MEMPHIS—Every team in the NBA has a stylistic signature. What separates the Warriors from the rest—and solidifies their contending credentials—is the flexibility to access that style through a wide variety of rotation options. So well constructed is Golden State's roster and so deeply embedded are its core principles that it can hit its highest gears through a variety of lineups.
A playoff series against the post-minded Grizzlies, however, had largely kept the Warriors in traditional lineup constructions until the closing stretch of Game 3. It was then that coach Steve Kerr, if in an act of desperation, opted for the 6'7'' Draymond Green as his functional center. Alongside him were Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes—none physically suited to grapple with the alternating back-downs of either Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph.
Golden State compensated by turning the post into a mosh pit. Just as a Grizzly would begin to make their move, an additional defender or two would come bouncing in their direction with arms stretched vertically.
"I don’t think the defense has been a real issue for us," Kerr said. "We doubled a lot more in the second half because we spent a lot of time going small after [Andrew Bogut] picked up his fourth [foul]. We got [Marreese Speights] in—Mo did a really good job scoring quickly but he got hurt. So now we’re faced with a deficit. What’s our best bet? We thought our best bet was to go small. Harrison and Draymond competed and battled down there. With the matchups the way they were, I felt like we had to start doubling more."
The Warriors swiped. They crowded. They did whatever was allowed to make their posting opponent rush or force the ball out of their hands. And, while surrendering a listed 43 pounds in their matchup on Randolph and six inches in their matchup on Gasol, they got stop after stop during an attempted comeback.
That Golden State ultimately came up a few points short isn't the fault of the smaller lineup. It finished the game as one of the Warriors' best—a continuation of the larger success such units had in the regular season. In fact, it was in their larger, stronger units featuring two bigs together that gave up the most ground in the post. Gasol and Randolph are so skilled and physical that they can get the better of predictable matchups. Turning small and swarming the ball collapsed the Grizzlies' comfort zone.
"I think if we play the way we did the last four minutes defending the paint, we’re going to win this series," Klay Thompson said. "We made the adjustment, it was just too late. We have to come out Monday with the same mentality, just make them beat us from the perimeter and make it tough on every possession."
In this we find the latest thread of interest in a riveting series. Bogut has been bogged down by foul trouble and slowed laterally of late. Speights strained his calf in Game 3 and will sit for the foreseeable future. Golden State's small-ball lineup was already its second-most-played unit in Game 3. Its success and the lack of suitable rotation alternatives set up the possibility of its increased usage, provided the defense holds.
After all, asking Barnes and Green to defend up a weight class comes at a physical price. Bodying up Randolph is exhausting for any player. It's especially so for a leaner, athletic wing like Barnes, who then must still rebound, run the floor, and keep engaged in the Warriors' offense. Green, too, goes from grappling with Gasol to playing an every-possession role in Golden State's own pick-and-roll execution. Every player has his limits, and running small for too long against Memphis could wind up pushing Barnes and Green to theirs.
In direct opposition to the Warriors' smaller lineups is a clear Grizzlies directive. Memphis made a point to establish Gasol and Randolph with deep post position during the first half of Game 3, something extended mismatches should theoretically enable further. The Grizzlies will undoubtedly be mindful of that potential advantage, as the alternative so often causes serious delays in execution.
"Sometimes we get pushed out on the initial catch before we even get it to [Gasol]," Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. "But we have been really working on getting the ball to positions on the floor that we want to get it so that we can play station to station and be a little bit robotic. That's what you do when you have a size advantage. Their advantage is to spread us out, so we put bodies on bodies and try to get where we need to go."
The sooner and deeper the Grizzlies enter the ball into the post, the better the chance that 1) the Warriors aren't in a position to offer help, and 2) they'll have more time to work around and find the open man. Golden State, for its part, will shade away from Tony Allen (as was most effective when Andre Iguodala was guarding him rather than Stephen Curry) in an attempt to stall out Memphis' setup:
The Warriors will need every device at their disposal to aid their undersized defenders down low. Double teams are inevitable, given their success in Game 3. Fronting, too, should help those even slighter defenders (Klay Thompson does particularly well with this) who get switched into load-bearing post defense. The entry pass itself will be pressured, as will the live dribble of Memphis' bigs as they work into position. Anything that can rush control of the offense away from Gasol and Randolph is worthwhile both in denying their scoring opportunities and forcing more responsibility on those other Grizzlies less equipped for it.
In all, there should be enough scrap—and sufficient offense, contrary to Game 3—in those smaller lineups to make things interesting over an even longer term. Golden State still very much needs Bogut and may even turn to David Lee to fill out some lineups with size. The strategic curve of running Green and Barnes as bigs, though, creates the kinds of problems that could help turn a series.