Sports Nut

The Coaches’ Championship

How the NBA Finals became a chess match between two master strategists.

Head coach David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Head coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images, Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

OAKLAND, Calif.—What is it about the 2015 NBA Finals that has made this series so mesmerizing? Obviously, watching LeBron James putting up series averages (36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists) that we have never seen before and may never see again makes for must-see viewing. The steady and critical production of players like Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala, who’ve helped stem the brunt of Cleveland’s one-man show, has been less dramatic but almost as impressive.

Perhaps just as fascinating as what’s happened on the court is this: The two coaches in this series have been putting on a display of strategic acumen that has been riveting to see and historic in nature. The fact that we are witnessing this basketball-as–chess match play out by two first-time NBA head coaches has made it all the more special: No rookie head coach has won an NBA title since the Lakers’ Pat Riley in 1982. Through the first five games of the series, it’s been almost as much fun watching Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Cavaliers coach David Blatt—both much older and more experienced than Riley was at the same point in his career—counterpunch with lineup changes and in-game strategy as it has been seeing LeBron impose his will on Golden State’s defense. At this point, nobody knows what to expect from Tuesday’s Game 6 in Cleveland, adding an extra layer of excitement to what has already been one of the most entertaining NBA Finals in recent memory. The series has provided the rare example of two coaches that actually saved their respective teams’ seasons with tactics. Sitting in the press areas that encircle the inside of Oracle Arena for the Warriors home games, I’ve been watching in wonder as the changes have happened in real-time, the drama continuously coming not just from the 10 guys in shorts but two more in suits.

For Kerr, this run to the Finals has represented a natural evolution of his career. A five-time champion as a player, he played for two of the best coaches in league history (Phil Jackson in Chicago and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio). He’s been a general manager and a TV commentator. Outside of arena concessionaire, there were few jobs he hadn’t tried other than head coach. After picking Golden State over the New York Knicks this past offseason, Kerr immediately led the team to one of the 10 best regular season records in NBA history—Kerr was actually a member of 1995-96 Chicago Bulls that won 72 games, the all-time record. In the playoffs, they flattened tough Western Conference foes New Orleans, Memphis, and Houston to get here.

Blatt’s journey was slightly more detoured. He played college ball at Princeton but then spent the next 30 years abroad, coaching club sides in Israel, Italy, and Russia, and eventually leading the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics. Regarded as an offensive genius, Blatt was supposed to help James elevate his game to stratospheric levels, especially after the team acquired Kevin Love in a trade from Minnesota. And though the Cavs finished second in the Eastern Conference, the season was not without major strife: Blatt is clearly not close with James and has been seen at times as nothing more than a coach in name only, with James calling his own plays à la Peyton Manning. Cleveland didn’t have an easy time making it to the Finals—especially once Love went down with a separated shoulder in the first round against Boston—and was more or less limited to an eight-man rotation by the time Game 1 tipped off at Oracle Arena.

That night was when this championship fight became about these two coaches. With two minutes left in overtime, the Warriors were pulling away toward a series-opening win when Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving knocked knees with the Warriors’ guard Klay Thompson and broke his kneecap. Blatt was left without a starting point guard and the team’s second All-Star.

He was forced to bring on 24-year-old undrafted Australian Matthew Dellavedova, who only had 19 previous career NBA starts. But for a stretch, Dellavedova fit beautifully into Blatt’s defensive scheme. He and power forward Tristan Thompson switched up defending Curry and stifled the league’s MVP, holding him to 5-for-23 shooting in Game 2. Blatt deployed the same scheme in Game 3, and it worked just long enough for the Cavs to hold onto a 5-point win and take the series lead.

At risk of returning home with a 3-1 deficit, Kerr responded in Game 4 with what will likely be the turning point of the series and one of the smartest decisions of any NBA Finals coach. Through three games, it had become clear that Andre Iguodala, the team’s sixth man and usually the first one off the bench to sub for either Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green, was the only semi-successful Warrior at defending James. Green, the runner-up for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award, was dealing with back issues, and Barnes (who gives up at least 30 pounds of muscle in that matchup) was being manhandled. What ultimately convinced Kerr that a change could work was his team’s regular season history of experimenting with a “small” lineup, sitting center Andrew Bogut, installing Green in his stead, and matching up Iguodala against whomever necessary. In this case, that was James.

He had to lie to the media to keep this brilliant piece of maneuvering a secret, but it worked perfectly. After saying there’d be no lineup changes about 90 minutes before Game 4 in Cleveland, Kerr made his swaps. LeBron only scored 20 points on 22 shots, Iguodala scored 22 points as a starter, and the Warriors cruised to a 21-point win to tie the series.

At that point, it was Blatt’s turn to try his own counter. But with such a thinned-out roster, his choices heading into Game 5 were almost nonexistent: He only had aging veterans like Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, and Kendrick Perkins on the bench. Blatt’s best possible response to Golden State’s small ball, as he saw it, was to take 7-foot-1 center Timofey Mozgov—the high scorer in Game 4 with 28 points—and remove him from the game almost entirely. Mozgov had been dominant in the post, especially when Golden State went to the “small” lineup, but it was stifling Cleveland’s creativity, which was already lacking to begin with. Even though Mozgov started the night, he ended up playing only five minutes through three quarters. That gave more time to J.R. Smith, who came off the bench to knock down four first-half three-pointers and keep Cleveland within one at halftime. After three quarters, the Cavs were still only down six, but fatigue caught up with them. Dellavedova (who had to spend the night at the Cleveland Clinic after Game 3 with severe dehydration) was gassed from covering Curry, the MVP scored 17 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter, and the Warriors again won easily despite Blatt’s smart and desperate strategic ploy.

Now, Cleveland is fighting for its survival, down 3-2 in the series and coming home for Game 6. Blatt has seemingly tried everything in his arsenal to counter the Warriors’ high-powered attack while using LeBron and a cast of misfit toys to poke holes through the league’s top-ranked defense.

That this series is still not over—and that Cleveland still has some chance to win it all—is a credit to not only LeBron’s play, but Blatt’s coaching focus. He may come off as aloof and lecturing during his press conferences, but Blatt is a genuine motivator, a creative tactician when he needs to be, and that is pretty refreshing in a profession bound by canned answers and faux-authenticity.

Kerr, meanwhile, is playing with house money, up 3-2 with a pretty much fully healthy lineup. It’s fair to say, though, that his decision to start Iguodala in Game 4 might have saved his team’s season. Now he needs to decide how much Bogut will play in Game 6, whether former All-Star David Lee will continue to get extended minutes, and whether he should seek to keep Mozgov out of the game by benching Bogut and allowing Iguodala (who didn’t start a game all season prior to the Finals) to continue to start and guard James.

Like any sport, this series will ultimately be decided on the field of play. Even before Irving’s injury, the Warriors held a decisive advantage. But the fact that it’s gotten to this point is indicative of the inspiring, imperfect coaching genius of both of these men. Seeing what kind of strategies Blatt and Kerr come out with in Game 6 will be half the fun. The other half will be seeing how they respond to one another’s opening moves.