

Additionally, it’s important to note that the higher the pace, the more it wears out a tiresome and an undermanned Cavaliers squad. Fourth quarter and overtime level of play most vividly reveals the cumulative attrition rate of each individual game–two of which went into overtime–and of the span of an entire series. Across the fourth quarter and overtime periods of play combined in Games 1, 2, 3, and 4, the Warriors outscored the Cavs by 8, 1, 12, and 15, respectively. On Sunday, that edge expanded by seven, as once again Cleveland could not keep up with the energy–on both ends of the court–of its high-flying opponent. That comes in spite of LeBron’s Herculean performance in this Finals series, but suffers deeply from the absence of viable contributions from his supporting cast in late-game situations.

Ball movement rises again

For a team whose historic offensive proficiency has rested on productive and incisive ball movement, the Warriors continued to benefit on Sunday as they improve on this aspect of the game during this Finals stretch. The measurement of assist percentage–the percent of field goals that come off an assist–helps to understand this development. In Games 1, 2, 3, and 4, Golden State has posted assist percentages of 61.5, 48.5, 58.3, and 66.7, respectively. Thus, only as of late in the Finals has the team begun to slope upwards towards its desired levels–at the very least to its playoff mark of 63.4%, and optimally to its regular season average of 65.9%. Again, these standards are key in that they represent the levels at which effective ball movement and passing cohesion generated unparalleled offensive success for the Warriors this year. In Game 5, that trend rose even higher up to 69.4%. Particularly in the first quarter when that percentage was at 88.9 (small sample size, but having only one of nine FG makes go unassisted is still crazy) and by the end of first half with 75.0%, strong ball movement drove first half scoring and offensive effectiveness. Through the first two quarters, the Warriors shot .541 from the field and .500 from three-point territory. Although the 5-10 shooting line from three in the first half was topped by a 7-16 mark in the second, slightly more efficient three-point shooting percentage, emanating from productive ball movement that opened up better looks, occurred in the first half–despite Curry’s pull-up three-point magic that fueled his team’s long-range prowess especially in the fourth quarter.

2015 NBA Finals Game 4: Warriors @ Cavaliers

Iguodala (9) and the Warriors reestablished their sharpshooting ways and cruised to a Game 4 victory (AP Photo/Paul Sancya).

Iguodala (9) and the Warriors reestablished their sharpshooting ways and cruised to a Game 4 victory (AP Photo/Paul Sancya).

Smallball, huge payoff*

Few make adjustments as striking as do the Golden State Warriors. Had the team not done so four weeks ago, it might not have been in position to execute its most recent change.

Back in the Western Conference semi-finals in early May, the Warriors were in nearly the exact same spot as they were before Thursday night: down 2-1, playing Game 4 on the road, and increasingly faltering against their opponents after two straight losses. In response to their situation against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western semis, Steve Kerr and his coaching staff–likely the most talented surrounding group in the league–did not sit idly by as one of the best basketball teams in history lied on the brink of a premature playoff exit. Instead, they instituted a bold, unorthodox defensive strategy, a gamble under pressure. Ultimately, the adjustment helped win the Warriors Game 4 and then the series.

While the Finals iteration we saw on Thursday was not nearly as brazen as assigning Andrew Bogut to “guard” Tony Allen, sending out a smallball lineup against the Cavaliers, which matched Draymond Green against Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov as the only bigs, came close, and constituted a significant change nonetheless.

The decision to go small essentially centered on inserting Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup in place of center Andrew Bogut. Iguodala’s presence on the court has become a necessity for the Warriors, as the NBA veteran has gotten tasked this Finals with attempting to slow down LeBron James. Through the first three games, the matchup proved fruitful on Golden State’s end despite LeBron’s Finals record-shattering scoring peformances. As likely the best possible formula had been found to address the team’s toughest burden, the Dubs logically have done all in their power to maintain it in pushing Iguodala to a more prominent role–already seeing a minute increase each game, but this time going out with the starters. Yet this created a shift in defensive assignments all around, leaving a troubling big man (at least on one side) matchup: Thompson and Mozgov squaring up against Harrison Barnes and Green, respectively.

At the start, Cleveland seemed to have exploited almost every mismatch resulting from the Dubs lineup alteration. Through just over the first two minutes of play, the Cavs had jumped out to a 7-0 lead and already possessed a 5-1 rebounding edge. The two Cleveland big men dominated the smaller Warrior group, scoring four of the seven points, with Thompson easily snagging two offensive rebounds on consecutive possessions and Mozgov scoring quickly on Green in the post.

But after looking shaky at first and shrugging off some early shooting struggles, the Warriors smallball lineup exploited their end of lineup mismatches as well. Gradually finding a shooting groove as a result, the smaller group fed off efficient passing and better execution of good looks at the basket–a trend which would continue the rest of the night, and about which I will later go into more detail–to go ahead 22-20. A Cavs timeout at this point (3:57 first quarter) was noteworthy in that it meant Cleveland was the first to budge in this tilt of uneven lineups: David Blatt had replaced his center Mozgov with a shooter. By the end of the first quarter, the Warriors had a seven-point lead and somehow even attained a +2 margin on the boards, all the while seeing a critical boost in shooting with a .462 mark.

This first 12 minutes of action would be but a microcosm for the rest of the game, as Golden State’s small ball approach, having formed into an offensive cornerstone throughout the season, proved fundamental to swinging the series’s momentum back to the Dubs. With more wings and shooters on the court, the Warriors had several more shooting options and room to grow their characteristic offensive rhythm: an adjustment first made with only defensive circumstance in mind eventually reaped major offensive benefits. Reaching halftime after a Warriors run landed them a 54-42 lead, with the team netting six three’s and shooting .465, the direction of the game had become clear.

First half

Shot chart for Warriors (left half of court) and Cavaliers (right) at the half (ESPN Game Box Score)

The coaching staff’s change to the lineup, making the game’s flow more predicated on Warrior shooters and Cavalier bigs, helps explain the above shot distribution of both teams at the half (the shot chart at the end of game looks very similar to the one at the half, but the one seen here clarifies that the trend was in motion from the early-going).

With the entirety of Game 4 in view, it’s also worth particularly noting the play of and indispensable contributions by Iguodala on offense. In addition to his rangy and stellar defensive play–the main purpose behind slotting him into the lineup–that will be discussed shortly, he helped build the pace of the game up in getting out in transition and finishing with his patented ferocious, breakaway dunks. Moreover, as he settled in to the offense with a greater share of shooting, Iggy crucially knocked down four three-balls and scored 22 points on Thursday, totals only matched by superstar teammate Stephen Curry. Iguodala’s shooting effectiveness holds specific importance, as the Cavs must now must respect his jumpshot ability, rather than focus solely on the Splash Brothers as dangerous shooters. Iggy has seen several great looks these past games due to this opposing defensive approach, and the more he develops his shot the more havoc it will cause for Cleveland on defense.

Effect of smallball on Dubs defense:

The dominance by the Cavalier big men in the early stages, already an overwhelming force in the Finals with even Bogut involved, remained the primary offensive source for the team following the 7-0 run to commence the game. But not only did this disrupt Cleveland’s offensive habits that guided their prior success, but the corresponding shift in offensive reliance also fell right into place with what the Warriors wanted.

At the core of the smallball approach, as noted before, was a heightened attention towards the best basketball player on Earth in LeBron James. Throughout the night, Iguodala spearheaded this defensive focus once again and performed admirably in doing so, considering what he was going up against. Central to this effort, however, was much greater help defense from surrounding Golden State defenders, particularly when James drove to the hoop–where he’s done most of his damage compensating for an off jumper. This entailed both Warriors near the perimeter and the team’s larger on-court players moving closer to the rim once LeBron penetrated the paint, with Barnes and Green often in the mix.

