Small ball: How the West will be won

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Friday, May 22, 2015

Just because the Western Conference finals appear to be downsizing doesn't mean the series is any less captivating.

Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard's availability for Game 2 is in doubt because of a sprained left knee. The Golden State Warriors have been at their best lately when they go without a true center. The end result could be better basketball.

There's a faster pace. There's more room for players to showcase their one-on-one skills, and less deterrence to drive to the rim. There's no temptation to intentionally foul poor free throw-shooting big men away from the ball.

"They're really good small and so are we," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "It just comes down to who performs better during that time when the teams are matched up that way."

The Rockets go small by necessity. They've adapted after playing so much time without Howard this season and then losing Donatas Motiejunas. They don't have their rim protector and interior scoring presence, but they do have enough lengthy athletes to succeed. To Josh Smith, it's all about recovering when the game gets a little more frantic.

"Just being able to scramble out of plays where maybe the philosophies didn't work out and [after] defensive breakdowns," Smith said. "It's about containing your man and coming together on switches."

The Warriors have their plan. They've discovered the path they hope will take them to a glorious future.

In the midst of their second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Warriors learned they could get away with using smaller lineups as they went deeper into the playoffs. They could play Draymond Green at center against Marc Gasol and get away with Harrison Barnes at power forward against Zach Randolph. The Warriors ran into a team whose style diametrically opposed theirs.

The Warriors' way prevailed.

"I think our communication, just how connected we are on defense, got so much better," Barnes said. "When you're going against legit post players, our rotation had to be tight, otherwise they get easy baskets. I thought we did a good job of staying connected and we got a lot of confidence that this lineup can actually work against a real team."

It worked even better against the Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. The Warriors played nearly 21 minutes of the series opener without a player taller than 6-foot-8 on the court. That included the final 6 1/2 minutes of the second quarter, when the Warriors erased a 14-point deficit, and the final 9 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter.

The smaller lineup changed the initial tone of series, and maybe rewrote the ground rules for its remaining games. Imagine the conversations today if the Rockets had nullified the homecourt advantage the Warriors established over the 82-game regular season in only 48 minutes.

The Warriors needed to do something to make the Rockets uncomfortable, as Houston was still riding the wave of the Game 7 triumph against the Los Angeles Clippers. After spending three games in the pressure chamber, the Rockets looked liberated to be playing without drastic consequences.

The Warriors, meanwhile, had difficulty moving on from the Memphis series and weren't locked in to the unique challenge the Rockets presented.

"[The Rockets] kind of play a chaotic style," Andrew Bogut said. "A lot of times I think they don't even know what they're going to do."

The Warriors didn't seem to have a counter until Kerr sent the 6-foot-8 Barnes in for 6-foot-11 Festus Ezeli, along with Stephen Curry for Andre Iguodala near the midpoint of the second quarter. They joined Green, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston.

Then, after the substitutions, Golden State flipped the switch.

The Warriors cut a 14-point Rockets' lead down to four in about three minutes, a span in which they outrebounded the Rockets, 5-4, even though Howard was on the floor. When Curry hit a stepback jumper right before halftime, the Warriors were up by three.

"We have a lot of guys that are very versatile defending," Green said of why the smaller lineup works. "Everybody swarms and crashes the glass, and once we get the ball, we're off to the races."

When it became evident that Howard's knee wouldn't allow him to contribute any more in Game 1, the Rockets went with a lineup of Smith, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni on the floor for the stretch run. The Rockets kept it a one-possession game for 4 1/2 minutes in the fourth quarter, until Curry busted loose with five points in a 27-second span.

This is probably the only time in NBA history where a team could have legitimate championship aspirations while playing such small lineups. Kerr acknowledges they couldn't do this in the 1990s, when Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O'Neal roamed the NBA landscape. And this doesn't look to be the long-term trend.

Right before Game 1 tipped off, all of the non-playoff teams gathered to see how would win the draft lottery, with big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor the top-two prizes.

If the Cleveland Cavaliers are the NBA Finals opponent for the Western Conference winner, it will be partly due to Cleveland's acquisition of center Timofey Mozgov in January, plus the relentless work of Tristan Thompson on the offensive glass. A small lineup against those two might be perilous.

And when the Warriors' season ends, it's possible assistant coach Alvin Gentry could leave the to coach the New Orleans Pelicans, and the hook would be Anthony Davis. The ball-sharing, free-flowing offense Gentry learned in Phoenix and brought to Golden State could be replaced by the age-old mantra of "Get the ball to the big man."

So enjoy this interlude in the West. The only thing smaller than the lineups might be the window for them to flourish.

Related Video