OAKLAND — As his star player literally limped into the showers a few hundred feet away, Cavaliers coach David Blatt was forced to defend himself time and again, to stand up for a strategy that may have been Cleveland’s last hope for winning the NBA Finals. The Cavs went to a small lineup Sunday night in their 104-91 loss to the Warriors in Game 5, desperately attempting to match a Warriors team that had gone small by starting Andre Iguodala over Andrew Bogut in Game 4.
Last night, Bogut didn’t play a single minute, and the Cavs aspired to mirror the Warriors’ energy by pulling center Timofey Mozgov, who had been an effective threat earlier in the series. Mozgov, who started, played nine minutes and took one shot; off the bench, guard J.R. Smith played nearly 36 minutes, scoring 14 points, though all of them came in the first half. The big men were entirely removed from the floor for nearly the entire game; and yet by the fourth quarter, despite the change in strategy, it appeared that a tired and undermanned Cleveland team had once again worn itself down.
Afterward, both LeBron James — who had another near-unfathomable statistical night, with 40 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists, including a historic 20-8-8 first half, numbers that had never before been achieved in a first half since James came into the league — and his coach were defiant, and insistent that the series was far from over.
“I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s that simple,” James said. “We’re going home with a Game 6, and we’ve got enough to win it. We protect home, we come here. We’ll worry about Tuesday first. But if we protect home like we’re capable of doing, we force a Game 7.”
Questioned repeatedly and aggressively about not utilizing Mozgov, who had 28 points in Game 4, Blatt insisted that this was Cleveland’s best way to respond to the strategy that had delivered that game to Golden State.
“Well, I felt we needed to respond to the last game,” Blatt said. “I thought for the most part our guys did it well and handled it well. Without question we were in that game…We were right there. So that’s the way we played it.”
And yet in the fourth quarter, even James didn’t have enough left to pull the Cavs through. He couldn’t match Stephen Curry shot for shot, and the Cavs were outrebounded 14-7 in the fourth quarter, which allowed Curry to heat up, and allowed the Warriors to pull away. “Well, there are a lot of things that hurt us tonight, Steph being one of them. sThat had nothing to do with going small,” Jame said. “They got a couple of offensive rebounds that didn’t work in in our favor. We needed our best defensive quarter in the fourth quarter (the Cavs gave up 31 points), and we didn’t get it.”
This is the thing for Cleveland: No matter who’s on the floor, everything filters through LeBron. Everything is on his shoulders. So what’s left? How many more strategies can Blatt utilize with a a lineup that has failed with a big man on the floor and has now fallen short with the big men off the floor? How much more can James do, above and beyond the historic efforts he’s putting out?
“I had a couple turnovers, a couple miscues defensively, and I’ve got to be better. I don’t know,” James said. “I don’t put a ceiling on what I’m capable of doing. I know I’m shouldering a lot of the burden, but it is what it is.”
Maybe all that means the Cavs go big again. Maybe it means they go small. Maybe, in the end, all that matters is how the self-proclaimed best player in the world responds, facing elimination.
Do you think you’re going to repeat the same game plan again? a reporter asked Blatt.
“Not necessarily,” he said. “Not necessarily.”