Full game shot chart LeBron James (ESPN Game Box Score)

Full game shot chart LeBron James (ESPN Game Box Score)

By the end of the game, Golden State had come as close to neutralizing LeBron James as any other team, player, or strategy could. James had reached only 20 points on a rough 7-22 shooting night, far cry from his historic 41 PPG rate through the first three games. Moreover, LeBron found less success on drives and post-ups near the rim–unlike his usual attempts there that feels like a scoring certainty–and failed to convert from his go-to spot in the left block area near the paint.

Of course, with LeBron the focal point of Golden State’s defensive concerns it left plenty of offensive freedom and options for Mozgov and Thompson, who consequently dominated the paint and scoring production from start to finish for the Cavs. Moreover, it’s important to recognize how the Warriors smallball approach was at the root of this influence on Cleveland’s offense. In one of the defining statistics of Game 4, after averaging 23.3 minutes in the first three Finals games, Andrew Bogut played for a mere three on Thursday. First and foremost, this helps to understand the scoring rise of Mozgov and Thompson, feats effortlessly accomplished by the two, as the absence of Bogut at the center position granted many more facile opportunities and finishes near the rim.

(ESPN game box score and Basketball-Reference.com)

(ESPN game box score and Basketball-Reference.com)

The chart above further illustrates the scoring consistency by the Cleveland bigs–with the Warriors to some degree allowing them to find success across all quarters of play in not sending Bogut to guard the paint–and the huge jump in scoring production by the two relative to what they had seen on defense from Golden State previously: both players scored more than twice their averages for Games 1 through 3. The corresponding effect of lesser attention towards Mozgov/Thompson saw their star teammate in James sharply regress in Game 4, scoring slightly under half his average scoring output from the first three games, as he now bore the greater defensive focus–stemming directly from the Warriors smallball lineup change. Understandably, the Golden State was more than content with letting the Mozgov/Thompson pair dictate its team’s offensive direction, in place of LeBron doing so. Easy lay-ins and dunks by these big men looked worrisome on the surface, but in truth–and in the long run of Game 4–the result fell right in line with the intended impact Golden State and its coaching staff surely wished to have.

On the perimeter, Cleveland’s shooting crew–composed primarily of Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and Matthew Dellavedova–went horribly cold in Game 4. At the end of the first half, the trio–dangerous for much of these playoffs from outside–made one shot apiece and collectively went 3-16, 1-11 from three. By the end of the game, the bleak output had fully materialized: Shumpert went 2-9 from the floor (1-5 on three-balls), Dellavedova had shot 3-14 (2-9), and most egregiously, Smith posted a 2-12 (0-8) debacle. The three had already been putting up mediocre shooting efforts–going a combined .333 and .326 from three through the first three Finals games–but on Thursday they plummeted to new depths. One could reasonably ascribe the decrease in efficiency by the Cavalier wings/shooters to the higher number of opposing defenders of equal stature. In another outgrowth of the smallball direction, four Warrior guards/wings on the floor for much of the time translated to greater defensive attention towards Cleveland players at the same position, albeit at the loss of interior defense with Bogut now out. But this still had the huge effect of mitigating yet another portion of the Cavs’ offensive arsenal.

Above all else, the persistence and faith displayed in maintaining the smallball lineup–even with initial failure–merits as much praise as the shrewdness shown by the Golden State coaches in executing this pivotal adjustment in the first place, which would ultimately win the Warriors Game 4.

Resurgence of Draymond Green

Green (23), seen celebrating here, rebounded from earlier troubles with great vigor in Game 4 (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images).

Green (23), seen celebrating here, rebounded from earlier troubles with great vigor in Game 4 (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images).

After languishing through the first three games of the Finals, Draymond Green bounced back from his unseemly play and reprised his role as the playmaking linchpin for the Golden State offense. For much of the time before Thursday night, Green represented the weak link on offense, and in a sense his owns troubles revealed his importance–when playing at his peak–to an optimally functioning Warrior attack. His valuable presence as a stretch four power forward was lost amid trouble with his jumpshot: his shooting touch was consistently off, and at some point he decided to not even threaten to shoot despite having great looks. However, his greatest difficulties came in attacking the basket, as the towering impenetrability of Mozgov and Thompson as rim protectors rendered his drives towards the hoop futile.

In one of the more understated Warrior adjustments in Game 4, Green noticeably modified his approach in this area of his offensive game. He continued to attack the rim on Thursday, but did so smartly. Rather than boldly going straight up against and into the Cavs’ big men bodies, which had largely returned stifled attempts for Green, the Golden State do-it-all forward refined his drives to where he managed to quickly create some space once in the restricted area. Achieving this by leaning his body out or slightly altering his path to the rim, Green gave himself more room to release a more accurate shot.

draymond green stats

ORtg: estimated points produced per 100 possessions, eFG%: shooting percentage that adjusts for the fact that 3-pointers are worth 1.5 times more than 2-pointers (Basketball-Reference.com)

As a result, the tweak helped him find more success in scoring at the rim, as seen with his field goal totals in the paint in Games 1-4 above, as well as made him more calculated in this territory and a better distributor. That his plus/minus numbers while on the court correlate with his team’s Finals victories further confirms his essential presence for Golden State.

Away from the basket, Green also improved upon his Games 2 and 3 performances with respect to his jumpshooting tendencies. Compared to these previous contests, Green showed less hesitancy in launching shots from the floor, but most importantly a greater willingness and confidence in pursuit of a proper shooting touch. At 6:05 in the second quarter, he drained a three from above the break–which came with space and time, a situation in which Green strangely fared poorly earlier in the series–and at the time gave the Warriors their largest lead of the game at 12. Though it was his sole deep ball on the night, it also marked only his second for the series and contributed to the broader process of the Warriors regaining their three-point sharpshooting identity (especially in capitalizing on good looks from outside). Additionally, Green also became more active within the Dubs’ offensive system, remaining decisive with his decision-making and firing sharp passes around the court.

Improved ball movement

Among several factors, stronger ball movement facilitated the return to proficiency for the Warriors throughout the night. Through better coordination among the players, in how passes shaped their offense and with both movement on and off the ball, and a more purposeful quality, in that the ball movement had a sense of direction and wasn’t just flung around, the Golden State offense fulfilled what was required of them in this department of the game: return to their exemplar, regular season character. In turn, more useful passes as well as better care with the ball fueled a scoring improvement on the last two losses:


AST%: percentage of field goals that were assisted, AST/TO: number of assists for every turnover committed, AST Ratio: number of assists average per 100 possessions (NBA.com/Stats)

As had been the case with much of the team’s 2014/15 success, the offense revolved around productive ball movement and scoring emanated from passes that opened up space for great looks at the basket. This notion was reinforced with Golden State’s Finals wins correlating to greater AST%, AST/TO, and AST Ratio numbers than in their losses during the series.

The development of greater ball movement became no more apparent than in the fourth quarter as the Dubs began to pull away (+15 quarter margin). It pertained not so much to the sheer amount of passes getting thrown around on offense as it did to their incisive and swift quality. Golden State returned to its high-flying but productive style, in terms of promoting a fast pace but all the while feeding looks and taking drives to the hoop that opened up key space around the floor. The most emblematic of this rediscovered character occurred with Shaun Livingston’s feed–stemming from a quick passing buildup–to Iguodala for a three from the right corner at 7:22 to put the Dubs up 88-74.

