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The Warriors and Rockets are going 'full small ball', and it's creating fascinating NBA chess

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THE GOLDEN STATE Warriors took Game 1 of the Western Conference finals over the Houston Rockets 110-106.

After trailing by 16 in the second quarter, the Warriors rallied back, thanks in part to a “small-ball” lineup that featured two point guards in Stephen Curry and Shaun Livingston, two wings in Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, and the 6’7″ Draymond Green playing “centre.”

The lineup isn’t new for the Warriors. Green often acted as the lone big man throughout the regular season, with one such lineup with him at center totaling 102 minutes.

With a small lineup capable of spacing the floor and switching assignments on defense, the Warriors baffled the Rockets in the second quarter, reeling off a 21-6 run in just over five-and-a-half minutes. In 12 minutes in Game 1, the combination of Curry, Livingston, Thompson, Barnes, and Green outscored the Rockets by 15, shooting 50% from the field.

Interestingly, Houston found similar success in going small once they had to remove Dwight Howard because of a knee injury, foul trouble, and matchup issues with the Warriors’ small lineup. One of Houston’s best lineups featured 6’9″ Josh Smith as the lone big man, surrounded by Jason Terry, James Harden, Corey Brewer, and Trevor Ariza. Though they only played three minutes together, they scored nine points and got two steals in that short period of time.

Part of the success of the small-ball lineup for the Warriors was the way it baited the Rockets into trying to take advantage of their size. Dwight Howard had three turnovers during this stretch by forcing post-ups and trying to will his way to the basket over the smaller Green. On one occasion, Thompson made a great help play to steal the ball from Howard and get a fast-break layup on the other end:

Dwight Howard small ball TO 1

Another time, Green, one of the best defenders in the NBA, simply held his own and forced an offensive foul:

Dwight Howard small ball TO 2

On offense, the lineup's spacing give players room to operate within the three-point line. Here, Klay Thompson gets mismatched on the bigger Josh Smith and uses his speed to break down the defense. When Howard has to help, it leaves Livingston open. Nobody else is available to help:

Shaun Livingston small ball dunk 1

Brewer can't help off Barnes, Harden can't help off Green, and Terry can't help off Curry:


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The small-ball line-ups work in a similar way for the Rockets, though head coach Kevin McHale is a little more hesitant to use them than Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Josh Smith is crucial to the Rockets in the same way Green is to the Warriors: He can defend several positions, space the floor respectably, and he's nimble enough to create on his own or find shooters if the help defence arrives.

Here, the threat of James Harden shooting the three-pointer causes Golden State's defence to jump just the slightest. Harden finds Smith rolling to the basket where he meets little resistance from Golden States' defence:

Josh Smith small ball score

Livingston provides pretty good help defence on Smith, but Smith just blows by him for the lefty layup. Elsewhere, Barnes sticks to Ariza, Thompson sticks with Harden, and Curry sticks with Brewer. If Livingston had totally shut off Smith's lane to the basket, Smith could have had Terry open on the elbow for a three-pointer:


As Kerr noted after the game, the success of these line-ups creates an interesting chess match:

"Well, you know, with our small lineup, we can spread the floor pretty well, put Draymond in the middle as the screener for Steph and then find shooters on the perimeter. It really stretches people out. Houston does the same thing. They like to play small. So it was an interesting chess match because they like to go small, we like to go small. We like to have [Andrew Bogut] on the floor for defense, they like to have Dwight on the floor for defense, and it kind of went back and forth. But in the end neither Dwight nor Boges played a lot of minutes, so it became a small game."

McHale said after the game that he prefers a bigger lineup, but with Dwight Howard getting hurt in the first half, injuries limited him, and the Rockets had to go small.

Like Kerr mentioned, both teams can excel at either going small or using their big men for defensive purposes. Going forward it will become a strategic competition. Will both teams enter a shootout with two prolific, small-ball lineups? Or will one team try to counter small lineups by going big and hoping they can overwhelm the other team with size? If they choose the former, it could practically eliminate the effectiveness of Howard and Bogut.

The Rockets and Warriors will have to decide whether their offences are benefiting from the spacing the small line-ups provide, and whether they're better off abandoning their big men in favour of more efficient scoring.

Originally published at 12.07

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