CLEVELAND -- After evening the NBA Finals 2-2 with 103-82 thumping of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr came out and said it. Accurately describing the contributions of forward Andre Iguodala, Kerr declared, "He's been our best player through four games."
It's true, if a little unfathomable. League MVP Stephen Curry has been good (22 points on 17 shots Thursday night), but Iguodala has been absolutely crucial in a series that demands someone contain LeBron James. The Warriors recognized that and made a bold change. Iguodala was to start, in place of center Andrew Bogut. It was the first time all season that the Warriors changed their starting lineup for a reason other than health.
Going small with Iguodala revved the pace and maximized his time on James. For the series, when Iguodala is on the floor, James is shooting 35.3 percent and the Cavaliers are minus-25. On Thursday, James was at his least effective in these Finals, hitting only 7 of 22 shots for 20 points. In the fourth quarter, the King went scoreless.
Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton, who played with Iguodala at the University of Arizona, lavished praise on his former college teammate. After the game, Walton told ESPN of Iguodala, "He's a calming factor. He's a leader. He's such an intelligent player that he covers up a lot of mistakes, like defensive rotations. In this series he obviously has the daunting task of guarding LeBron for pretty much every minute Andre's on the floor."
After the game, Iguodala remarked on his specialized, seasoned skill set, saying, "We've got a lot of great players in this league that can score the ball in bunches. You know, it's like 10 or 15 guys in this league. I've had a chance to guard all of them. I've been doing it for a long time."
He has, and he would receive more credit if fans found defense as appealing as the offensive side. Iguodala, who tends to wax cynical, often jokes that he wants his son playing offense, "because that's where the money is." Offense might draw the most eyeballs and the biggest contracts, but defense is paramount in this grinding series. As far as Iguodala's contract, specifically, Golden State has to feel validated for the $48 million, four-year offer sheet they gave him in 2013.
"I'm really happy for him," Warriors GM Bob Myers told ESPN after the game. "We've been thrilled since we signed him. He's probably our biggest veteran leader." Brokering the deal for a sign-and-trade for Iguodala is something Myers describes as the hardest thing he has ever done. Memorably, the normally fastidious Myers announced the trade looking unshaven and somewhat disheveled. It's a move that was derided at times, due to Iguodala's lack of scoring, but has more than paid off in this postseason run.
Speaking of scoring, Iguodala was not lacking for that in Game 4. He took a starring role on that end, claiming 22 points and four 3-pointers. It was sweet relief for a Golden State squad desperate for offense.
Bogut played less than three minutes in the game, as the Warriors tried to continually beat Cleveland with smaller lineups. The bet was that they would get beat on the offensive boards, but make up for it with better shots and pace. David Lee continued his role as screen-slipping center, scoring nine points in 15 minutes. Draymond Green, who started at the 5, was freed up offensively, scoring 17 points to go with six assists. Green, who has struggled with his shot in this series, looked relaxed in the postgame news conference, joking about how his mother and grandmother got on him for yelling at refs.
The lineup switch suggestion came via a surprising source -- or, a surprising source for most teams. The 28-year-old Nick U'Ren, youngest guy on the coaching staff, offered the idea Wednesday. Thursday morning, the Warriors decided to implement it. Walton joked to ESPN that he threatened to fight any staffer who might leak the information. It was imperative that the Cavs not prepare for the change. Warriors coach Steve Kerr even went so far as to lie about not changing the lineup in his pregame news conference.
In the Western Conference semifinals, Golden State's series-shifting Bogut-on-Tony Allen idea came from their most seasoned assistant coach, 67-year-old defensive guru Ron Adams. In this series, the big idea sprung from a man nearly four decades his junior. This is how Kerr's staff operates. Many voices are heard, many voices matter. Many players matter too, which is what Golden State is counting on if they're to wear down the short-handed Cavs. The Warriors' season slogan is "Strength in numbers." On an evening that starred normally unsung contributors, it was fitting.