In the NBA playoffs, teams quick to tinker with lineups
The “Death Lineup” breathed new life into the Golden State Warriors.
It was yet another reminder: In the NBA playoffs, where even a brief downward slide can be enough to end a season, even the best teams won’t hesitate when they feel a need to shake up their starting lineups.
Desperate times in the first round sent Cleveland to desperate lineup measures. Toronto, the team that finished with the NBA’s second-best regular season record, sought a spark by changing its starting five against the Cavs for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Utah showed Houston a new look Sunday in Game 4 of their West semifinal matchup, and while the Jazz slowed the high-powered Rockets at times they still fell into a 3-1 series deficit.
And then there’s the Warriors, who were coming off a big loss in Game 3 against New Orleans so they put their five best players — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green — on the floor Sunday to start a game for the first time all season. The result was a rout , one that allowed the Warriors to head home with a 3-1 lead in their series against the Pelicans.
“Anytime we’ve been in any danger over the years, we’ve sort of gone to this lineup,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “The lineup worked or whatever, but it’s not about the lineup. It’s really not.”
All due respect to Kerr, he might be overstating that one.
Golden State’s starting five on Sunday — some call it “The Death Lineup” because of how opponents tend to succumb against it, others prefer “Hamptons Five” because Curry, Thompson, Iguodala and Green were the players who went to the Hamptons two summers ago in an effort to lure Durant to the Warriors — was absolutely dominant. NBA.com charted them as being on the floor together for 18 minutes, during which they outscored the Pelicans 52-26.
Every other Warriors lineup used over the other 30 minutes played the Pelicans even, 66-66.
“We got momentum on our side really early,” Curry said. “Every single person on the floor in that lineup is a playmaker. And so we have multiple options and just look for the best shot on every possession.”
It wasn’t exactly an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass move by the Warriors.
But these NBA playoffs have seen some of those as well.
Cleveland, which has a chance to win its way back into the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth consecutive year on Monday night if it can finish off a sweep of Toronto, almost didn’t even get to this round. Facing a win-or-else Game 7 in the first round, the Cavaliers put LeBron James, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson — the four holdovers from their 2016 NBA championship team — out to start with Kyle Korver.
It was their first time starting together this season. James survived cramps, scored 45, and the Cavaliers held off Indiana to advance. They haven’t lost since.
“All five of us, we knew what we could get out of each other,” James said afterward. “We’ve been in situations before. We’ve played in big games before. That’s a comfort.”
Toronto could use some of that comfort.
Since James entered the league, only one No. 1 seed has gotten swept in the conference playoffs — Atlanta, in 2015, by James and the Cavaliers. Toronto shook up its lineup in Game 3 on Saturday night by trying Fred VanVleet instead of Serge Ibaka, but the Raptors fell into the dreaded 3-0 series deficit when James made a running bank shot at the buzzer for the win.
Everything is on the table for the Raptors now.
“You realize how big it is in this moment to get a victory,” Raptors star DeMar DeRozan said.
Sometimes, even subtle changes pay off nicely.
Boston inserted role player Semi Ojeleye into its starting lineup before Game 5 of the Celtics’ first-round series against Milwaukee. Ojeleye’s role: Find a way to slow down Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Ojeleye was on the floor to help open the next three games, the first starts of his rookie season. He scored 10 points in those games, though none of that mattered much to the Celtics. His primary role was defense, since Antetokounmpo averaged 27.8 points on 62 percent shooting in the first four games of the series.
With Ojeleye in the lineup, Antetokounmpo averaged 23 points on 50 percent shooting in the last three games — and seemed particularly out of sorts in Game 5, the first one where the Celtics made the change.
Boston won that night by five points, and wound up surviving the series in seven games.
“He did a great job,” Antetokounmpo said, tipping his cap to Ojeleye. “He played hard. He competed.”
And that’s the secret, Kerr said. It’s not about the names, he insists. It’s about how well they perform.
It’s become a bit of a running joke around the Warriors that Kerr won’t reveal his starting lineups until he absolutely has to, no matter how many times he is asked.
But this time, after the results on Sunday, Kerr isn’t holding his cards to his chest. Game 5 is on Tuesday night. The “Death Lineup” starts.
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