Veterans on Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors change ways as NBA does, too

The Cavaliers remained insistent on trying to score in transition — not in hope of beating the Warriors at their own game, but simply because a high number of points are needed to beat Golden State. But the need to rack up points was creating something of an identity crisis for Jefferson.

“I get in trouble for it now because I try and run for a layup — and they are telling me to run wide to the 3-point line,” Jefferson. “I’ve been ingrained for 10 years to try and get a layup first, and if you don’t have it then work your way out. For a guy like myself — who I feel like does a good balance shooting 3s and drives — if I catch it at the 3-point line and I have a man closing out to me, it opens up the lanes for drives.”

A new cycle of perimeter play was emerging in these Finals, Jefferson believed. He was sure that the cycle will continue to develop, but eventually — long after he has retired — the style of play will revert back again.

“The game has evolved,” Jefferson acknowledged. “But the minute that you got a bunch of big men that can post up again, (the emphasis on) the 3-point shot will change a little bit.”

Iguodala sees ‘gifts’ in game changing

The evolution from defense to offense, from inside scoring to outside shooting, from big to small — Golden State’s Andre Iguodala has experienced all of it firsthand.

In 2004, Iguodala was picked No. 9 by the 76ers to eventually replace 6-foot Allen Iverson as the franchise star in Philadelphia. But then the currents of the NBA game channeled him in another direction entirely.

Andre Iguodala (left) has seen LeBron James’ game mature over the years.

“I remember playing against Boston and I guarded (Rajon) Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul (Pierce) — because I was always guarding him — and I guarded KG for a few possessions,” said Iguodala of Kevin Garnett, the Celtics’ 6-foot-10 power forward. “And then I guarded (Kendrick) Perkins. And that’s when I thought this game is kind of crazy.”

Amid that craziness he has found his niche. At 6-foot-6, Iguodala has emerged over these last three Finals as the defender assigned by the Warriors to stop James. Years before he arrived in the NBA, Iguodala never could have imagined a star so versatile as James — or that Iguodala himself would be challenged to guard him on the biggest stage.

“It’s more an evolution of where the game is right now, where everything is more on the perimeter,” said Iguodala, 33. “You’ve got the floor being stretched out a little bit more, and you don’t have dominant centers like Shaq. I shouldn’t say the game got smaller, because you’ve got 7-footers on the wing now. The 3-ball is more important and it’s having a bigger effect on the game.”

In The 2015 Finals, Iguodala was elevated to the starting lineup to downsize the Warriors’ lineup and defense against LeBron. Injuries to Irving and Love essentially left James isolated in that series. At the end of that series, the Warriors won the title and Iguodala was named Finals MVP.

Andre Iguodala reflects on being named MVP of The 2015 Finals.

In The 2016 Finals, Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5. LeBron took advantage of that absence, sparking Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit.

This year, both teams are at full strength and a new truth altogether was emerging.

“There’s gifts and curses — but I think more gifts,” said Iguodala, as he tried to sum up how the NBA had been altered by the three stars of these Finals. “For LeBron, he didn’t change who he naturally was. Everybody wanted him to score the ball like MJ [Michael Jordan]. But he was naturally a gifted passer. He is doing an awesome job in embracing the scoring side, which isn’t natural for him. But he has maximized that. It is amazing to see a guy who can pass the ball the way he does and still be able to score.

“Then you saw the ‘gold rush’ for Steph when everyone was gravitating to how he was playing, because that wasn’t something that you see — a guy who could dominate the game the way he has over the last couple of years. And then you get the ‘normal’ guy more into the game: They can relate because he’s a guy that looks like them from a physique standpoint.

“From KD, you see kind of the supernatural. Which is crazy. He is hard to explain. But now that is what every 6-10 guy wants to be like. They’re trying to be like that, but that is gifts.”

Like NBA itself, West soaks in new way to play

The newest set of gifts were those being explored by Durant — the near-7-foot athlete with the shooting touch of Nowitzki and the ball-handling of a guard — with the result that another change in perspective was taking place. Instead of continuing to hear criticism for having joined the Warriors, Durant was now receiving for praise for transforming them.

David West left the Spurs last summer to pursue a title run with the Warriors.

The old complaint (that he was seeking the easy way to the championship) was being superseded by a new one (that the emergence of this new style of play driven by Durant appeared impossible to stop). At least, that was how West was seeing it.

“It is about the journey,” West was saying on the eve of Game 3. “And making sure you’re taking advantage of every single step of every day. I came in trying to learn, and I’m going to go out learning.”

West’s search for the next ahead-of-the-curve idea had led him to sign last summer with the Warriors. He was now experiencing his first NBA Finals, and it was living up to all of his dreams and expectations. He was two wins away from his first championship.

“You just want to be a part of it,” West said. “I was just telling these guys over here that I am 36. So I’ve been playing organized basketball for 30-plus years of my life. You want to feel you at least gave yourself a chance to tell a story of not just being in the NBA regular season. You want to feel what it is like to get to this point.”

You want to finish what you started, someone said to him.

“Yes,” West said.

And so it was for Durant, Curry and Iguodala, for James and Korver and Jefferson. They were all racing to the finish of this latest, newest trend.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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