The Finals in Review: Small-Ball Warriors Take Down Shorthanded Cavaliers

It’s often difficult to step back and digest what you just saw after watching a sports event, but it feels especially difficult to do so after this year’s 2015 NBA Finals. We witnessed record TV ratings, an unprecedented individual performance and a sixth man win Finals MVP. This series was full of twists and turns that saw us lauding Matthew Dellavedova and questioning Steph Curry’s greatness. It was, simply put, a wonderful culmination of an incredibly entertaining NBA season.

Which is why Game 6 felt so anticlimactic. Aside from a late barrage of contested J.R. Smith three pointers that only he can make, there was little doubt about who this game belonged to after the first quarter. The Cavs were exhausted and the Warriors were hungry, and it showed throughout Game 6. The Warriors outshot the Cavs from just about everywhere on the court, and they had significantly more assists and steals and far fewer turnovers. More than that, they proved to us who the better team is and was throughout the season. The Warriors deserved this ring more than any other team this year, and though LeBron proved they’re not flawless, their balanced roster proved to be more resilient than we had imagined.

I hate to toot my own horn (wait, no I don’t), but I’m relieved to say that I originally predicted the Warriors winning in six. In fact, most of my keys to the series ended up having a huge impact on the final outcome. The Cavs roster was beat up, and though they’re defense continued to exceed expectations, their offense sorely missed the contributions of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. They also needed them for depth purposes, as David Blatt was forced to deploy essentially a seven-man rotation, which is a death wish in the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Warriors had a completely healthy roster and their bench significantly outplayed the Cavs’ backups, fueled by clutch contributions from Leandro Barbosa, Shaun Livingston, David Lee and more. Most importantly, as predicted, Steve Kerr made a strategic adjustment that changed the course of the finals: inserting Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for Andrew Bogut.

David Blatt did his best to match the Warriors’ swiss army knife small-ball lineups, but the Cavs roster simply isn’t built to play small the same way the Warriors is, especially without two of their star players. The Cavs seemed to have the edge in the series until Iggy stopped coming off the bench, and from there the Warriors looked much more like the team we grew to appreciate during the regular season. They shared the ball, pushed the pace, spaced the floor and switched assignments effortlessly on defense.

Iguodala was everywhere on the court; he shared ball handling duties with Curry and Livingston, hit a surprising amount of threes, forced Timofey Mozgov off the court, and most importantly did everything he could to slow down LeBron. James was unbelievable in this series, and I’m not the only one who thinks he was most deserving of Finals’ MVP. A better performance in Game 6 might have gotten James the award, but he was clearly exhausted by the end of the third quarter, his body ravaged from the greatest individual burden in NBA Finals history. That said, Iguodala held James to 38% shooting when guarding him, and he was the second-most deserving candidate, so it makes sense that he was the one receiving the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award from the legend himself. Iggy had per game averages of 16.3 points, 4 assists, and 5.8 rebounds in the series, even though he was coming off the bench for the first three games and was tasked with guarding the best player in the world. He dropped 22 in a crucial game four and then dropped 25, 5 and 5 in Game 6, setting a season high for points in each game.

Even objectively speaking, it feels right that the Warriors are the 2015 champions. They were the best team in the league from game one on both ends of the court, which is something we haven’t seen since Jordan’s legendary 72-win Bulls squad. In a different way than the 2014 Spurs, what we just witnessed is a manifestation of the ideal way to play basketball going forward. Not only do the Warriors embody the same unselfish ball-movement of last year’s Spurs squad, but their versatile army of capable wings is what will dictate NBA defenses moving forward.

The entire league has taken note: the future of defense is having a bunch of long-armed wings who can switch constantly and in unison defensively without sacrificing skills on the other end of the court. The subtext of this concept is that teams can win going small; the Cavs were trotting out a behemoth seven-foot center and yet at times they looked helpless against lineups without a single player taller than 6’8″. Every championship team leaves its mark on the league, and what the Warriors just accomplished defensively will become an integral part in building NBA rosters.

The future of the Warriors looks bright. They’re obviously committed to re-signing Draymond Green to a max contract, and since they’re owners have said they’re willing to spend the luxury tax to win championships, it figures that they’ll try and extend Barnes too. Barnes’ contract won’t come on the books until 2016, and since Lee’s albatross of a contract expires next season and then Bogut and Iggy are off the books the following year, the Dubs may only have to pay the luxury tax once for the time being. A core of Curry, Klay, Barnes, Green and possibly even Ezeli, surrounded by the right parts, is a perennial contender for years to come. They may already have some future rotation players buried on the roster in Justin Holiday, James McAdoo and Ognjen Kuzmic, not to mention Aaron Craft and others on their D-League affiliate. If the Dubs can extend Green and Barnes we might get to see a lot more of Riley Curry on the championship podium, which I think we can all agree is good for everybody.

Even though they’re already the favorites to win the 2016 NBA championship, the Cavs future feels a lot murkier. Even though a healthy Kyrie and Anderson Varejao will go a long way to helping stabilize this team on both ends of the floor, there are still a lot of question marks on the roster. If they’re able to re-sign Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and Kevin Love, then they’ll be in good shape. They’ll also be wise to exercise the option on Timofey Mozgov if they can, and Brendan Haywood’s non-guaranteed salary is a good trade chip. Still, it’s very clear they need to provide LeBron with a better roster, even when healthy. They need a backup center if Varejao can’t stay healthy, more help on the wings not in the form of aging veterans, and it still remains to be seen whether or not Dellavedova can fit as Kyrie’s backup. If the Cavs can re-sign some of these core players, replace Kendrick Perkins, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion with players not in their thirties and add a guard in the draft, then they too will be a familiar sight in the NBA Finals for years to come. Although their future might be a bit more cloudy, we do know one thing: they have the best player in the world, and LeBron will be back with a vengeance in 2016.

Until then, take some deep breaths and pack your things, because your next basketball adventure awaits. The NBA Draft is in 8 days.


Timothy A. Clary – Getty Images

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