How Far Can Golden State Warriors Ride Small-Ball Success?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 24, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 27: Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on February 27, 2013 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. The Knicks defeated the Warriors 109-105.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors used a small-ball lineup featuring rookie Harrison Barnes at power forward to notch a 131-117 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of the teams' playoff series on April 23, and while the Dubs might be able to knock off the vulnerable Nuggets with their undersized lineup, it won't be enough to extend their playoff run against any of their likely matchups in the next round.

Before going further, it's critical to mention just how unlikely Mark Jackson's decision to use Barnes as the injured David Lee's primary replacement really was.

On the season, no Warriors lineup featuring Barnes at the 4 played more than 28 minutes. Most thought that Carl Landry would simply start and absorb Lee's minutes. Instead, the backup forward essentially played his typical role, logging just 18 minutes in Game 2.

Draymond Green's role also remained largely unchanged. Against all logic and every precedent set by Jackson's lineup construction during the regular season, the Dubs went small.

That wouldn't have been strange in years past, as Golden State has something of a legacy of gimmicky, small-ball units in its history—two coaching stints from Don Nelson tend to have that effect.

But this season has been about rebounding and defense, two relatively new concepts to the Warriors that depend on playing more conventional lineups. And even though Jackson frequently utilized a frontcourt combination featuring Lee and Landry during the year, he almost never went so far as to put a small forward in the power forward spot.

For what it's worth, in the limited minutes Barnes did log at the power forward position during the regular season, the Warriors were extremely effective. Caveats regarding small sample size definitely apply here, but Golden State scored 130 points per 100 possessions and allowed just 113 in the 28-minute span that featured Barnes up front.

Jackson's reluctance to go small during the year was understandable; Golden State has three centers on its roster, and because Lee and Landry are poor defenders individually, it was important to have some back-line help from a big man.

At any rate, the Warriors went small in Game 2 because Jackson felt they had to. As a result of a big night from new starter Jarrett Jack and one of the best games of Barnes' career, the Warriors blew out the Nuggets.

In their new roles, each player was excellent. Barnes scored 24 points on just 14 shots and registered the game's most memorable highlight when he threw down a "did you see that?" reverse dunk on former Warrior Anthony Randolph.

Jack was just as good, hitting 10 of his 15 shots and scoring 26 points in 43 minutes.

More generally, Golden State won Game 2 largely because it shot the lights out. As a team, the Warriors hit 64 percent of their shots and made an incredible 14-of-25 from long distance. The Dubs were the NBA's best three-point shooting team during the regular season, and they were dynamite on Tuesday.

Going forward, the Warriors' smaller lineup figures to continue to score, but it should also give them a better chance to contain Denver's vaunted transition attack. The Nuggets led the league with an average of 20.1 fast-break points per game during the regular season but totaled just eight in Game 2. Barnes is probably the Warriors' best athlete, so it makes sense that his presence on the court helps Golden State keep up with a team that pushes the pace like the Nuggets.

The Warriors can actually win their series against Denver, but their potential success has as much to do with the Nuggets' flaws as it does with their own strengths.

Denver can't space the floor in the half court because of its lack of shooters, and on the other end, Golden State has proved in both games that it can get plenty of good shots against the Nuggets' ultra-aggressive, trapping defense.

The Warriors lost Game 1 because they (and Stephen Curry, especially) didn't knock down some of their open looks. And they won Game 2 because they hit all of them.

Golden State gets to play Games 3 and 4 in front of its raucous home crowd, and because of the emergence of Barnes, who is still just barely figuring out how to usefully apply his immense physical abilities, and the momentum of the win in Game 2, there's a pretty good chance that it'll take both of the next two contests.

From there, the Warriors would need just one more win to clinch the series.

But don't assume the Warriors are set up to do much more if they manage to upset Denver.

If the San Antonio Spurs get past the Los Angeles Lakers, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter would pose a massive problem for an undersized Warriors team in the Western Conference semifinals. Golden State would find it much more difficult to score against a Spurs defense that allowed nearly three fewer points per 100 possessions than the Nuggets did.

And if the Lakers somehow found a way to take that series, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard would be an even worse matchup for whatever frontcourt combination the Warriors might try.

At the risk of looking much too far ahead, the same is true of the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. Both of those teams feature conventional 4-5 combinations that would decimate a small Warriors club on the glass and in the post.

So far, Golden State has only proved that its small lineup is better than the one Denver can currently field. Injuries have a lot to do with that, as the Nuggets would be much better equipped to tangle with Barnes and Jack in the starting lineup if Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried were healthy.

The Warriors have a great chance to ride the momentum of their small-ball lineup to a series win over the Nuggets. But it's unrealistic to expect more than that.