Team-wide offensive upsurge 

Player tracking stats further convey the effect that better ball movement had on fostering better shot selection:



More constructive passing by the Warriors coincided with an uptick in, and assuredly played a part in producing, much better looks at the basket without so much interference from opposing defenders. The results by Golden State players on these type of shots also help understand the team’s shooting performance in Games 2 and 3: namely, that their losses came in large part because of their aberrant shooting. As I noted before, the Warriors’ horrid shooting display during their losses was bound to change as the series progressed, returning to their usual jumpshot standards. Notably, it was not as if Golden State had been completely squeezed out of any good looks at the basket. Rather, in addition to excellent, tight coverage defense from Cleveland, the Dubs had created quality shots and looks but simply weren’t making them, perhaps representative of an abnormally extensive off/cold shooting stretch. Game 4 thus showcased a return to the team’s typical shooting strength–an emphatic regression to the mean–in both the quality looks the Warriors derived but even more importantly the rates at which they converted them.

The below stats concerning key areas of offensive production–rates of shooting and scoring efficiency–lends insight into Golden State’s offensive recuperation more broadly:


TS%: shooting percentage adjusted to include value of three pointers and free throws, OffRtg: number of points scored per 100 possessions (NBA.com/Stats)

Across the board, the better offensive outputs correlate with Warrior victories, particularly with the Game 4 resurgence. The team found its groove from the floor in Games 1 and 4 and especially their deadly deep stroke (note that five fourth quarter three’s from Curry deceptively make the Game 3 totals looks adequate, when for the majority of the game they were not) unlike in the middle two contests, and the scoring on a per-possession basis further reveals a striking disparity in offensive efficiency–as if an entirely different Warrior team was playing on the court. Considering its regular season averages of 47.8 FG%, 39.8 3-PT FG%, 110.0 PPG, 57.1 TS%, and 109.7 OffRtg, Golden State simply looked much more like themselves on Thursday–a level at which it handily trumps any other team in the league, Cleveland included.

*UPDATE: When I often reference the smallball approach the Warriors implemented going into Game 4, I should clarify that I intended to discuss it’s effect beginning with the starting lineup but ultimately going beyond these group of five players. I say so because while the Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Iguodala-Green bunch played far and away the most minutes as a single unit–spending 14.4 minutes on the court, the next closest group at 4.4–they posted a paltry -1 plus-minus mark together. This should not discredit their impact, as though they did not perform so exceptionally, the unit did score 35 points on 12-26 shooting (5-15 on three’s), and more importantly, set the tone/laid the groundwork for a game-long smallball attack by Golden State. By that same +/- measure, however, backup point guard Shaun Livingston deserves greater commendation for his involvement on both ends of the court. On top of scoring seven points along with eight rebounds and four assists, Livingston accumulated an absurd +25 plus-minus total–seven more points than any other player on the court. Moreover, while he was on the floor, he was part of every single Warriors five-man lineup that reached a positive +/-, the highest of which was 10 playing alongside Curry, Green, Iguodala, and Thompson and all of which were smallball groups, doing so in only 24:30 of playing time. Again, Livingston and his effectiveness played into the broader success of Golden State’s smallball strategy that guided the brought a Game 4 victory–stemming not wholly from the smallball starting lineup itself, but more so from the precedent they set. 

2015 NBA Finals Game 3: Warriors @ Cavaliers

The unlikely overpowering combination of Dellavedova (left) and James (right) have led the Cavs to two straight Finals wins (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

The unlikely overpowering combination of Dellavedova (left) and James (right) have led the Cavs to two straight Finals wins (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

Defending LeBron 

With LeBron James taking more and more of a responsibility on offense with each passing game, Golden State has concurrently devoted greater attention towards how to deal with the most unstoppable force in the NBA. To start, the Warriors slotted in Harrison Barnes to guard LeBron–the natural fit considering the starting lineup–and the results were disastrous. Twelve seconds into the game, James dismantled the small forward on the low block and turned around for any easy layup. The notion of a mismatch increasingly crystallized, as despite forcing a few unnecessary jumpshots, LeBron dominated Barnes in going 3-6 from the field and 3-5 near the rim.

However, that immediately changed upon Andre Iguodala’s entry into the game at 6:48 in the first quarter for Barnes. Finding the same success in this matchup as in the last two games, Iguodala effectively shut down James and importantly warded him off taking over offensive possessions. On the first possession since his arrival, Iggy induced a travel call on LeBron, after which James became much more passive on the court. When he returned to a dominant offensive role, James missed two shots in the paint and one from three-point territory while guarded by Iguodala for the remainder of the quarter. His passing became disrupted too, as LBJ commited a turnover and another errant pass that should have had the same result. In the one moment that a switch took Iggy of LeBron, James was able to hit a driving layup while guarded by Draymond Green in the early second.

On the other end of the court, Iguodala complemented his excellent defense with key offensive contributions. Through the 19 first half minutes he logged in–second highest on the team–Iggy led the Warriors in scoring with 10 and chipped in four assists and four rebounds to complete the all-around effort. A few vicious dunks and passes that led to makes for teammates helped Golden State stay afloat on offense during the first 24 minutes.

Yet the initially suffocating defensive approach did not deter LBJ from resuming his scoring output. First drawing a shooting foul on Iggy in the high paint area, LeBron ferociously blew by Iguodala shortly after for a dunk. James continued to attack with aggression and as a result found a way to shed his defender Iguodala on these drives to the rim. It no longer seemed that Iggy alone could stymie LeBron, raising the question and necessity for greater help defense entering the next quarter. At the end of the half, James still struggled with his shot on 6-17 shooting, but managed 13 points and ended a rebound shy of a double-double, along with three assists.

Third quarter shot chart for LeBron James (ESPN Box Score).

Third quarter shot chart for LeBron James (two made FTs at 0:42 not included) (ESPN Box Score).

On Cleveland’s first possession of the third quarter, Draymond Green opened as the defender on LeBron, which translated to a blazing drive and finish at the rim that left Green in the dust. Later, in addition to mainly sticking Iguodala on him, the Dubs also experimented with Shaun Livingston on LeBron, which at one point created a short fallaway jumper for James that dropped through the net. Unlike the last two quarters, the third one hardly brought the same success for Golden State in limiting James. As a part of a broader 28-point explosion and crowd-galvanizing 12 minutes of play, LeBron rocketed to 13 points, doubling his scoring production for the game, and added three assists which all resulted in three long-range makes and thus an extra nine points.

Sloppiness then defined James’s early performance in the fourth quarter. Perhaps complacent with a 17-point lead–minutes after a 20-point edge, the largest in the series–LeBron committed two turnovers and a foul, as well as posted a 1-4 shooting mark and a missed free throw. In part, this momentary dropoff allowed the Warriors to storm back in the game. Yet it was short-lived, as James returned to dominance and carried the Cavs on his back–perhaps the most operative use of this worn-out sports cliche–to a 2-1 series lead. As the Dubs began to close in on Cleveland’s lead in the final minutes, LeBron brought the ball up the court, used a Tristan Thompson screen to create some separation, and hit a three-point dagger in the face of Iguodala off the left wing. After extending the Cavs’ lead to seven with this shot, James proceeded to convert on all six of his free throw attempts under the one-minute mark–a late-game facet he’s often struggled with–in guiding his team to the 96-91 win. In either final end-of-game shots or during closeout stretches as with this situation, LeBron has cemented–especially in these last six Finals runs–time and time again his status as a premier clutch performer, a feat once many thought inconceivable for him.

