Small Ball vs. Big Ball: Which Style Is King in NBA Playoffs?
Over the past decade, the NBA has trended toward a smaller and sleeker style of play, with less emphasis on size and more value placed on speed and outside shooting.
However, the 2013 NBA playoffs are making a strong case for the big man. When utilized properly, players with a size advantage are dominant weapons that win ballgames.
With every possession paramount, some things become more valuable in the postseason: rim protection, brick-wall screens, close-range opportunities and indefensible hook shots.
The NBA's final four features three superb examples of the big-man movement: the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers. Even the marquee small-ball squad, the Miami Heat, has demonstrated the importance of interior play.
Big Men Loom Large in Western Wars
It's tempting to highlight the injuries of Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook and say that the Western Conference should have been a guard's conference in the playoffs.
Sure, their teams would have been much stronger, and in Oklahoma City's case, the Thunder would have contended for a title. But there are two key takeaways: A healthy Lakers club would have been a force if it could optimize the use of its twin towers, and OKC desperately needs a big man.
Other Western threats struggled without ample post production.
The Houston Rockets offense was far too perimeter-based, and they failed to out-duel a weakened Thunder squad. The Los Angeles Clippers floundered without a true post-up center and succumbed to the stronger Grizzlies. Golden State's shooters had their moment in the sun but toppled against Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter.
Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have carried Memphis the last few weeks, exposing the Clips' poor post defense and then embarrassing Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
The Grizzlies' twin towers are combining for 35-plus points and 18-plus boards per game in the postseason. Randolph's low-block production pairs sensationally with Gasol's high-post playmaking.
Elsewhere in the West, Andrew Bogut's resurgence gave the Warriors some teeth, but he was eventually bested by San Antonio's frontcourt. The ageless Duncan is posting 18 points and nine boards per contest, while posting his highest playoff usage rate since 2009. He and Splitter are doing all the little things to march closer to the NBA Finals.
The Spurs' big-men set the best picks in the NBA. Nothing but bone-crushing screens set on the Grizzlies.— Ali Shafique (@ShafiqueAli) May 26, 2013
Beasts of the East
In the Eastern Conference, a different group of big men made their mark.
The Chicago Bulls outplayed expectations during the absence of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich because Joakim Noah was all over the place. He finished the Brooklyn Nets series with back-to-back double-doubles and then anchored Chicago's Game 1 win in Miami with another one.
Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler rebounded strongly in the first round to help the Knicks past a too-small Boston squad, but the Indiana Pacers' low-post depth clearly overwhelmed him in the conference semifinals.
New York's disappointing playoff exit highlighted the reality that it needs legitimate big-man offense.
Indiana's cast of titans is led by 7'2" Roy Hibbert, who's proving this postseason that he's worth the mountain of money the Pacers spent on him in the offseason. Nearly all of his numbers are up from the regular season: points, rebounds, field-goal percentage, free-throw attempts and free-throw percentage.
Even the Heat, who have a small-ball lineup, are winning with post-ups and high-percentage plays at the rim. In Miami's most recent triumph, it pounded the Pacers 52-36 in the paint. How? Using LeBron and Dwyane Wade's size to post up against Indy's guards and keeping reserve big man Chris Andersen heavily involved.
In Playoffs, Series Are Won in Paint
Squads that relied too much on outside shooting saw early curtains this postseason, and units that earned trips to the free-throw line advanced.
It's no coincidence that the top six teams in three-point attempts are all long gone. No club averaging more than 22 triple tries per contest made it past the second round.
Also, all eight squads that had a negative free-throw attempt differential are sitting at home. Regular-season forces like the Thunder (-3.9), Knicks (-7.4) and Clippers (-10.6) couldn't consistently exert pressure on opposing defenses in the paint.
Consequently, these small-ball franchises are left wondering what could have been if they had invested in superior interior production.
Teams' Offseason Needs Speak Volumes
Small ball didn't cut it for these teams yearning to upgrade their frontcourts this summer, and it's a testament to the big-man culture of the 2013 playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder Need A Scoring Big Man - Rant Sports ow.ly/2x09Av— Thunder World (@OCThunderWorld) May 20, 2013
Targeting a Big Man in NBA Draft Would be Smart Decision for Dallas Mavericks: The Dallas Mavericks landed the... bit.ly/1a4jyFx— Scott M. DelleFave (@TheProfessorSD) May 22, 2013
How To Fix The Rockets: Pair James Harden With This New Big Man (Hint: Not Dwight Howard) bit.ly/14W3u7X— Dime Magazine (@DimeMag) May 26, 2013
The Knicks don't need JR they need a scoring big and consistency throughout the role players.— PowerCircleSkullyRay (@DJSkullyRay) May 27, 2013
@ant_860 the warriors came alive this season...with a consistent big man they will be scary.— Brian Kenney (@BMK71) May 23, 2013
Amidst the league's small-ball craze in recent years, many teams underrated the importance of a well-placed big man.
Lionel Hollins, Frank Vogel and Gregg Popovich have each found ways to maximize the talents of their frontcourts and thus find themselves in the conference finals.
Guard play is still a critical aspect of any successful squad. However, in the 2013 playoffs, we're finding that NBA success is a tall, tall order.
Follow Dan on Twitter for more NBA playoff fun: @DanielO_BR
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