Kawakami: What the Warriors should — and shouldn’t — change heading into Game 5

OAKLAND, CA – JUNE 04: Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks with his players at the bench during Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at ORACLE Arena on June 4, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

OAKLAND–The Warriors just lost their first playoff game in four rounds, the first loss of any fashion since April 10, and remain one victory from a title, so there is only one possible way they should react to losing Game 4, of course:

Panic! Tear up all plans! Bench everybody! CHANGE EVERYTHING!

Oh wait, that’s what some silly, unstable team might do, not the Warriors, who are 82-16 overall this season (regular and postseason combined), are up 3-1 in this series, and, after all, are run by sane people.

Obviously, there are strategic adjustments to be made for Monday’s Game 5 at Oracle Arena after Cleveland’s demolition of the Warriors defense on Friday, after the Warriors offense never quite got in sync and generally after the Cavaliers took the physical imperative at Quicken Loans Arena.

But there won’t be major alterations, because the Warriors have gotten this far with strong beliefs about who they are and how they should play, and also because making massive tactical changes in Game 5 of the NBA Finals would be more about panic than common sense.

And the Warriors won’t do that… at least through this game.

“We have a lot of guys who play, so we are comfortable making a couple tweaks here or there, rotation change, stuff like that,” Kerr said after practice on Sunday.

“We may do some of that, but I always say the biggest adjustment in the playoffs that you make is always an emotional one. You can tweak some things, but are we going to play hard? Are we going to get after it and compete?

“Or are we going to do what we did the other night, which is allow three-point shooters to get open, get broken down at the point of attack, give up offensive boards. That’s up to us.”

So I asked Kerr, when did you see the competitive level wasn’t there in Game 3? From the beginning of the game?

“Yeah,” Kerr said, “from the very first play I saw it.”

I’ll add here: The first play of the game was an open J.R. Smith three-pointer from the wing when Curry went under the screen by Kevin Love.

From there, Cleveland took 6-0, 16-5, and 24-9 leads in the first few minutes of the game, setting the Warriors up for a long night ahead.

“We didn’t give any kind of resistance in that first… I’ll call it first three minutes where they just got real comfortable on our miscommunication…. we got separated from bodies a little too much and let them toe up on the three-point line,” Curry said.

It’s a given that the Warriors have to be stronger and faster on Monday than they were on Friday in Cleveland, and of course they were exactly those things in Games 1, 2 and 3, which is how they built up the 3-0 Finals lead in the first place.

But there is some good chance that LeBron James & Co. altered the flow of the series in Game 4 — partly with some adjustments of their own, mainly just by turning back into the Cavalier team that dominated the Eastern conference playoffs and then looked a bit tepid for the first three Finals games.

And there will undoubtedly be some Warriors adjustments, mainly to get them jump-started emotionally and to give Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green swifter means to counter-act the Cavaliers’ full force.

Here are some possible adjustments, most of them based on rotations, not X’s and O’s…

1. Get Durant a breather at the end of the first and third quarters so he can play at the start of the second and fourth — when Curry rests — which means the Warriors will have either Curry or Durant (or both) on the floor for every significant second of the game.

Kerr will always look to give his stars some rest and he believes keeping Durant and Curry to at max 41-42 minutes means they can be fresher and sharper than marathon man LeBron James at the end of games (such as Game 3).

But Kerr has been reducing that no-Curry-or-Durant number all postseason — there was only 1:42 of time without neither superstar on the floor in Game 4 — and he might eliminate it altogether now.

2. If Green can stay out of early foul trouble, the Warriors can use him at center in a small line-up for more than just the last few minutes of each half.

Kerr doesn’t want to wear down the small unit — whether it’s the classic Hamptons 5 with Durant, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Curry or with the version that includes Shaun Livingston — by playing it longer than 10-12 minutes a game.

But it’s also the lineup that torched the Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals (with Harrison Barnes in there and obviously not Durant), and an increased small-ball minute-count would mean less of Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and David West, who have been victims of the Cavaliers’ spread attack.

3. More Curry with the ball, initiating the attack, instead of moving him off to the side and away from the first action.

Curry often gets more freedom by running off of picks from the side — it’s harder to double-team him — and this kind of action often causes havoc because defenses are reacting to Curry without even guarding the ball.

But Cleveland doesn’t care whether Curry has the ball or not; he’s getting face-guarded and double-teamed whenever he moves into dangerous spots, and in Game 4 it mucked up the Warriors’ offensive flow.
If the Warriors just give Curry the ball at the top, that forces the Cavaliers to make an immediate decision and if Curry can make a strong play through the aggressive defense, then it’s a lay-up line to the basket or a possible wide-open three-pointer shot for Thompson or Durant.

Those are not major changes, because this is far from desperation time. They’re mini-moves, subtle course-changes for a team that is still in control of this series and just needs four more stable quarters to celebrate a championship on Monday.