Cleveland’s supporting cast

King James finished the contest with 40 points–setting the record for most points through the first three Finals games with 123–on 14-34 shooting and two assists away from a triple-double. But for not the offensive support of a few key members of his supporting cast and at crucial points in time, a Game 3 win would likely have been out of reach. First and foremost, grit-personified (he chases loose balls like he’s still playing on a 10-day contract) Matthew Dellavedova backed his Game 2 defensive masterpiece by going toe to toe with Stephen Curry on the offensive end Tuesday night. While erratic with five missed shots out of seven, the Australian instantly assumed an aggressive offensive disposition in the first quarter, netting four of his team’s first 10 points.

But his greatest damage would come later in the third quarter, during which he fueled a critical run–perhaps without it, Cleveland would not be able to stave a furious GSW comeback a quarter later. From 11:23 to 2:51 in the third, the Cavs fired off a 24-9 run–at one point a 12-0 stretch–to leap ahead 68-48. Dellavedova had a huge hand in this momentous surge, racking up 10 points that included two three-pointers, and furthermore assisted on a LeBron trey and 15-footer.

For a moment, Delly looked like he returned to a scrawny no-name player after getting his shot blocked by Leandro Barbosa, missing a 20-foot runner, and committing a foul all in the first 1:04 of the fourth, consequently getting yanked from the game. But after reentering as the fourth quarter wounded down, he provided us with perhaps his most remarkable play. With 2:45 left on the game clock, an increasingly hot-shooting Stephen Curry had just drained a three–with Dellavedova naturally right up against him–to cut the margin to 81-80, the closest since the early minutes of the second quarter. Then, as if he had the audacity to undertake a PG duel with the league MVP, an “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” shootout heretofore reserved for sparring NBA superstars, Delly, with the opposing floor general glued onto him, stumbled towards the free throw line area after a pass from LeBron, an inch or two from completely losing control of the ball, released a wild shove towards the basket that mildly resembled a basketball shot attempt. It, to the glee of a zealous Quicken Loans Arena, somehow banked off the backboard into the rim, and in the process Dellavedova drew a foul from behind off Curry. Video of the play shows even Delly himself, having ended up sprawled on his back, slightly shaking his head in disbelief–mirroring the reaction of every basketball fan watching. The inevitable converted free throw made it 84-80, and effectively impeded the fourth quarter Golden State comeback surge at its apex.

In total, Dellavedova scored a playoff-high of 20 and tacked on four rebounds and five assists. In addition, the point guard who has (almost) made Cleveland forget about Uncle Drew posted the highest plus minus (+13) of all players–outside of David Lee, who participated in a quick 13-minute Dubs burst–and only three players on the court played more minutes than he did. This may just be as incredible as it is unsustainable, but Dellavedova, even aside from his unwavering motor and yes, grit, has legitimately become one of the best two-way players in this Finals series.

Consistency, balance, and an essential three-point efficiency when playing on a team with LeBron (it does wonders for spacing) characterized the contributions by the rest of the supporting cast. By the end of the first half when the Cavs built up a 44-37 advantage, five different Cleveland players reached at least five points, four at least seven–and that’s with LeBron already at 13. James’s teammates in the backcourt and on the wing all developed a nice shooting touch far from the basket that continued throughout the game: J.R. Smith, James Jones, and Iman Shumpert collectively went 7-13 from the floor and most importantly hit five threes. Nearly all of the connections from deep also carried additional significance: either extending Cleveland’s lead beyond one or two possessions or facilitating game-changing runs. And that’s not to mention the game-to-game extraordinary work on the boards by Tristan Thompson, who has averaged 14.0 rebounds through three Finals games–almost seven more than the next closest Warriors player–and had a game-high 13 rebounds on Tuesday–four on offense, his lowest total this series but significant nonetheless–with 10 points.

Warriors’ shooting woes 

The biggest concern for Golden State heading into Game 3 was how to improve its shooting–particularly from three-point land–that dwindled so sharply in Game 2. Some regression to the mean would be in order as well, as the Dubs deviated heavily from their average shooting percentages as seen below:

(ESPN game box score)

(ESPN game box score)

But for however much creativity in developing their shot early on, the Warriors still could not regain their usually unparalleled shooting form. Screens around the perimeter, pull-up shots, switches by the defense that carved out space, or even relatively open looks did not return substantial gains. While Curry converted on a three within two minutes of the opening whistle, the MVP would not see another ball go down from long range for more than half an hour of playing time. The shot also marked the only three for the Dubs out of the seven taken in the first quarter, and 2-9 team shooting from beyond the arc in the subsequent quarter brought the overall three-point percentage to a miserable .188 mark. Four players took at least three attempts, and the Splash Brothers went a combined 1-7.

Led by Curry and Thompson, the Warriors started to show some signs of life from the floor in the third–somewhat of a harbinger of things to come–by going 2-4 from three. Yet the poor overall shooting was still there, and as a result Golden State could not keep up with Cleveland’s most formidable quarter of play that produced a +10 margin. As noted on the ABC Finals broadcast by Mike Breen, the Warriors failed to reach 60 points through three quarters for the second straight game, marking the only two times it occurred all season–a fact simply astounding, but perfectly representative of the hopeless stagnancy the Dubs had showcased the prior seven quarters.

Yet the tides soon changed: in what was at the same time an unprecedented development and eerily familiar of a team that once throttled everything in its path, Golden State emerged in the fourth quarter down 17 with its back against the wall, but revitalized. With Steve Kerr slotting in David Lee into the lineup to start the quarter–who provided a pivotal boost of energy and offensive resourcefulness in tallying nine points, four rebounds, and two assists after his entry–the Warriors jumped out on an 8-0 run sparked by two three’s in less that two minutes that cut the deficit to single-digits.

Of course what really catapulted the Dubs back into contention was the awakening of Stephen Curry. After adding a three and a few midrangers to raise his scoring total to 10 in the third quarter, the MVP looked like the Curry of old (i.e. before Game 2) in developing a hot three-point stroke. Here’s his offensive progression from quarter to quarter:

(ESPN game box score)

(ESPN game box score)

From the 7:24 mark in the fourth onward, Curry nearly stole Game 3 for Golden State in making five three-point jumpers, some within the Warriors offensive system and others in a stroke of individual brilliance, and knocked down three different shots during this span that brought his team one possession away from the Cavs. Apart from a Lee two-pointer with 40 seconds left, Curry was the only Dubs player to score in the final six minutes of play–take out Lee entirely and no other teammate recorded a point inside the nine-minute mark.

Curry (30) will look to get back on track for a full game on Thursday (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

Curry (30) will look to get back on track for a full game on Thursday (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

Yet for all of Curry’s efforts, the Warriors shooting machine–in the form of its key part–rumbled to life far too late on Tuesday. LeBron and Dellavedova did enough on the other end to negate Golden State’s offensive incursion, which had it fully developed perhaps a quarter earlier, might have tremendously affected the game’s result. But that doesn’t preclude an eventual full regression to the shooting mean for the Warriors. This series has at least two remaining games and at most four, and despite the extent to which the most recent events can cloud our vision, it’s almost a near certainty this team will soon return to its shooting prosperity. Cleveland deserves credit for its defensive approach to muck up and slow down the game, as well as tightly stick to and unsettle Warrior shooters. Still, Golden State has also uncharacteristically missed several open looks around the perimeter, exuding a sense of an “off touch” for the Splash Bros & Co. these last few games. Simply put, that this series is far from over is directly related to the fact that the Warriors are far from likely to stay this cold from the floor. Expect regression, and expect a team that has rightfully caught the fascination of the entire NBA community to fight back–much like they did in similar circumstances against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semi-finals a few weeks ago.

UPDATE: The legend of Dellavedova is blossoming before our own eyes.

