CLEVELAND — The Golden State Warriors wobbled, but in the end they wouldn’t fall down. After trailing 2-1 early in the NBA Finals, the Warriors went small and ran away with the series, rallying to take three in a row over the Cleveland Cavaliers, including a 105-97 win in Game 6. The Warriors followed the same recipe that led to wins in Games 4 and 5, going with a shorter lineup and trying to push the tempo throughout the night.
Here’s a look at what went right and wrong in Game 6.
Right: The substitution that perhaps saved the Warriors season came before Game 4, when Steve Kerr swapped out starting center Andrew Bogut in favor of small forward Andre Iguodala. Though Iguodala hadn’t started a game all season, he slid seamlessly into the front five, averaging 20.3 ppg in his three starts. Iguodala also did a terrific job pestering LeBron James on the defensive end. In Game 6, early on the Cavs seemed content to give Iguodala perimeter jumpers, and he stepped up to the challenge, finishing with 25 points and putting a lock on the NBA Finals MVP award. “My mind was working so many ways,” said Iguodala. “Like, what’s going to happen if you win? What’s going to happen if you lose? How do you approach the game starting? Do you come out firing? Do you let it just come to you? So for me, it was just playing my game. If you’re feeling it, shoot it. If you feel like you can make a play for somebody else, just make a play for somebody else.”
Wrong: I’m putting LeBron James in the “wrong” category only because he was on the losing team. Yes, he’s now 2-for-6 in the NBA Finals, but the truth is, LeBron didn’t really do much wrong this entire series. Even in Game 6, when he was clearly tired and struggling to knock down jumpers, James finished with a monster stat-line: 32 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists. For the Finals, James averaged 45.8 minutes per game, and in that time averaged 35.8 ppg, 13.3 rpg and 8.8 apg. Considering the injuries afflicting the Cavs and the struggles of some of James’ teammates, it was about as impressive a performance in a losing effort as you’ll ever see.
Right: An often-overlooked part of the Warriors going to their small lineup and using Iguodala as a starter was 6-foot-7 Draymond Green logging time at center. There were times when Cleveland struggled to take advantage of a size advantage — like in Game 5 when they tried to match small lineups with the Warriors — but the Cavs went big in Game 6, playing the seven-footer Timofey Mozgov for 32 minutes. Despite being outsized, Green more than held his own in Game 6, finishing with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, the first triple-double by a Warrior in Finals history. Not a bad way at all to finish out his season, as the player overlooked coming into the NBA heads toward free agency this summer. “I won the National Player of the Year Award in college, consensus All-American,” Green said. “I made every, every single First Team All-American that you could possibly make, and I was a second round pick, and a lot of people said I could never play in this league: ‘Too slow, too small, can’t shoot well enough, can’t defend nobody. What does he do well? He doesn’t have a skill.’ I’ve got heart, and that’s what stands out.”
Wrong: In this close-out game, with possessions at a premium in the postseason, the Cavaliers just couldn’t take care of the ball. Even though the Cavs got to the free-throw line 39 times, they finished Game 6 with a whopping 19 turnovers, including 6 from James and 3 from Mozgov. While Cleveland was able to control the tempo early on — the score was tied at 8 after 6 minutes – they couldn’t capitalize on the deliberate pace, as they had 5 turnovers during that span, including a couple of 24-second violations.
Right: The other way the Warriors were able to successfully deviate from their “small” lineup was by using Festus Ezeli, who spent most of the season as a hard-playing reserve. In 11 minutes in Game 6, Ezeli scored 10 points, including a wicked put-back dunk with a few minutes to go in the third. Still just 25 years old, Ezeli looks to be a vibrant part of Golden State’s future.
Wrong: Let’s take a second and recognize that the Cavaliers were essentially transformed into the Cadavers in the NBA Finals, a wounded shell of the team that started the season, as they were missing Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao. Injuries are a part of sports, sure, but they’re also a “wrong” part of sports. “I’ve been watching basketball for a long time,” said James. “I’m an historian of the game. I don’t know any other team that’s gotten to The Finals without two All Stars. I cannot remember thinking of it. I don’t even know if it’s ever happened, for a team to lose two All Stars and still be able to make it to The Finals. Even what [Varejao] brings to our team as well, that’s another double double guy. We had three play-makers in suits this round and even throughout the playoffs. You’ve got to have all the play-makers. You’ve got to be healthy. You’ve got to be at full strength to win it. We weren’t.”