In today’s NBA, there is no shame in being unconventional. We have a league in which the best offensive creator plays forward and the No. 2 seed in the East plays Carmelo Anthony as a power forward. Teams owe it to themselves and their fans to attempt to find the most effective combination of talent regardless of how it fits into the archetype of what an NBA five “should” look like.
Before the Golden State Warriors played the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 on Friday, Mark Jackson said that “I am reacting to [the Spurs]” when deciding on a starting lineup that included both Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli in Tiago Splitter’s first game on the front line for the Spurs since he sprained his ankle last series. I immediately went “uh oh” because of the lack of recognition that statement showed.
In the words of George Costanza, the Warriors found plutonium by accident, playing true smallball only after David Lee’s injury took him off the floor and forced the coaching staff to stray from the self-created and arbitrary bonds of traditional positional definitions. In the first round, George Karl reacted the wrong way to this change and spent far too long trying to out-small the Warriors even though JaVale McGee did a solid enough job on the floor when the Nuggets did not overreact with two Centers at the same time. By not using his team’s own competitive advantage, Karl and Denver had to try and out-smalling the Warriors which proved next to impossible. The Nuggets got back into the series when the Coach of the Year realized that his talent could play their game better than a reactionary mess afraid of the strengths of his opponents rather than using their own muscle.
Proper spacing (particularly with a four that has legitimate range out to the three-point line) works well against more conventional teams because oftentimes that second big man will be uncomfortable stretching his defense out that far. Kenneth Faried has merits as a defensive player and plenty of energy but having Harrison Barnes out on the perimeter as the man he was supposed to be covering made him look foolish most of the time since he was out of his comfort zone as a defensive player. More importantly, it generated looks for Barnes and the rest of the team because it changed the structure of Denver’s defense both before the action started and the movement in their rotations.
In Game 3 of the second round, this change manifested itself early on. Having both Ezeli and Bogut on the floor together meant the Warriors only had three players who could make even a mid-range shot and it allowed San Antonio to start the game in a comfortable place on the defensive end. Furthermore, Ezeli getting two quick fouls in the first three minutes meant that Mark Jackson would have to be thinking about balancing his centers if Bogut ever got into trouble himself since the rookie backup already had very little wiggle room against one of the savviest big men in the history of the game. With the additional help of a few turnovers and some bad defensive possessions for Golden State, the Spurs ended the first quarter with a nine point lead and the Warriors never led again (though they did tie it in the second half).
In any series, one of the fundamental questions is which team has the advantage when both squads have their “best five” on the floor. While both Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Tim Kawakami have written bold and interesting pieces recently on David Lee’s potential place in that concept in the long term (my own take on that will be written over the next few days), the Spurs have a gigantic advantage when they can play Splitter without facing any major ill effects on the defensive end.
After Game 3, Gregg Popovich talked about how his players “know how to operate” when they can get their standard five out there together and that it feels “comfortable” for them. Even with David Lee on the floor, the Spurs’ starting five beats any normal Golden State five since they do that style better. That does not slight the Warriors- San Antonio had the third-best record in the entire NBA for a reason. Instead of taking their opponents to the limits of their ability and playing the game on their advantage, Mark Jackson and the Warriors ceded the high ground for the false positive of standardization and gave away any semblance of comfort or experience since Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli played about 20 seconds together in total during the regular season.
The Warriors still have a chance because they have a tactical strategy that has worked earlier in this series and against a solid Denver team last round. We just have to hope they understand that their only strong chance of winning the series comes from eschewing convention.