2015 NBA Finals Game 2: Cavaliers @ Warriors

LeBron James (23) penetrates the paint and attempts a shot close to the rim. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Pool via AP)

LeBron James (23) penetrates the paint and looks to finish at the rim. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Pool via AP)

This is the Finals matchup people wanted at the start of the playoffs, and this is the one they received. Two opening games have featured the expected excitement and starpower. Experiencing two consecutive overtimes, however, between the two best teams in the league at the end of season was nearly superfluous–our hopes would have been fulfilled whether or not the additional five minutes were needed. Nevertheless, two straight games of extra periods composed largely of strained jumpshots and isolation plays have brought the 2015 Finals to new heights in terms of thrill, unpredictability, and quality basketball.

Below are some stray observations concerning different points in time and aspects of Game 2.

GSW early ball movement 

As they have often done at the start of games, the Warriors tend to force jumpshots that don’t emanate from adequate ball movement. Of course, for all the fanfare concerning a team that transcendently relies on jumpshooting to fuel abundant success, Golden State would be the most justified of any team to rely on such a quick trigger method. After all, no better basketball play derives greater crowd fervor–an aspect of the Oracle Arena experience that many have acknowledged as legitimately influential. Yet shots that result from ball movement rather than individual pull-up decisions are statistically more efficient. It would certainly behoove the Dubs, who already best embody basketball analytics ideology in emphasizing three’s and drives, to add an element of patience to their shot selection early on. However, it may as well just be part of their in-game development, as Golden State also tends to adopt a more ball movement-centric scheme as the game progresses.

LeBron James

With his best teammate, elite NBA point guard, and in truth the primary reason he returned to Cleveland in Kyrie Irving out for the season after a Game 1 injury, LeBron James and his on-court habits were bound to be an even more interesting case study than usual for Game 2. The Cavaliers have mainly eschewed offensive creativity and playcalling in favor of more isolation plays and “caveman basketball” as their roster has become more and more depleted. This tendency hit a crux of sorts last Thursday when James had to release 38 attempts–18 of which he made–good for a 47.4 usage percentage but only a 104 offensive rating. On Sunday, he seemed set to take on an even greater share as impossible–and potentially deterrent to his teammates’ progress–as that sounds.

Through a quarter of play, LeBron shot the ball 10 times–on track for 40 shot attempts for the game–and netted 10 points in visibly assuming the onus of compensating for Irving’s exit. However, the grizzled NBA Finals veteran cooled off with just three more attempts in the second quarter. Staying in his true unparalleled basketball character, James made his impact felt in other ways along the progression of the first 24 minutes of play. Perhaps fittingly in assuming the now vacant top point guard spot, LeBron turned distributor and accounted for all six of his first half assists in the second quarter. In terms of shot distribution, while he missed five of his shots in traffic in the lane, he did well enough in penetrating the paint to draw fouls and hit 5-6 from the charity stripe. All of his free throw attempts came in the second quarter, and his first-half exploits totaled to 20 points.

However, upon entering the second half of play, James regressed, offering a mixture of high shooting volume and sub-standard efficiency that characterized his Game 1 effort. LeBron fell on a downward slope of shooting accuracy, as seen in his shot charts for each segment of Game 2 below:

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Shot chart first quarter (left) and second quarter (right) for LeBron James (ESPN game box score).

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Shot chart third quarter (left), fourth quarter (center), and overtime (right) for LeBron James (ESPN game box score).

The two-time champion, hoping for a third, finished regulation with a 11-31 mark, as he shot 4-18 in the second half, and missed three additional jumpers in overtime to boot. The third quarter became an ugly scrum and an anomaly within this NBA Final series, riddled with poor shooting as the both teams scored no more than 15 points apiece. LeBron, however, still helped Cleveland to keep pace during this lull. In addition to his six points–and despite his own horrendous shooting–his two assists produced five more points from other Cavs players, a crucial facilitating feat in a quarter defined by a dearth of offense.

James continued to struggle into the fourth quarter, but what stands out from his own shot selection on the above charts is the way in which he attempted to score. Four of his eight shots occurred in the paint and within six feet of the basket, whereas in the previous quarter he posted only one such shot out of his 10 total. The poor results near the basket should most definitely not discourage LeBron, as his renewed mentality in operating close to the rim for the fourth quarter was all by means the right decision, and the best one moving forward. During these playoffs, James has gone .597 on shots less 10 feet from basket, .600 on drives to the hoop, and .460 on post-up plays, while going .184 on three-pointers, .223 on pull-up shots, and .329 on isolation play shots. The indication these stats give is not a matter of reshaping the offensive habits of the most talented and overpowering player in the world. Rather, I would argue that even a minimal shift towards attacking more near the rim and thus better utilizing his strength, all the while retaining his jumpshot and three-point stroke for the sake of offensive balance, would most suitably fit the current situation for LeBron and his team scrambling for offensive impetus.

Back to Game 2, despite his prolonged shooting difficulties, James contributed 10 key points in the fourth quarter, six of which came from shots beyond the arc, and his assists led to five more points. In the subsequent overtime period, he added three more points and assisted on an Iman Shumpert three. And though for the second straight game he missed a potential game-clinching shot at the end of regulation, LeBron has almost single-handedly kept Cleveland in contention for an NBA championship. Considering the responsibility he has taken–explaining and partially excusing the ridiculous 36 shot attempts per game he has average during the Finals–and the defensive focus he receives nightly from his opponents, to score 44 in the first game and 39 in this past second game (with a triple-double in the latter), and doing so without Irving, Kevin Love, or any other 2014 opening day starter teammates, and with a reeling supporting cast of sharpshooters, is otherworldly. Considering the last few years for LeBron, it might as well just be mundane.

Klay Thompson 

Hiding Matthew Dellavedova off Stephen Curry hardly eliminates defensive mismatches when playing the Warriors. As such, Klay Thompson–to whom Dellavedova turned to guard for some time–thrived in the first half on Sunday, and entered a quasi-heat check mode in the early parts of the second quarter. As a spectator, a burgeoning confidence shown by Thompson both at the rim and behind the three-point line is as goosebump-inducing as any trend when watching the Dubs. In a matter of a little over two minutes in early second quarter action, Klay connected on a three and two midrange jumpers. Shots outside the paint but inside arc aren’t always the most efficiently wise basketball choices, but when they come assissted as with Thompson’s, their potential significantly rises. By the end of the half, Klay led his team with 9-13 shooting with two three’s for 20 points.


Shot chart for 1st quarter (left) and second quarter (right) for Klay Thompson (ESPN game box score).

However, Thompson cooled off in the third quarter, missing his first three jumpshots and getting a layup blocked before finally seeing the ball go through the net again eight minutes in. The shooting guard went 5-15 from the field after his blazing first half start, and began to force more unwarranted jumpshots in the latter half of the game. Thompson finished Sunday night with a total of 34 points on 14-28 shooting and 4-12 from behind the three point-line–both percentage declines from one half to the next.

Game 2 still marked his breakthrough of a shooting performance, but Golden State–as much as it values Klay’s contributions–will likely try to cure the scoring imbalance moving forward. After all, the Warriors won the first Finals contest thanks in large part to five players reaching double digits in scoring, not one above a tally of 26. Furthermore, a well-rounded offensive approach predicated on passing, spacing, high tempo, and of course sharpshooting has keyed any and all team success this year. The return to form starts with what seems like the inevitable: a shooting improvement from league MVP Stephen Curry heading into Cleveland for Game 3.

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (source: ESPN game box score).

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (ESPN game box score).

