The Heat's rise and reign has helped popularize small ball among NBA fans, but in general the move toward employing quicker, wing-heavy lineups is still one that many coaches are reluctant to make. Even Miami's Erik Spoelstra only fully committed to the notion in light of an injury to Chris Bosh, just as Stan Van Gundy was once urged into playing Rashard Lewis at power forward in Orlando due to a twist of injury fate elsewhere on his roster. The option to go small may be one that many coaching staffs entertain, but it largely takes some external influence to see it realized.
That concept has begun to take hold in Golden State over the past few days, as David Lee's season-ending injury has forced head coach Mark Jackson to tweak his lineups and submit to playing fewer conventional bigs. Despite their run-and-gun rep, Golden State's frontcourt rotation has largely gone by the book, with Festus Ezeli and Andris Biedrins playing a combined 1,615 minutes during the regular season behind David Lee, Andrew Bogut and Carl Landry. The back end of that rotation is quite limited offensively, but Jackson's stylistic choice helped the Warriors piece together a decent defense, not to mention pull off the near-impossible feat of vaulting from dead-last in defensive rebounding percentage a season ago to first overall by that measure this year.
Yet as a result of that lineup traditionalism, the Warriors had little experience running "small" (in so far as playing an undersized wing in a "big" slot) going into Game 2 on Tuesday night -- a fact which made their wildfire 131-117 win over the Nuggets all the more fascinating. Zach Lowe preambled Golden State's options without Lee in fine fashion earlier this week in a piece over at Grantland, and conveyed an appropriate wariness over the Warriors' ability to refashion their offensive approach on the fly without Lee's facilitation. But all worked out brilliantly for Golden State in its first foray into concerted small ball, with the starting five of Steph Curry, Jarrett Jack, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut turning a massive advantage in Game 2 with a prolific offense and effective defense. That group played a sound 20 minutes on Tuesday and held the Nuggets to just 83.9 points per 100 possessions when on the floor -- a massive step down from the 107.6 points per 100 possessions that Denver averaged in the regular season.
A key component of Golden State's defensive effort was a 1-2-2 zone that enticed the Nuggets -- who ranked 25th in three-point percentage this season -- to attempt 26 long-range shots to the Warriors' 25. This was a concession resultant of half-court confusion; there was little order to the way the Nuggets went about attacking the zone, thus making it far too easy to settle for a Corey Brewer three-pointer or a desperate drive through traffic. Still, considering the level of passing, cutting and coaching in play for Denver, I hesitate in putting too much stock in a fairly solvable zone.
On offense, the Warriors routinely fell to pieces offensively (98.7 points per 100 possessions) whenever Lee sat during the regular season despite the best scoring efforts of Landry and a host of others. Yet on Tuesday, Golden State pieced together a scorching offensive outing, led in part by that pace-pushing, hot-shooting small-ball unit. With that group on the floor, the Warriors converted six of their 11 three-point attempts (54.5 percent) and 21 of their 34 attempts overall (61.8 percent) -- numbers that allowed them to withstand a 117-point night from the Nuggets in Denver and win walking away.
Golden State acclimated itself remarkably well to life without Lee largely by building out its offense from the three-guard set that so often acts as its offensive axis in crunch time. Reluctant though Jackson may have been to play Barnes at power forward, his team had been going small on the perimeter all throughout the season. The trio of Curry, Jack and Thompson played over 1,000 minutes together over the initial 82 games. Plenty of those minutes also came with Lee on the court, but with both Jack and Curry handling the ball and initiating offense, Lee wasn't as essential as an offensive intermediary.
