Note from the author: It’s difficult to write about what should be a very intriguing Game 5 of the NBA Finals tomorrow between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors because we were collectively reminded again this weekend that sports remain a distant priority compared to the very real problems facing the world. The infuriating tragedy that took place in Orlando on Sunday morning is overwhelmingly hanging over my head and, I have to believe, burdening most of the country as we try to start our week. To ignore it, even to our small readership, would be disrespectful in the face of what is the worst mass shooting in this country’s history. Regardless of your political, religious, or other beliefs, that sort of pure hate should be universally derided and condemned, and everyone should lend their support to victim’s families, the injured, the Orlando community, and anyone in need. The kind of support shown by international fans Sunday is exactly why I believe sports have their place in the eventual healing process, as well. It is my hope, then, that it is not crass to go on and discuss Game 5, in the hopes it offers a small distraction.
Despite three blowouts so far (two in favor of the Warriors, one for Cleveland), and only Game 4 coming down to the end, it cannot be said that the NBA Finals lack drama, starting with personnel choices. Although our preview predicted Tyronn Lue would have a tough decision to make with Kevin Love, Harrison Barnes decided to help Lue out such that Love sat Game 3 with a concussion. The Cavs proceeded to demolish the Warriors in the first game in Cleveland. It’s too simplistic to say “Love out = Cleveland win” since there were a host of factors, but it certainly helped on the defensive end.
More important than missing Love was Kyrie Irving suddenly dishing eight assists (double his previous high in the series) and going from -26 in Game 2 to +24 in Game 3. That huge shift reflects the sheer intensity brought by Irving throughout Game 3 and if he can put together another complete performance like that, Cleveland will have a real shot at competing in Oakland. There is some doubt Irving can have a repeat though, after he failed to make it happen in Game 4. In fact, as Golden State piled on an NBA Finals record 17 three-pointers, the Cavs, and in particular LeBron James, lost their cool. Fortunately for James and Cleveland, the player he got tangled with was already on the NBA’s radar.
It is pretty clear Draymond Green has an affinity for what most consider a cheap shot. Excuses can be made for him (just look what we said last time around), but this was one low blow too many for NBA HQ and it’s hard to argue. Now the Dubs are forced to make some major adjustments after a win and I would venture to say Green’s one game suspension is not going to have the same happy impact Love’s absence did for Cleveland.
Green’s suspension is going to create a domino effect of troubles for Coach Steve Kerr. For instance, in answering the question of who starts in place of Green, the easiest path is to slot Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup, move Barnes down to the four, and leave the rest of the lineup unchanged. Unfortunately for Kerr, that means a shortened bench rotation, losing his supersub in Iguodala, and forcing him to play his starters longer minutes. On the plus side, Kerr experimented in Game 4 with James Michael McAdoo of all people getting minutes and maybe that offers him a helpful avenue to spread minutes (I thought I was dreaming when Barnes and McAdoo shared the floor #TARHEELNATION).
Another real question is who fills Green’s role as the key motor for the Warriors? That does not have as clear an answer, since Iguodala cannot recreate the same mismatches, nor can he play as the five on defense to unlock the Dubs lineup of death. Having Barnes play center to go super small might still get Golden State the firepower they like on the offensive end, but seems like a recipe for disaster when LeBron starts driving into the lane with no one to meet him at the rim. The Dubs would probably also get demolished on the glass, which is particularly back breaking when they give up offensive rebounds. Kerr might throw that lineup out there for short minutes, but it’s more likely the Warriors will play a traditional center for longer minutes than ever before and hope the Splash Bros carry the weight.
Cleveland, on the other hand, still faces a Kevin Love dilemma. In Game 4, they brought him off the bench and he played 25 relatively quiet minutes, only taking two 3s and finishing with 11 points. Richard Jefferson started in Love’s place and was even quieter, hitting one of two 3s and grabbing six boards. That might make Lue consider letting Love start again, but I think the Cavs best chance remains bringing Love off the bench to play heavy minutes when Lebron sits, allowing him to get more touches and limiting his exposure on defense.
In the end, the Warriors may have the trump card. Even without Green, they are up 3-1 in the series and playing in Oracle in front of what will be a hungry crowd looking to see the Warriors clinch the championship for the first time at home. If Golden State gets another outstanding Shaun Livingston & Bench Crew performance, there may be little Cleveland can do. LeBron also kicked at the hornet’s nest that is Steph Curry and if Steph carries forward his Game 4 performance, that will be enough to get it done. Look for the Dubs to take care of business, sans Green. It’s okay, he gets to come back for the champagne.
Photo Credit: Michael Macor, The Chronicle