After netting 10 of his 20 shots last Thursday (2-6 from three), Curry entered an unseemly cold spell for all but a few fourth quarter gasps of life in Game 2. Missing five of his six first quarter shots and three of four second quarter ones, Curry recovered to an extent towards the end of regulation with seven fourth quarter points, but ended with a grisly 5-23 shooting clip (the reasons for which I’ll touch on shortly)–albeit with 19 points aided by 7-8 free throw shooting. Every so often, Curry comes out with this off shooting touch. Unfortunately for the Warriors, it coincided with lackluster shooting efforts from practically every other offensive cog on the team for most of the game. Regarding Curry’s performance, it should not be received as any more than an aberration, one in which Steph at least displayed some perseverance in continually trying to catch his rhythm (i.e. he kept shooting), and from which the MVP should rebound forcefully.

Matthew Dellavedova

Dellavedova (right) celebrates with teammate LeBron after taking a crucial away game. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Dellavedova (right) celebrates with teammate LeBron after taking a crucial away game. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The second-year Australian had one of the largest impacts on the game Sunday night. Hardly the first option to guard Curry entering the series, and still not fully on him in the early stages of Game 2, Dellavedova gradually issued a defensive lockdown of a performance on the MVP. A fiercely contested–and air-balled–19-foot jumper by Curry with 0:07 in overtime was merely the symbolic capstone in a stifling effort, as Dellavedova defended Steph probably as well as anyone could. Moreover, the defensive job had little to do with any physicality, athleticism, or a lanky frame–usually keys for defensive specialists–but had all to do with Dellavedova’s incessant nagging, pestering, tight coverage, and arm-waving, at times as if simulating a deranged jumping-jack motion. With an unmatched tenacity and ability to keep up with the deftly moving Curry, an unheralded–up until the playoffs–backup point guard caused the league’s best player to shoot 5-23 and 2-15 from beyond the arc.

And while he shot the ball poorly in whole–0-5 through the first three quarters before finishing 3-10–Dellavedova netted all seven of his non-free throw points in the fourth quarter. As for his points from the free throw line, they could not have come at a more critical juncture: with 10 seconds left in the overtime period, Delly cold-bloodedly sunk two free throws amid a roaring Oracle Arena crowd, moments after snagging an offensive rebound and drawing a foul from behind, which ultimately represented the go-ahead points for the Cavs’ Game 2 victory.

Dartmouth WBB At The 20-Game Mark: Thoughts and Analysis

What gets lost in the current five-game slide for the Dartmouth women’s basketball team, all of which occurred at home and thus only exacerbated concern, is how the team was largely on equal footing with its competition.

Aside from the Princeton loss that was an outlier in many respects (it was the Big Green’s best performance lately as the team came out more active and spirited than ever, the Tigers posted ungodly shooting percentages from the field, and most of all, Princeton is nationally ranked, and a veritable power that did not necessarily click on all cylinders in the game), the visiting slate of competitors—Harvard, Penn, Yale, and Brown—did not really display superior skill or advantage over the Big Green. Execution and coalescence as a team are of course entirely different matters, and various individual slumping stretches in addition to one particular injury have prevented Dartmouth from truly going toe-to-toe with its opponent—as an eye test of on-floor talent would indicate would happen.

Regardless, despite how deceptive the losing streak is in actuality, conference standings do not grant partial credit. The Big Green fall to seventh out of eight in the league, and now stand detached from the cream of the Ivy crop. To close the five-game gap, the team has only eight games left to work with. Furthermore, the Ivy League remains stubbornly trapped in the past in eschewing a postseason tournament, which otherwise would allow for greater general excitement, and more conference-wide participation and incentive. It’s a being-different-for-the-sake-of-being-different syndrome, surely defended with some archaic Ancient Eight moral principles, tinged with elitist contrarianism, but it’s unfortunately something players and fans must deal with and suffer from. But that’s beside the point: Dartmouth must now live with the fact that it tossed away any chance at an elusive Ivy League title—and nonetheless within its own Leede Arena.

Yet despite what now appears a lost season, the team still has plenty to play for—and I’m not promoting a blindly upbeat outlook, or forcing out the seemingly requisite positive spin on school sport teams. You cannot simply evaluate the course of this season without also acknowledging the precedent context for this program.

Here’s a quick reminder of where this team was in their post-2009 NCAA tournament appearance era:

Year Record Win%
2009-10 11-17 .393
2010-11 7-21 .250
2011-12 6-22 .214
2012-13 6-22 .214
2013-14 5-23 .179
Totals/averages 35-105 .250

Albeit currently on a skid, the Big Green have made a monumental jump in the 2014-15 campaign, in which they have attained a 10-10 mark. A much stronger out of conference display (9-5) certainly buttressed their record, and perhaps to a fault; it only further signifies that the extent of this season’s improvement will be defined by how much the team polishes its in-conference play from here on out. But once again, that’s not to discount the progress that’s already been reached and set in stone.

Moreover, it’s instructive to note that Belle Koclanes is only in her second year in Hanover, and in her first stint as a head coach. As she continues to settle in and imprint her coaching mark on this program, as well as build her rotation around her own recruits, this season offers a glimpse into a possibly optimistic future.

The current makeup of the team also provides additional context on how to judge this year’s results. Only three seniors are on the roster, two of which have played this season, and one (Milica Toskovic) who has played at full health and regularly. By and large, the more youthful players have led Dartmouth this year to the program’s strongest start in almost a decade. In other words, the team remains likely a year, maybe two, away from its peak potential.

So while a conference title and tourney bid has almost certainly escaped the Big Green’s grasp—and most importantly, out of their control—this remainder of the season still represents a crucial opportunity to maintain and advance its path of progress.

Below are some quick notes—and high and low trends—on individual performance as the team sits nearly halfway through Ivy League play:


Lakin Roland

The more you watch the team, the more Roland sticks out as the best on-court talent, with both feel for the game and shooting touch, as well as the true leader, for the Big Green. She took a sizable drop-off in effectiveness after her best performance in her career—the Ivy League opener in Cambridge—but has gradually begun to regain her form in this last weekend. The junior consistently presents a menacing presence on rebound situations from both ends of the court, and always exudes the most energy among her teammates in every aspect of the game. As of late, when it seemed plainly clear she had broken out of her slump, the junior curiously did not receive a greater share of offensive opportunities—particularly Saturday night against Brown, disallowing her to make full use of her hot stroke (50% for the game, best on the squad). In addition to her ability to create her own shot and convert those resulting from ball movement, Roland has also showed a nifty sense of vision on passes. One can’t help but hope that she gets more chances on offense herself.

Amber Mixon

And so we arrive at the ultimate under the radar player for the Big Green—and another starter who deserves many more scoring chances than she has gotten so far. While leading the team in minutes in the six conference games played, Mixon still remains an untapped potential; while she has taken 10 less field goals than any other starter, she leads the unit in FG% with .370 (the next player down has .352). When she does take command, the freshman point guard almost always creates a productive result for her team when driving into the paint and attacking the basket (whether skillfully finishing at the rim, drawing a foul, or opening up looks for teammates). Even when she lurks around the perimeter in the halfcourt set, Mixon constantly sends swift, incisive feeds to her teammates that create excellent looks at the rim. A quietly solid three-point shot poses a nice complementary threat as well, and that’s not to mention her tenacity on defense. Considering how offensively lethargic Dartmouth has been for long stretches of time over the last five games, the underuse of Mixon on this end is unjustifiable. I cannot stress enough the necessity of smart and continuous ball movement for offensive production, and Mixon fosters it like no other player. Whether it is herself being more assertive, or more likely the formation of plays and offensive mentality that Coach Koclanes can surely alter, further integrating Mixon on offense is imperative to any success for the rest of the season.


