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.

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