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There’s No Bigger Move Than Going Small in These NBA Playoffs

Small ball has become the new currency of this postseason. The Raptors were able to force a Game 7 against the Celtics by abandoning their bigs. Will the smaller team ultimately emerge victorious Friday?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Raptors always knew they would go small in their second-round series against the Celtics—it was only a matter of when. That’s what Nick Nurse told The Athletic’s Blake Murphy after Toronto’s 125-122 double-overtime victory in Game 6 on Wednesday: “The thought process going in is it’s about three games in the making. I’ve been talking about doing it and getting to it for a long time, and I just had never found that or pulled the trigger until we got way down the other night.”

Nurse finally shifted Pascal Siakam to the 4 and OG Anunoby to the 5 with 8:22 left in the fourth quarter, and then rode that lineup the rest of the way. The small-ball lineup showed its worth immediately. Siakam and Anunoby, along with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell, made eight separate closeouts in their first possession on defense, forcing the Celtics to swing the ball around the court so many times that they barely avoided a shot-clock violation:

Boston starts four perimeter players who can drive, shoot, and pass (Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum) and an undersized but mobile big man (Daniel Theis). They are almost impossible to guard in end-of-game situations when they can spread out the defense and isolate the slowest defender at the 3-point line. The result is that Toronto’s two normally excellent traditional big men (Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka) have been an ace in Boston’s back pocket in this series with the game on the line.

The decisive play in the Celtics’ Game 2 win came when Kemba called for multiple screens until Ibaka was switched onto him. Then he reenacted one of the most iconic plays of his legendary NCAA career. This is the basketball version of the meteor strike that wiped out the dinosaurs:

Gasol was even worse in the final seconds of Game 3. This sequence, which would have ended the series were it not for one of the greatest inbounds plays in NBA history, is practically elder abuse:

The two big men were fish out of water. The farther they went from the basket, the less valuable their size became. The only adjustment that Toronto could make was to get them off the floor and play smaller, more mobile defenders. But even Nurse, one of the most aggressive coaches in the NBA in terms of tactics and lineup changes, had a hard time doing it.

Not only are Gasol and Ibaka two of his most trusted veterans, they are better all-around players than the players replacing them. Shifting Anunoby and Siakam down a position puts another guard on the floor, which is a problem given that Nurse is using only a seven-man rotation. Powell, a 6-foot-3 guard who has a long history of ups and downs in Toronto, can do only two things better than the Raptors’ centers: shoot 3s and guard the 3-point line.

But at a certain point in the playoffs, those are the only things that matter. Powell came up huge in Game 6 with 23 points on 6-of-11 shooting. He will need to be just as good for the Raptors to win Game 7 on Friday.

Even Charles Barkley, who has spent the past decade living out this Simpsons meme on national TV, is pushing for more small ball. This is what he said on TNT at halftime of Game 3 of Lakers-Rockets: “They should take JaVale McGee out because he can’t guard anybody. If you start him, the Rockets are already in their system. Because every time that James Harden goes to the basket, JaVale drops down, and his man gets a wide-open shot.”

Barkley then showed a play when McGee had 6-foot-3 Eric Gordon switched onto him and didn’t try to attack him: “There’s no reason to have a 7-footer out there if he’s not going to dominate the boards and score every time. Go back and show one of those plays. JaVale has Gordon on him. And he just goes and stands there. That is useless. I don’t understand that.”

Houston abandoned the center position at midseason, trading away Clint Capela for Robert Covington. The idea was that spreading the floor on offense and guarding the 3-point line on defense would outweigh having a bigger paint presence on both ends of the floor. That strategy is kryptonite to defensive-minded big men like McGee and the Thunder’s Steven Adams, who can’t defend on the perimeter or score over smaller players on the interior. As Barkley explained, there’s not much reason for them to be on the floor in those matchups.

Billy Donovan never caught on in the Thunder’s first-round series against the Rockets. He kept Adams in the starting lineup all seven games, even though that group had a staggeringly awful net rating of minus-38.5 in 74 minutes. The second-least effective five-man group that played more than 50 minutes in the entire playoffs had a net rating of minus-17.6.

The worst part is that Donovan stuck with them over significantly better options on his bench. His small-ball lineup with three point guards (Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), a defensive stopper (Luguentz Dort), and a shooter (Danilo Gallinari), had a net rating of plus-34.8 in 14 minutes. But he went away from them even after they won Game 3 in OT and closed out Game 4.