Milica Toskovic

I understand the importance of having the intangible senior leadership here, as well as a lanky frame and long stretch that reaps benefits on both ends of the court. But Toskovic’s game suffers greatly from a very poor shot selection, often occurring in the early stages of contests. She has tended to force several shots—forgoing the development of a team passing rhythm—and has not always kept her options open on offense. Her tendency to try to excessively settle into/develop a nice shooting touch in the early-going along with similar trends from two or three other teammates every night collectively serve as one of the biggest obstacles to efficient ball movement, which invariably keys any of Dartmouth’s offensive success. Toskovic also commits some of the more unexplainable and reckless turnovers while on offense. Koclanes pulled the senior guard out of the game almost immediately after two or three of her miscues on Saturday, perhaps hinting at a discontent on the coach’s part.

Kate Letkewicz

The alternative to Toskovic, or at least whom Koclanes typically subs in for her senior, does not introduce an upgrade. But that comes with good reason, as Letkewicz, a freshman, still has plenty of growth ahead of her, in the rest of this season and beyond; if anything, gaining some playing time—a jump from 10.5 to 12 MPG in Ivy League matchups—could reveal that Koclanes sees something in the young guard. It’s just that at the moment, Letkewicz oftentimes looks lost when on the floor and is prone to carless mistakes.

Middle ground

Fanni Szabo

Any team improvement moving forward rests largely on the shoulders of the second-year guard, as Szabo’s shooting—and how it fits into the team’s general offensive flow—is a fundamental characteristic of the offense. With a refined repertoire of wing three-pointers, short pull-up jumpers after creating space, and clinical transition finishing, the sophomore has managed to build on her stellar freshman campaign. Yet through the past five difficult games, it’s become apparent that she must learn to recognize when she has an off, cold shooting night, and act accordingly: assume a greater role of facilitator, which she’s more than capable of (she’s a magnet for opposing defenders). Last weekend’s game against Brown provides the best case study for this, as the guard remained perseverant to a fault in yearning to establish her shot (6-20 on field goals), and she impeded Roland (who, as mentioned before, had the hot hand) from taking control of the game. On another note, Szabo must also stay aware of her foul situation, as on two consecutive nights this past weekend, Koclanes was forced to take her out of the game for 10+ minute-spans (one in each game).

Daisy Jordan

After a relatively strong display of post-game offense (14 points on 6-10 FG’s)—and for a team in need of it—against Princeton on January 31st, the junior has slacked off since then, shooting a combined 3-15 in the two following games. Many of the misses came on extremely unlucky bounces, and you could see her frustration after every near-miss. If she just adds some more dimensions to her activity in the offensive paint—pump fakes on shot attempts, and passing out of the post so as to not force shots—Jordan can certainly fill the void of a respectable big man presence on the team. On defense, the center must also keen in on staying tight to the player she marks

Olivia Smith

The freshman, who stands as one of the tallest players on the team, has been a pleasant surprise in the short spurts of action she’s seen. While a scarcity of attempts plays a part in this, Smith nevertheless has the highest overall FG% (.488) and highest in-conference mark (.600) on the entire team. Such efficiency, and even more so because of her bursts of energetic and aggressive post play off the bench, has made the center a valuable contributor, and unheralded at that. At least for now, she should progress no further than this reserve role, as Smith’s primary flaw stems from getting exhausted too quickly, which occasionally leads to lazy fouls.

Team-wide developments and Tia Dawson

The need to address a pressing defensive flaw would not become more pronounced than in last Saturday’s contest: Brown generated all but four of their total 50 points (28 PITP and 18-24 FTs) from drives into the restricted area to produce easy looks near the rim. It’s the common theme of the opposing offense that has continually crushed the Big Green in the last five games. Basic points in the paint totals don’t emphasize it enough, as opponents rely heavily on slashing towards the hoop from well outside that area, and successfully so; getting for the most part out-rebounded from game to game lends further insight into this issue for Dartmouth. An introduction of greater help defense—from the weak side or simply from the closest teammate nearby—might help in this situation. After all, shifting players more towards the rim can never prove too detrimental, as the inconsistent shooting that typifies most Ivy League teams cannot fully capitalize on freer looks far from the basket.

Yet a solution to this problem probably relates more to the health of senior Tia Dawson. After a solid first two years in Hanover, the center played only five games as a junior, and has seen injuries restrict her time (11.7 MPG) on the court once again this season. But what she did in the short playing time against Brown on Saturday night bodes extremely well if she ever returns to regular minutes. Playing through leg injuries, Dawson collected 10 rebounds and three blocks in only 13 minutes of play. When you think about it, that’s absolutely ridiculous considering the small sample size (and evocative of Hassan Whiteside numbers). Prorate that to a Per 25 min. total—she played 27.8 MPG in her presumably injury-free first two seasons—and you have some absurd 19.2 RPG and 5.8 BPG marks. It would not be far-fetched to attribute the team’s recent struggles against tougher competition to her minimal presence. Of course it would be near impossible for Dawson to sustain such production and reach the projections, but her performance nonetheless demonstrates how indispensable the center might really be to her team’s success—namely through the fulfillment of a much-needed rim protector for at least +20 minutes.

Here’s some additional analysis/coverage of the team’s progress.

2014 NFL Week 13: Patriots-Packers Analysis

Defensive highs and lows

The final boxscore paints an ugly picture, and would point to this game being closer than it really was. Yet despite yielding a gaudy 368 yards in the air and 130 on the ground, a once formidable Patriot defense did nothing if not hunker down once backed up in its own territory. Allowing a final tally of only 26 points, and most significantly forcing a currently unrivaled Packer offensive machine to a 0-4 mark in the red zone certainly represents a triumph in this aspect of the game. Greater talent and added reinforcements for the defense in 2014 no longer made the usual–giving up plenty of yards but sufficiently bottling up the opposing offense enough for Brady & Co. to leap ahead–acceptable. Yet in the context of facing a furiously hot Packers team, with perhaps the most balance and dynamism on the offensive side of the ball, forcing four field goals en route to a sub-30 point performance lifted at least some blame from the New England D. However, Aaron Rodgers’s 45-yard strike to Jordy Nelson with 14 seconds left in the half proved destructive. The lapse in late-half discipline obviously falls squarely on the pass defense, and notably disrupted the team’s progression into the second half of play. A hallmark of Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ game plan has been to finish the opening half strongly, so as to fluidly continue momentum into the second half in which the team often starts with the ball (Belichick nearly always defers possession to the second half). Yet by allowing this devastating late touchdown score–to stretch the deficit to nine–such a crucial transition could not occur. The Pats failed to carry momentum into the break, and subsequently flamed out on their first possession of the third quarter without a first down.

Nelson (87) ran about 35 yards after his catch and gave a huge boost to Green Bay heading into halftime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Nelson (87) ran about 35 yards after his catch and gave a huge boost to Green Bay heading into halftime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Rodgers’s vital adjustment 

Secondary to the much anticipated Brady vs. Rodgers showdown, the Patriot secondary (Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner) and top Packer wideouts (Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb) matchup was initially won by the former group. The New England cornerbacks controlled the explosive Green Bay receivers for the majority of the first half, even deterring the typical amount of targets from their quarterback. Yet Rodgers adapted to this situation, and maintained offensive efficiency, albeit with many drives culminating in mere field goals, while shifting the route of his passes to lesser known recipients. Rodgers acclimated himself perfectly, connecting with an array of new targets headed by rookie third-string WR Davante Adams, who ended the game with a career-high 121 yards. Rodgers had already led the Packers to 13 points before completing his first pass to either of his top receivers, the first to Cobb at the 11:22 mark of the second quarter. This, in turn, necessitated a change in the organization of the Patriot defense. As the game progressed into the second quarter and second half, Rodgers’s ability to sustain offensive potency diluted the defensive pressure placed on Nelson and Cobb, spreading it to other parts of receiver coverage. Consequently, the powerful duo became more freed up, ultimately attaining a combined 138 yards despite early struggles, all working towards Green Bay dictating the flow of the game.

