The Cleveland Cavaliers will defend their home court against the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night in a pivotal NBA Finals Game 6 matchup. Trailing 3-2 after back-to-back losses, LeBron James and the rest of the Cavaliers’ depleted roster need a victory to avoid elimination and force a winner-take-all Game 7.
The Cavaliers seemed poised to take control of the series after impressive wins in Games 2 and 3 behind James and this year’s breakout NBA Finals star, guard Matthew Dellavedova. That’s when Warriors coach Steve Kerr decided to go “small,” subbing versatile swingman Andre Iguodala into his starting lineup and relegating center Andrew Bogut to the bench.
The move paid off. Iguodala has played strong defense against James and helped the Warriors push the tempo on offense, while guard Stephen Curry, the league’s reigning MVP, broke out of a minor shooting slump early in the series to post 37 points in Game 5. Golden State jumped out to a 3-2 series lead with wins in Game 4 and 5, and now have a chance to close out the series on the road Tuesday night.
“We don’t want them celebrating at all, no matter if it’s on our home floor or their home floor,” James said before Game 6. “We’ve come this far, and we’ve been very good at home. We have to understand why we weren’t good in Game 4. We had a lack of energy. We had a lack of effort in a lot of areas in Game 4, and we can’t repeat that or they’ll raise the trophy for sure.”
The Cavaliers are on the brink of defeat despite a historically strong performance from James, who has averaged 36.6 points per game through this year’s NBA Finals and scored at least 40 points on three separate occasions. But an injury to point guard Kyrie Irving sapped the Cleveland of its second-best scorer, and role players J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert haven’t done enough offensively to support James’ efforts.
If Cleveland wins Game 6 Tuesday, the Cavaliers and the Warriors will play a decisive Game 7 Friday, June 19 at Golden State’s Oracle Arena. But James and his teammates will have to figure out how to handle the Warriors’ potent lineup first. Here’s a look at six keys to the game:
Can Cavaliers Adjust To Warriors’ Lineup Change?
Cleveland’s bid to survive Game 6 will hinge on whether it can find a way to handle the Warriors’ small lineup. Golden State has been a different team since Iguodola entered the starting lineup, winning Game 4 and Game 5 by a combined 24 points. Cavaliers head coach David Blatt played center Timofey Mozgov – arguably Cleveland’s second-most effective player this series – for a total of just nine minutes in Game 5 in an attempt to keep up with the Warriors’ fast-paced offense. It’s unclear if Blatt will once again limit the big man’s minutes in Game 6, but his decision will be crucial to determining the game’s outcome.
Andre Iguodala As X-Factor
Individually, the Warriors guard hasn’t had a major statistical impact on the team’s offense, scoring 22 and 14 points respectively in Golden State’s victories in Games 4 and 5. But Iguodala has helped the Warriors spread the floor for Curry and fellow guard Klay Thompson, and to exploit lineup mismatches. More importantly, Iguodala has been a lockdown defender, holding James to just 29 percent shooting when the two match up, according to ESPN.
LeBron James MVP Watch
Even if the Warriors win Game 6 and the NBA title, James’ dominant performance will garner MVP consideration. The Cavaliers’ offense has started and ended with James all series, as injuries to fellow stars Irving and forward Kevin Love forced the “King” to take more shots than ever. He’s recorded two triple-doubles this series, including a masterful 40-point, 14-rebound and 11-assist performance in a losing effort in Game 5. If the Cavaliers are going to win Game 6, it will have to be behind yet another dominant game from James.
Will Cavs’ Supporting Cast Step Up?
Other than strong efforts from Mozgov and forward Tristan Thompson, James hasn’t received consistent offensive support from the team’s role players. Even Dellavedova, who scored 20 points and hit a crucial shot late in Game 3, has cooled off in the last two games, scoring just 15 combined points on 5-of-23 shooting. Smith and Shumpert have been wildly inconsistent from behind the three-point line, while veterans James Jones and Mike Miller contributed just three combined points in Game 5. Cleveland’s role players will have to step up to give the Cavaliers a legitimate shot in Game 6.
Which Stephen Curry Will Show Up?
After a series of middling efforts in the first four games of the 2015 NBA Finals, Curry exploded for 37 points in Game 5. The strong effort included 7-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc and a series of highlight-reel shots despite tough defense from Dellavedova. More importantly, 17 of Curry’s points came in the fourth quarter, which helped the Warriors pull away from the Cavaliers late. A similarly prolific performance in Game 6 could lead Golden State to their first NBA championship since 1975.