NBA Finals: Lineups shrink as stakes rise

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Monday, June 15, 2015

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's still too early to pick a defining moment of this series. It's not too soon to call Game 5 a redefining moment for NBA Finals basketball.

It was the ultimate synthesis of the NBA's new era with legitimate championship contention, a night of "not-big basketball" (to use the good-enough-to-get-the-point English of a foreign journalist in the interview room), a D'Antonian-Spoelstric blend of faster tempo and position-less lineups dropped smack into the middle of June.

That's well past what's considered the normal expiration date for that type of play, but there's never a bad time to watch the kind of game that's normally a reward for folks staying up late to catch a West Coast game on NBA League Pass in January.

This time the joy came from watching two of the top players in the game duel with contrasting styles in a pivotal fifth game of the Finals.

Stephen Curry redefined the concept of June dominance, impacting the game from beyond the 3-point arc, finally putting away the Cleveland Cavaliersfor good with a 29-foot 3-pointer with less than a minute and a half left in the game. Game 3 had been the first time Curry made seven 3-pointers in a game that the Warriors lost. Game 5 became the first time anyone in made seven 3-pointers twice in the same NBA Finals. He finished with 37 points to go with four assists and -- surprise -- seven rebounds. It apparently drained him of everything he had, as he felt a little wobbly after the game and needed to rehydrate.

LeBron James redefined the criteria for NBA Finals MVP, making the final outcome of this series irrelevant. No one has been more valuable over the past week and a half, no one has done more to give his team a chance at the Larry O'Brien Trophy than James, even if it ultimately proves futile. He delivered another monster stat line of 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. He orchestrated Cleveland's attack. He found ways to summon assistance until his teammates finally had nothing left to contribute.

The Warriors won the first game of the series. The Warriors' Way won the past two, after Cleveland had taken Games 2 and 3 by slowing the pace and squeezing the Splash Brothers out of the picture. Now the Warriors have a 3-2 lead thanks to their 104-91 victory in Game 5 and could plant their flag atop the NBA with a victory in Cleveland on Tuesday.

"It's a little different," Draymond Green said of using this approach to close in on a championship. "But we've played that way all year."

But this time the Cavaliers joined in.

Even though Timofey Mozgov had 28 points and 10 rebounds against the Warriors' undersized defenders after Steve Kerr swapped Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup in Game 4, the Warriors won by 21 points.

And when Golden State got out to an 8-2 lead in the first five minutes of Game 5 it was enough for Cavaliers coach David Blatt to pull Mozgov. In came J.R. Smith, his temperature gauge set to scalding, as he hit four of his first seven 3-point shots and even handled some of the rim-defending duties normally left to Mozgov.

Mozgov played only sparingly afterward, logging a total of nine minutes. That's more than the Warriors' three centers, whose playing time consisted of three minutes by Festus Ezeli. "The reality is this is a small series [now] and it works well for us," Kerr said. "We're comfortable with the style."

It made for some uncomfortable moments in the interview room for Blatt, even though the score was within a point with five minutes remaining after he stayed with the small lineups. He faced repeated questions about why he didn't use Mozgov more, and was even asked why he didn't turn to Shawn Marion.

"We were right in the game the way we were playing," Blatt said. "We were right there. So that's the way we played it."

They tried fighting fire with fire. At first Smith responded to the challenge, but then he missed all of his final seven 3-point shots. LeBron finally found his shooting touch, hitting three long 3s in the fourth quarter, briefly engaging in a shootout with Curry.

Curry took on all comers. He had answers for LeBron. And he had a lesson for Matthew Dellavedova, who clanked a transition 3-pointer that could have brought the Cavaliers within five with 1 minute, 39 seconds left in the game.

That's when Curry came down and drained an unfathomably deep 3-pointer, as if to say, "This is how it's done, son."

And that's the only caution about using this game as a template for the future of the league. That would entail having a shooter who is both as daring and reliable as Curry. What kind of guy would take that kind of shot at that moment?

"Steph," Green said. "That's the only way you can explain it: Steph."

The only way to explain how the Cavaliers have won two games and can't be counted out yet is LeBron. Both he and Blatt were asked how LeBron could possibly provide more, or how the Cavaliers could respond.

LeBron's answer: "I feel confident because I'm the best player in the world. It's that simple."

The Warriors closed in on a title because Curry regained the form that won him the regular-season MVP. It's an award that hadn't really come into play in the Finals, as LeBron established who mattered most in this series. With the series getting smaller, and now Cleveland's margin for error getting slimmer and their options reduced, LeBron will have to provide yet another definition to emerge from this series. A new definition for greatness.

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