With those three sharing the court, the Warriors didn't need to replace a high-functioning, All-Star big man capable of managing its entire offense, but merely find the means to imitate the spacing impact of a mobile, productive player. Given that the bigs on the roster fell well short of those requirements (Landry is too slow with a skill set too narrow, while Ezeli and Biedrins make for laughable Lee surrogates), Jackson instead looked to Barnes to spread the floor and attack a stretched-out Nuggets defense whenever possible. Barnes wound up contributing 24 points on just 14 shots, all while spacing the court in a way that made it difficult for Denver to manage its typical help-and-recover rotations. Look at how easy it is for Jack to turn the corner on a high pick-and-roll and push all the way to the rim:
Or how clear the middle of the floor is on this pick-and-roll sequence:
Even though Lee played on the perimeter plenty, a true four-out orientation (with Barnes tucked away behind the three-point line) opened things up for the Warriors and made it all the more difficult for the Nuggets to trap Curry. That very ploy earned Denver some crucial stops in Game 1, and in theory it would seem to be a sound strategy against so potent a shot-creator. But expanding the offense's width widened passing lanes and lengthened playmaking windows, rendering most trapping methods irrelevant. When the Nuggets moved away from the trap, Curry was able to make plays (he totaled 13 assists for the evening) and create shots (he generated 10 of his 13 field goals without an assist) without having to preempt an incoming double team. Lee helped create space for the Warriors in his own way, but in going small Golden State opened up the entire field of play for the Warriors' off-the-dribble exploration.
Still, there exists a very natural inclination to say that both Curry and the Warriors -- even in their small-ball mode -- won't shoot quite so well on a regular basis. That's true, as an effective field goal percentage of 73.4 percent couldn't be classified as even vaguely sustainable. Yet to chalk this up as a mere fluke of hot-shooting overlooks how helpful Golden State's spacing was to the workings of its top scorers and just how horrid Denver's defense was for the majority of this game. In a general sense, it's unlikely for the Warriors to remain this hot from outside in Game 3 and beyond. But if the Nuggets don't radically improve their defensive focus and execution, we shouldn't be surprised to see Curry and Klay Thompson (who made five of six three-pointers and scored 21 points overall) get similarly great looks from beyond the arc as they dizzy Denver's defenders with cuts and curls.
The Nuggets aren't a bad defensive team, but once a few shots started to fall on Tuesday night, the breakdowns in coverage turned rampant and damning. Take Ty Lawson's transition sequence here, in which he completely diverts his attention away from Curry to keep an eye on the developing break:
Or this one, in which Corey Brewer helps for no reason (and to no gain) against a Jarrett Jack drive, thus leaving Thompson unattended in the process:
Denver relies on gambles and scrambles to wreak defensive havoc, but on these plays the freneticism is born of clear errors in attention and judgment rather than some calculated risk. The same can be seen in Denver's handling of off-ball screens -- a cornerstone of Golden State's offense that the Nuggets generally opt to switch as a means of leveraging their versatility. The idea there is simple: Curry and Thompson, in particular, are so dangerous curling around a screen that a quick switch should help to limit the space and time for those knockdown shooters to catch and fire. When executed cleanly, the switch can work wonderfully to that effect. But when Denver gets tired and loose with its switching coverage, it tends to surrender wide-open looks to the Warriors' top offensive threats. That, too, is one of the benefits of Golden State playing Jarrett Jack for almost 43 minutes; with an additional ball handler on the floor, both Curry and Thompson are free to roam the court without the ball, inviting those miscommunications with a series of coordinate cuts.
That isn't to say that the Nuggets are without recourse here. Giving more deliberate attention to those switch-offs should help to curb the number of defensive blunders. The navigation of those sequences won't always be seamless, but Denver has practice in executing those switches at a far more acceptable level than they demonstrated in Game 2. Plus, it may not hurt for Denver's bigs to start defending Bogut and Ezeli less directly and instead opt to play the ball. Cluttering the paint isn't just effective for halting dribble penetration, after all. By having Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos hover between the Warriors' bigs and some more pressing threat, the Nuggets shield themselves from some of the risk of running so many switches. Watch how little regard Faried pays to Bogut on this sequence, and how much he's able to help merely by shading a variety of play actions:
These are small adjustments, mind you, but the kind of defensive steps that could help shield the Nuggets from some of the defeatism that so clearly saps their energy. One needn't psychoanalyze the Nuggets to see their visible defensive listlessness in Game 2, and Nuggets head coach George Karl will need to have his team better prepared to withstand runs in Game 3 and beyond. We should fully expect that much, as well as a trick or two in terms of the way that the Nuggets handle a smaller Warriors lineup with almost no in-season precedent.
This was a big win for Golden State, but let's not forget that Denver was attempting to feel its way through a different Warriors team while under perimeter-shooting deluge. At the very least this new lineup turn has made for a captivating in-series experiment. Statistical support provided by NBA.com.