Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr probably should have figured this out in the Western Conference Semifinals against Memphis, but the insertion of former Florida Gators power forward David Lee into his lineup late in Game 3 of the NBA Finals keyed a turnaround for the team that has resulted in the series now being tied at 2-2.
Lee, a two-time NBA All-Star relegated to a reserve role with Golden State this season, has taken his demotion in stride, buying into the team concept and helping the Warriors whenever possible.
After sitting out the Conference Quarterfinals against New Orleans due to a back injury, Lee barely played in the first three games of the semifinals against Memphis, seeing just nine minutes as Golden State fell behind 2-1, dropping the second and third games by a combined 17 points.
With fellow former Gators PF Marreese Speights forced out of the series with a calf injury, Kerr was forced to find another option to serve as a low-post scoring presence that could take the pressure off some of his stars. So he finally inserted Lee, who combined for 13 points and 13 points in 46 minutes over the final three games, all Warriors victories.
Lee would have been a liability against Houston in the Western Conference Finals, so Kerr rightly sat him for most of the series with Lee only seeing 12 minutes in five games (not even stepping on the court in two contests).
What did it take for Lee to see action again? A 17-point deficit in the third quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, a series in which Lee did not step on the court for a single minute in its first two games. That is when Kerr finally decided to sit center Festus Ezeli, whose inability to finish at the basket or hold onto the basketball wasted numerous offensive opportunities for the team.
Lee rewarded him again and finished that contest 4-for-4 for the field with 11 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes. He helped Golden State nearly erase its huge deficit; the Warriors found themselves down by three late in the fourth quarter but were unable to make a basket to tie the game despite receiving numerous opportunities.
Kerr understood in Game 4 what was obvious two nights earlier: the Cleveland Cavaliers cannot compete with Golden State when it is maxing out its offensive ability.
Though guards Stephen Curry and Andre Igoudala (16-of-32, 44 points combined) – plus the resurgence of forward Draymond Green (6-of-11, 17 points) – deserve the majority of the credit for Thursday night’s win, Lee’s presence helped spread the floor for the Warriors and ensured that the Cavs had to respect the scoring ability of everyone on the court.
Lee was not as efficient Thursday, finishing 3-for-7 with nine points, five boards and three dimes in 15 minutes, but his impact was no doubt felt. He is now +21 in two appearances this series.
“David’s sacrifice all year has been important. He didn’t rock the boat; he could’ve. He wanted to win. He could’ve asked for a trade, because he hasn’t had much of a role. But he stayed with it and he was big for us tonight,” Kerr said after the game.
Will the NBA Finals be a repeat of the conference semifinals for Golden State? Let’s just say Kerr is unlikely to turn away from Lee for the duration of this series.