While Adams was productive in the series (10.1 points on 59.6 percent shooting and 11.6 rebounds per game), they were ultimately empty numbers that his coach should have seen through. The Thunder were killed when he was on the floor (minus-12.0 in 210 minutes) and played the Rockets even when he was off it (minus-0.1 in 131 minutes).

Lakers coach Frank Vogel didn’t make the same mistake as Donovan against Houston. He played McGee and Howard a combined 24 minutes in a Game 1 loss, then cut their playing time to a combined 15 minutes in wins in games 2 and 3, and didn’t play them at all in a Game 4 win.

Traditional big men used to be valued for their defense and their ability to protect the rim. And that’s still the case in the regular season. But the only reason to play them in the postseason is for what they can do on offense.

The conventional wisdom has to change. Boston has the no. 1 defensive rating in the playoffs (102.7) despite starting Theis (6-foot-8 and 245 pounds) at center. Houston is close behind them at no. 4 (105.7) with P.J. Tucker (6-foot-5 and 245 pounds) in the middle. Small-ball teams have two key advantages on defense. The Celtics and Rockets don’t concede space on the perimeter, and they rotate quickly when they get beat. No one is walking into open 3s against them like Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell routinely did in their epic first-round shootout.

Look at how Mitchell performed against a smaller and faster Houston defense in last season’s playoffs in comparison to a bigger and slower Denver defense built around Nikola Jokic. Mitchell has gotten better in the past season. But that can’t explain this big a difference:

Mitchell in the Playoffs

Mitchell Playoffs Points FG% Assists
Mitchell Playoffs Points FG% Assists
Denver 2020 36.3 52.9 4.9
Houston 2019 21.4 32.1 3.2

Poor defensive centers like Jokic aren’t the only ones who can’t keep up. Even the best interior defenders can be only so valuable in today’s playoffs. Rudy Gobert is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a four-time first-team All-Defensive team selection, and Utah still had the 12th-ranked defense out of 16 teams in the playoffs. Denver was a poor matchup for Gobert, but that’s exactly the point. Modern NBA offenses that attack the 3-point line are poor matchups for any traditional big man.

The difference between Jokic and Gobert is that a primary option on offense doesn’t need to play defense to still be valuable. Both centers got lit up on defense in the first round. But at least the former was doing some torching himself. The Warriors and the Rockets don’t bench Steph Curry and James Harden despite their defensive issues. They built defenses that could cover for their stars, which is the biggest challenge for the Nuggets going forward.

Draymond Green, who has played a lot of centers off the floor in the past half-decade, summed it up best:

The dangerous part for small-ball centers is that the same logic could eventually apply to them. The Celtics swept the 76ers and took the lead against Raptors as the smaller team up front, and now the Raptors have come back against the Celtics by going even smaller.

“Smaller” is a relative term, anyway. Anunoby (6-foot-7 and 232 pounds) is just as big as Theis. One of the reasons that he’s such an intriguing player is that he has the size to play center on defense and the skill to play on the wing on offense. And while Theis is fairly mobile for a big man, he’s still not as good of a perimeter defender as a wing. Toronto went on a 8-0 run when it went small at the end of the first half in Game 6. The points all came from the Raptors guards attacking Theis off the dribble and creating open shots:

The Raptors, despite playing from behind the entire series, have something to pin their hopes to in Game 7. They have a net rating of plus-9.4 in 27 minutes this series with Anunoby and Siakam and without Gasol and Ibaka.

Brad Stevens now has to decide whether to downsize to match the Raptors in Game 7. He could shift Brown and Tatum down a position so that they can switch any pick-and-rolls that the Raptors run, and put a reserve perimeter player (either Semi Ojeleye or Brad Wanamaker) on Powell.

Theis will have to stay on the floor with his offense. The Celtics won’t run plays for him, which means he needs to make spot-up jumpers and score with energy, cutting off the ball, catching lobs, and crashing the offensive glass. It worked pretty well in Game 6, when he had 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting, including several massive baskets in the second overtime:

Nurse could have blinked and put either Gasol or Ibaka back in after the Theis dunks. Donovan almost certainly would have. But Nurse stuck to his guns, knowing that he couldn’t win in this scenario with his big men.

The first two rounds of the 2020 playoffs should teach every NBA coach an important lesson. A bigger player who cannot use his size to score on smaller defenders is only so effective. The Celtics will start Game 7 as the smaller team. But will they end it that way?