Why Anti-Small-Ball Teams Are Thriving in 2013 NBA Playoffs

Matthew SchmidtFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2013

West and Hibbert have been dominating smaller lineups.
West and Hibbert have been dominating smaller lineups.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

During a time when it looked like small ball was officially taking over the NBA, teams such as the Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers and, to a lesser extent, the San Antonio Spurs have bucked the trend.

And it's working for them.

All three of those ballclubs boast monster frontcourts—the Spurs with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, the Grizzlies with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and the Pacers with Roy Hibbert and David West—and are giving their opponents hell because of them.

We saw what Indiana did to the New York Knicks throughout their second-round series matchup, as Hibbert and West swallowed up any Knicks player who attempted to drive the lane and then turned around and dominated on the other end of the floor. Tyson Chandler has plenty of size at 7'1", but he alone wasn't enough to stop the Pacers' two-headed monster up front.

We also witnessed Memphis scoff when the Oklahoma City Thunder tried to stretch the floor with Serge Ibaka, making life miserable for Kevin Durant by clogging up the lane and forcing him to try to beat their outstanding wing defenders out on the perimeter.

Traditional basketball is back, ladies and gentlemen, and it has posed a significant problem for opponents who opt to roll with smaller, more athletic lineups.

One reason why these "big" squads have been very successful is rather obvious: They crash the glass.

Indiana absolutely pounds other teams on the boards, not only having Hibbert and West up front, but being fortunate enough to carry lengthy and hard-nosed perimeter players like Paul George and Lance Stephenson. Then for the Grizzlies, Randolph grabs offensive rebounds like his life depends on it, and Gasol's sheer size helps keep opponents off the glass, too.

For teams that struggle to score the basketball, being able to rebound the ball well is imperative. Indy and Memphis both do a great job of creating second opportunities for themselves, which compensates for their lack of offense.

Take a look at the playoff shot charts for both the Pacers and the Grizzlies below (Indiana is the upper chart; Memphis is on the bottom) and examine all of the shots both teams are getting at the rim.

This is a direct result of putbacks off of offensive rebounds and scoring in the low post. Both the Pacers and the Grizzlies have players who are adept at both.

As far as San Antonio goes, it is not exactly dominant on the boards, ending up tied for 20th in rebounding during the regular season. However, thanks to Duncan, the Spurs have a great option to feed on the low block, something that not many clubs in this era have. It's always comforting to know that you have a big man whom you can rely on to get you high percentage shots late in games.

Old-school lineups add another dimension to your squad.

You can work your offense through the interior, which fundamentally opens up the entire floor. When you have bigs who can score the basketball, defenses obviously have to provide help down low. This frees up your wings for good looks outside. It also allows for more cuts to the basket, especially if your players know how to pass.

Of course, all of this was pretty much the status quo back in the '90s and early 2000s, so being able to field these types of lineups back then wasn't such a huge deal. Now, though, with the movement toward injecting more quickness rather than brute strength, said lineups are proving to be the kryptonite of these "new-age" ballclubs.

Indiana is the perfect example of this.

The Pacers had to go through the Knicks, one of the most explosive offenses in the game, and are currently facing the Miami Heat, a team that lives off of small ball.

What the Pacers did was absolutely suffocate New York, with George's length posing enormous issues for Carmelo Anthony and Lance Stephenson's size giving J.R. Smith monumental problems. Anthony could not find any space on the perimeter thanks to George basically being up in his jersey, and whenever he tried to penetrate, he found Hibbert waiting for him. This caused some sloppy passes thanks to Melo getting stuck in no man's land, a significant hurdle that the Knicks could not overcome in the deciding Game 6.

The result? A rather easy series win for Indiana.

As talented of a player as Anthony is, he cannot be playing the 4 against teams of the Pacers' ilk; it severely limits New York on the defensive end of the floor. It's not like the Knicks had much of a choice, though. They just did not have the personnel to switch to a more appropriate lineup, as not housing a reliable low-post threat ended up biting them in the end.

We are now seeing Indy giving the Heat heaps of trouble through the first two contests of the Eastern Conference Finals courtesy of the same formula.

Chris Bosh is a very good player, but he is not a traditional big man. He is more like a small forward in a power forward's body. Bosh prefers to shoot jumpers and use his quickness to slash to the hole. Against the Pacers, he is essentially relegated to another wing out there, and the seven total rebounds he has accumulated over the course of Games 1 and 2—not to mention the five three-pointers he attempted on Friday night—verifies that.

That's right. The 6'11" Bosh took five triples in Game 2, this despite only having attempted five in an individual game once during the regular season. As a matter of fact, Bosh only took 74 threes in 74 games throughout the 2012-13 campaign, hitting on just 28.4 percent of them.

So, why is Bosh shooting so many trifectas in this series? Oh yeah; because Indiana is forcing him to.

Because small ball is so prevalent in the NBA today, the few bigger teams that do remain are able to impose their will and dictate the pace.

The big man is the most important aspect of a roster. If you have a good center or power forward who can dominate the post on both ends, chances are, you are going to be a pretty good ballclub. Not only will he (or they) take advantage of smaller players on the offensive end of the floor, but they will clog the lane and make it nearly impossible for opponents to consistently get high-percentage shots on the other end.

You can only imagine how guys like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson would have feasted nowadays. Better yet, picture the 1998-99 Spurs with Robinson and Duncan up front. Would they have even lost a game this year? Okay; that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point.

I'll reiterate what I said earlier: Traditional basketball is back, and we should all be very thankful for that.