An abandoned offensive dimension 

Encountering a porous 30th-ranked run defense, the Patriots at first seemed inclined to develop an effective rushing attack for the third consecutive game. Three running plays in the first four offensive drives indicated at least some focus on establishing this facet of the offense, especially when the first third down situation called for LeGarrette Blount instead of Brady (which resulted in a failure to convert). But even though Blount gained 58 of the team’s total 84 yards on the ground, the Patriots did not adequately exploit this potential advantage. Offensive balance has not only keyed the previous seven-game win streak, but has facilitated Brady’s mid-season renaissance. For several long stretches during offensive drives, and particularly in the first half when the team permanently fell behind, the Pats elected to exclusively pass the ball. It was as if New England felt it was already in a late fourth-quarter hole–and not in an early game situation, where it failed to devote enough patience to establish a ground attack against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.

Life after loss

Although the heavyweight tilt concluded in a loss, several factors work towards New England’s favor moving forward. Despite the aforementioned lack of a true rushing attack, a clinical job done by the opposing, future MVP quarterback, and the top receiver (Julian Edelman) hampered by injury for much of the day, the Patriots contested the game well. Losing by only five points in one of the toughest road environments proved not so much a demoralizing result, as indicated by the upbeat character of Patriot players following the game. And since New England did not necessarily play to its full capacity on Sunday, and suffered a loss but was not pummeled, such a defeat often works positively once evaluated in retrospect. For whatever reason, entering the postseason with a long win streak and long-built momentum doesn’t always bode well. If the Patriots finish the regular season powerfully, this Week 13 loss could easily serve as a blessing in disguise and stabilize this playoff-bound team’s sense of momentum.

Brady (right) and the Patriots have likely faced their toughest opposing quarterback in Rodgers (left) this last Sunday. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

Brady (right) and the Patriots have likely faced their toughest opposing quarterback in Rodgers (left) this last Sunday. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

2014 NFL Season Opener: Patriots-Dolphins Analysis

Patriots On Offense

After a very promising first 30 minutes of action, the course of the offense’s performance throughout the contest could only be described as a tale of two halves. Firstly, the response to a Miami punt-block and subsequent opening-game touchdown was very resounding. Notably, the impact of mercurial star tight end Rob Gronkowski–severely hampered by injury in the previous season–became evident long before his TD grab at the 8:37 mark in the second quarter. Despite a few years away from his true breakout campaign, Gronk nevertheless garnered plenty of attention from Dolphin pass coverage, opening up valuable space for the other recipients of Tom Brady’s darts (which turned wobbly later on in the contest) in the first half of the game. Beneficiaries namely included Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, and even Shane Vereen out of the backfield, as well as the rushing attack to a lesser but still considerable extent. After utilizing short to medium passes for progress downfield for most of the first half, Brady finally slung a deep ball with 11:31 left in the second quarter, a pass with just enough air under it to neatly fall in the hands of Edelman. This explosive play–of which the Pats had few and far between–jumpstarted what would ultimately turn into the team’s second touchdown drive, but Brady mysteriously chose not to challenge Miami’s secondary in the remaining relevant junctures in the game (before the insurmountable deficit towards the end).

Wake (91) forced fumbles on both on both of his sacks of Brady (12). (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Wake (91) forced fumbles on both of his sacks of Brady (12). (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Yet a 17 unanswered point-streak and 10-point advantage constructed in the first half figured insignificantly in the final outcome, as in the latter 30 minutes of play, the Fins defensive effort–particularly the overwhelming pass rush–drowned out any rapport Brady built with his receiver corps in the first 30. Furiously-pressing defensive end Cameron Wake and company grabbed a stranglehold on the battle at the line of scrimmage, but it was the now-punchless and helpless Patriots offensive line that harshly disrupted the rhythm of both Brady and the entire offense more so. The key to countering the New England attack has always centered on the amount of time Brady has to throw the ball, so one can only speculate how Logan Mankins (freshly and inexplicably shipped to Tampa Bay weeks prior to the season’s start) could have mitigated the Fins’ QB pressure. As a result of the line’s instability, Brady had much poorer placement on several of his throws in a half that his offense was brutally shut out, a reaction to a pressurized pocket that the Patriots can only hope to be anomalous for him with respect to the remainder of the season.

Patriots On Defense

The final Dolphin touchdown drive was the unequivocal coup de grace, but beforehand, it would be unreasonable to think that the Patriots defense should shoulder the responsibility for the first two times Miami crossed the goal line. A shocking blocked punt 75 seconds into the game saw the Fins start their first drive 15 yards away from seven points, and a strip-sack by the aforementioned, terrorizing edge-rusher Wake gifted QB Ryan Tannehill and his offense the ball at the opposing 34-yard line (9:14 mark in the third quarter). Both of these momentous plays gave the recently-augmented Patriots D horrible positioning–an aspect of the game the unit simply cannot control.

Perhaps one cause for concern pertains to the eerie similarity of this year’s defensive squad–supposedly a revamped one that would get the team over the proverbial hump, and possibly rank among the league’s finest–to those in the recent past: once again, the tendency on this side of the pigskin is yielding plenty of yardage but clamping down effectively once backed up in its own half of the field, and limiting the opposition to field goal tries while opportunistically manufacturing turnovers (in fact occurring on two consecutive Miami drives in the second half). This of course can prove effective when coupled with an excellent offensive personnel, but the Pats defensive group appears capable of much more, and should aid rather than burden an aging leader of the offense in Tom Brady on the other side of the ball.

The play of Darrelle Revis:

However much buzz surrounded the matchup between the newly-minted Patriot Revis and a rebound season waiting-to-happen in WR Mike Wallace, and how the former would stay true to his character, establish his suffocating “island” in the secondary, and cruelly render the latter ineffectual, it just didn’t happen. Wallace, in his second year as a Dolphin, ended up with a flashy stat line of seven receptions for 81 yards and a score. On a few of his catches, Wallace did shed Revis off himself along the progression of his route, but the result of this WR-CB clash was more of Revis not living up to his billing than anything else. It may just be part of an acclimation process to a new defensive structure, and it’s worth noting many regard his opposition as one of the swiftest in the league, but Revis often failed to stick with his marker, granting Wallace more freedom than one would expect in this contest.

Moreno (28) torched the Pats run defense on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Moreno (28) torched the Pats run defense on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Miami’s game-sealing drive:

Critical third-down conversions would ultimately put the Dolphins ahead 30-20 in the fourth quarter–as part of a drive in which 6:01 elapsed, and that clinched their opening-season victory–but even more notably, the drive highlighted the influential play of Miami’s run game. Knowshon Moreno paved the way with an overpowering 134 yards on 24 carries, and along with another 59 yards on the ground from Lamar Miller, the Fins rushing attack dictated tempo throughout 60 minutes of play, a notion that materialized only in retrospect of the entire game’s action. By instituting a formidable ground game that continually ruptured through the Pats’ unit hovering around the line of scrimmage, Moreno and Miller attracted increased defensive attention to create two important by-products: shifting New England’s focus off Tannehill and thus giving him more comfort in the pocket, and decreasing the number of opportunities for the Pats offense by simply keeping it off the field.The Dolphin offensive line deserves much praise as well in this area, and in addition to allowing more time for its quarterback to throw, perhaps has begun the process of proving its many detractors wrong.