Cleveland need LeBron – and Timofey Mozgov’s height – to win the title

David Friedman Columnist

By David Friedman, David Friedman is a Roar Expert

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    Basketball is a game of match-ups and, for the first three games of the NBA Finals, Cleveland’s frontcourt size mattered more than Golden State’s speed and perimeter shooting.

    In game four, Golden State coach Steve Kerr made an adjustment that was radical in one sense but obvious in another: rather than trying to match up with Cleveland’s size, he removed his biggest player from the line-up (starting centre Andrew Bogut) in favour of a smaller, quicker player who can shoot from the perimeter and drive to the hoop (Andre Iguodala).

    The adjustment was radical because Golden State went 50-7 during the regular season with their regular starting line-up and because Iguodala had not started a single game for the Warriors during the 2014-15 regular season.

    The adjustment was obvious because Golden State’s big players are not as good as Cleveland’s, because their small players are better than Cleveland’s and because Golden State’s preferred style of play is fast and furious, not slow and methodical.

    However, the move hardly paid immediate dividends. Cleveland jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead but Kerr stuck with the program and Cleveland coach David Blatt blinked, deciding to go small as well. Inserting J.R. Smith into the game proved to be disastrous, as Smith missed all eight of his three point shots and accumulated as many points as fouls (four).

    Smith had a -27 plus/minus rating during the game, while Mozgov’s -5 plus/minus rating was better than any other Cavalier except for the three bench players who only saw action in three minutes of garbage time. Mozgov actually had a positive plus/minus rating for most of the game except for some minutes during which he and Smith were on the court simultaneously.

    LeBron James is having a historic series but – at least versus Golden State – Mozgov is almost as important to Cleveland’s success. Mozgov shuts down the paint defensively, enabling Cleveland’s perimeter defenders to closely guard three point shooters without fear that they will drive and score.

    Mozgov has also been deadly in the paint offensively, taking advantage of the defensive attention James draws but also showing an ability to create his own shot with deft post moves.

    Although Golden State undoubtedly has more depth than Cleveland – particularly with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving sidelined due to injury – for all practical purposes both teams are using a seven-player rotation. In game four, seven Warriors played 15 or more minutes and the only other player who received non-garbage time action was Leandro Barbosa (seven minutes), while Cleveland had seven players who played at least 18 minutes.

    Think about it this way: when Phil Jackson was coaching the Lakers would he have taken out Shaquille O’Neal or Pau Gasol to match up with a smaller, faster team? Mozgov is not as good as O’Neal or Gasol but the principle is the same. A coach has to go with his team’s strengths and minimise his team’s weaknesses.

    Maybe Mozgov has stamina issues and Blatt is concerned that he will not perform well if he plays 40 minutes but at this point there really is not another viable option, because when Mozgov is not in the game the Cavaliers lose ground like a race car with a flat tire.

    There are only two other directions that Blatt can go besides playing Mozgov for at least 40 minutes. The first option is to take Kendrick Perkins out of mothballs and use him for 10-12 minutes to stay big when Mozgov sits and the second option is to cut Smith’s minutes in favour of one of the graybeard wing players Shawn Marion or Mike Miller.

    Both options have drawbacks. Perkins is not an offensive threat like Mozgov and is too slow afoot to guard any Golden State player who is likely to be in the game. Marion and Miller have been so seldom used by Blatt this season that Blatt probably does not trust them enough to put them on the court for extended periods of time.

    This best of seven series is now a best of three series and fatigue simply cannot be a factor; core players have to be willing and able to play 40 minutes or more if necessary.

    The bottom line is this: If LeBron James is the tallest player on the court, then Cleveland is in trouble.

    David Friedman
    David Friedman

    David Friedman has covered the NBA for more than a decade, and in doing so, has interviewed nearly two dozen members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. You can find his work at 20SecondTimeout.

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    The Crowd Says (9)

    • Roar Rookie

      June 15th 2015 @ 8:07am
      josh said | June 15th 2015 @ 8:07am | ! Report

      I’d include JR Smith and Shumpert as the players who need to stand up, for the Cavs to win. Mozgov has generally been pretty good.

    • Columnist

      June 15th 2015 @ 8:24am
      David Friedman said | June 15th 2015 @ 8:24am | ! Report

      The title does not reflect the point of my article, which is that Mozgov should be given more minutes precisely because he is playing so well.

    • June 15th 2015 @ 9:49am
      RBBAnonymous said | June 15th 2015 @ 9:49am | ! Report

      At the end of the day it is LeBron who is going to carry this team and get it over the line. He needs to score 35+ points EVERY game for them to have any chance, even if his efficiency goes down. The key to Cleveland winning is getting production out of Shumpert and JR Smith. They need to score 15-20 pts each and play good defence. It wont be easy because JR Smith is down and confidence and is known as a streaky shooter anyway. I am hoping that the extra days rest will benefit Cleveland more than the Warriors. Lets go Cleveland.

    • June 15th 2015 @ 10:55am
      Swampy said | June 15th 2015 @ 10:55am | ! Report

      Mind you Mozgov dominated game 4 and the Cavs lost.

      The series is eerily similar to the Warriors Grizzlies series.

      JR Smith needs to have one of those heat check games that steals one for Cleveland. Then with one win to get who’d back against Lebron?

    • June 15th 2015 @ 11:05am
      pete bloor said | June 15th 2015 @ 11:05am | ! Report

      “fatigue cannot be factor”

      Unfortunately in the real world where we are talking about human beings that actually do have to expend energy you are asking a guy who has played 40 minutes 5 times in his entire 300+ career to not only go out and do that 3 games in a row but also guard smaller quicker players at the same time.

      Why not just shoot him in the heart? It would be a more humane way to end his life right?

      I mean there is wishful thinking, then there is putting the tooth fairy, santa and the easter bunny in to your line up and then there is asking Mozgov to play 40 mintues three games in a row at the same level of effectiveness as when he plays 30 mintues

      that’s before the obvious problems of Mozgov guarding Iggy or Green will increase the pace of the warriors offence, as they don’t need to run any offensive sets to create the mismatch, which will tire out LeBron more.

      you were right about one thing he isn’t O’neal or Gasol so the comparison to the Lakers is redundant one.

    • June 15th 2015 @ 12:56pm
      astro said | June 15th 2015 @ 12:56pm | ! Report

      Think its a bit over-simplistic to say that because Mozgov has played well, then the Cavs need to play him more to have a chance against the Warriors.

      In fact, I think the Warriors would love to have Cleveland play more Mozgov! Especially if that means him playing with Thompson.

      GS figured out in game 3, that by going small and shutting down the Cavs perimeter players (ie. Delly, Shump, JR and James Jones did nothing), and making the Cav big men chase Green and Barnes around all game, they could wear down the Cavs and reduce the effectiveness of Lebron.

      With Mozgov and Thompson on the floor together, the basket is crowded, and Lebron is settling for jumpers and not getting to the rim as easily…and they’d rather have Mozgov taking shots than Lebron.

      This series feels over after this last game. The Cavs gave it their best shot, but a 7 game series is brutal, and without an effective bench the Cavs were always going to struggle. They’ve had to redefine themselves as a team on offense and defense on the fly, and really, have done an amazing job to make the series competitive. More Mozgov won’t make much of a difference.

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