It’s the off-season before the 2003 NBA season, the Celtics had just made the playoffs for the first time in seven years and were only two games off reaching the Finals.
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.