The metrics guys who run the world of sports these days will tell you it’s pretty tough for eight guys to beat 10, and that is the numerical consternation Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt must confront in the NBA Finals.
Even if you count LeBron James as two players, which is only fair, Blatt finds himself short in a 48-minute matchup with the Golden State Warriors. It gets even worse when the game goes into overtime.
The three guys Blatt summoned from the bench in the Cavaliers’ 108-100overtime loss in Game 1 on Thursday combined for 60 minutes, 49 seconds. Golden State’s five bench guys put in 76 minutes, 57 seconds. That left the Warriors’ starters 16 minutes, 8 seconds fresher at the finish when they salted away the Cavs.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr’s game plan all year has been to send in players by the wave and watch them wear down opponents. The payoff was easy to see Thursday when his team jumped higher and ran faster in the waning stages. He’ll rely on the same formula in Sunday’s Game 2 in Oakland.
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Blatt’s bench players don’t have the skill or versatility of Kerr’s. Blatt can’t experiment like a mad scientist. He has a scorer in J.R. Smith, a big guy who can bang a bit in James Jones and a top backup point guard in Matthew Dellavedova, but Blatt doesn’t like to go deeper. Eight or 10 years ago, he would have enjoyed calling on Shawn Marion or Kendrick Perkins for help, but in this year’s playoffs, those guys’ initials might as well have read D.N.P.
Without Kevin Love, Blatt is left short against the Warriors, whose bench features Andre Iguodala and Marreese Speights. Along with Shaun Livingston, Festus Ezeli and Leandro Barbosa, the Warriors’ second unit outscored Cleveland’s reserves 34-9 in Game 1. More importantly, they kept the first team bouncy into the home stretch.
“Yes, I would have liked to have done that,” Blatt said when asked about finding more minutes for his bench.
With starting point guard Kyrie Irving out for the rest of the series with a broken kneecap, it’s going to be even more critical for Blatt to come up with a solution.
Smith, his best guy off the bench, logged more than half the team’s reserve time with 34 minutes, 21 seconds. Smith’s twisting, turnaround jumper just before halftime gave Cleveland the lead Thursday, but most of the rest of the night he wasn’t so thrilling, missing 10 of his other 12 shots.
With Irving out, Smith will have the opportunity to miss even more. But Blatt knows it would be nuts to tell his gunner to holster his pistol.
“He’s a shotmaker and a tough-shot maker,” Blatt said. “We just need to get him better shots.”
Golden State’s game is as much about depth as it is about Splash, as in Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The chief reinforcement, Iguodala, arguably turned in the most critical performance in Game 1. Mostly, he earned oohs and aahs with his defense, an oddity on a night when the guy he was guarding scored 44 points.
But the one-man James gang needed 38 shots to get them. He missed 20 shots, including a fadeway jumper in the final seconds of regulation that could have won the game for Cleveland.
Most of James’ misfires came with Iguodala reaching and grabbing at him like a hyperkinetic octopus – anything to keep James out of the paint.
“We’ve got a lot of bodies, a lot of guys we threw on LeBron (on Thursday night),” said Iguodala, referring to tag-team partners Draymond Green, Thompson and Harrison Barnes. “He made some tough shots, and that’s what we’re going to try to do throughout this series, is make him take tough shots, just try to wear teams down; and that’s something we tried to do all year.”
Iguodala, an 11-year veteran, played eight years with Philadelphia, so he has spent a lot of time chasing James. Iguodala said he learned early from his defensive mentor with the 76ers, Aaron McKie, to accept the things he cannot change, which is that you can’t stop players like James. But McKie also gave Iguodala the wisdom to know how to make a difference, which is to make it hard on the stars when they have the ball.
“Don’t foul them,” Iguodala said. “Make them take tough shots. Make the routes hard.”
Oh, and it also helps to score on them. Iguodala had 15 points in Game 1, making 6 of 8 shots, including 2 of 3 from three-point range.
“I do believe in our depth,” Kerr said. “We play a lot of people, and we feel like over the course of a game, or maybe in overtime, we can keep fighting and good things will happen.”
Now it’s on Blatt to adjust. Good luck without Irving. It would have been hard enough even with him to keep the Cavs from wearing out.