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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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:
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 its 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.