Little men have had it their way for some time now. Explosive guards and rangy forwards above the free throw line are practically untouchable, and their paths to the basket have been liberated. Flagrant fouls are written up like felonies, the three-point shot is essential and players too small to start 20 years ago are the new stars of the NBA.
And still, at this time of year, it often comes down to big men.
"I feel like I'm a reliable source of defense," said Roy Hibbert, Indiana's 7-foot-2 center. "What I contribute in the playoffs is just toughness and solid play."
Hibbert was a disappointment during the regular season. He wasn't performing well at the offensive end, and it was easy enough to take for granted his impact defensively. Get him into a seven-game series, however, and that impact becomes overwhelming. His control of the paint has provided a base from which the Pacers have been able to extend their defense out to the three-point line. So far, the Knicks have not been able to figure out where to attack.
"Defense is key, and every possession matters," Hibbert said. "During the regular season, obviously, you want to win games decisively and stuff like that. But during the playoffs, you've got to analyze every possession."
The offensive-minded, perimeter-based style of play can be traced to the rule changes more than a decade ago, when a committee led by Jerry Colangelo opened up the court and made the NBA more attractive. It used to be that coaches would rather have a defender on the floor, but the new rules encouraged scorers -- and shooters in particular -- to become the new priority.
The older habits make sense during the playoffs, however. When Pacers coach Frank Vogel had to choose between bringing scoring big man Jeff Pendergraph or defensive-minded Ian Mahinmi off the bench for the series against the Knicks, he sacrificed the scoring and went with Mahinmi.
"It's about having that rim protector on the floor at all times," Vogel said.
There aren't as many traditional big men in the NBA as there used to be, but you notice them in the playoffs. Tim Duncan has been keeping the Spurs in title contention in the West since the last millennium, and center Tiago Splitter has recovered from a recently sprained ankle to help him. But the biggest story in the conference is, obviously, Zach Randolph and his Grizzlies.
Memphis was No. 5 in the West during the regular season, but the Grizzlies might now be favorites to reach the NBA Finals because as the games slow down they're able to score through the post. They jettisoned Rudy Gay in a midseason deal for financial reasons as well as to focus on the inside strengths of Randolph and Marc Gasol.
"They bring grittiness and toughness," Hibbert said of the Grizzlies. "I think that helps you win in the playoffs, and helps you get far."
The Thunder, who fell to the Grizzlies in five games, would still be competing if not for the knee injury to Russell Westbrook. His season-ending surgery left them desperate for more production from Serge Ibaka, whose numbers diminished during the playoffs. In the meantime, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley kept taking advantage of his newfound space on the perimeter, granted to him by the absence of Westbrook and the attention paid to Randolph and Gasol.
The league-wide demand for three-point shooting makes sense statistically, but as the pace slows and the pressure grows, title contenders need possessions around the basket. On the 18th green on Sunday, wouldn't Tiger Woods rather be putting from 2 feet instead of 23? That's what makes Randolph so valuable now: No one in these playoffs is better able to earn gimmes.
The Knicks limped out of Indiana trailing 3-1 in their conference semifinal because they haven't been able to deal with the Pacers' traditional lineup, which looks like something out of the 1980s -- a real center, an old-school power forward in David West and size on the wings in 6-8 small forward Paul George and 6-5 shooting guard Lance Stephenson. Going small hasn't done anything for the Knicks but encourage them to miss layups against Indiana's intimidating defenders. The Knicks have tried to go with bigger lineups but have continued to be overmatched.
"We really don't adapt to other teams," Vogel said. "We do what we do, and our rotation is built to guard small lineups and big lineups."
The Heat won last year because LeBron James gave them a post presence, but will the big front lines of Indiana, Memphis or even San Antonio cause problems for them (see "The Breakdown" below)? They looked unbeatable during the regular season, but Dwyane Wade's limitations because of a knee injury may prevent them from dictating the terms of the next round or two, which could make the size of their opponents a crucial issue. The reason Chicago made their lives so difficult was because Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer made a difference in the paint despite the absences of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich.
Hibbert has been able to guard the basket and attack it. His numbers haven't been overwhelming, but the mere threat of him has been omnipresent.
"It's something you have in your back pocket," Hibbert said of his own presence. "When you need a bucket, throw it down. When you need a stop at the basket, I'm always there. I tell my guys, if they get beat off the dribble, just don't foul. Nine times out of 10, I'm going to be there to clean it up."
That is a soothing thing to tell teammates in these frenzied times, and those who are able to say it have, shall we say, a big advantage.
If the Grizzlies were to play the Warriors, that would be more of a contrast in styles. Not only would the Warriors be trying to win from the perimeter, but they also would be the hot young team that surprised itself and everyone else by reaching the final four. But could the Warriors hold off Randolph and Gasol inside? As exciting as Golden State has been, the prospect of a classical Spurs-Grizzlies series is more intriguing -- to me, at least.
"I don't think they're playing at the level now that they were playing to finish this [regular] season," the scout said. "I mean, they finished this season at a higher level than when they were winning the championship last year. But in the playoffs, I see a different team. I don't see them playing at that level now. And I think that may have a lot to do with Dwayne Wade being hurt. He certainly looks hurt. He doesn't have the explosiveness that he had during the season.
"Shane Battier hasn't been shooting the ball as well in the playoffs. Mario Chalmers doesn't look as good, either. LeBron has been terrific, though. You've still got to contend with him. He just gets everybody involved. He's such a good facilitator: He can shoot every time, and he can score and get fouled anytime he wants, but he doesn't. He's unselfish. He's just a great teammate, he's the best player in the league and he's enough to carry them to the Finals. Whether they can win the Finals, I don't know. I was picking them early, but I'm not sure now.
"The only thing I second-guess with LeBron is that he doesn't shoot enough. He passes up shots. But he always wants to get everybody involved. The great ones are usually like the Durants and the Kobes, and they're taking every shot. LeBron takes 17 or 18 shots, but he gets everybody else involved. But now he's got a little different bit of an issue because some of the players around him are not playing as well as they were during the season.
"As the games get closer, he's going to have to shoot more. He's always trying to make the extra pass, and I don't think that comes from him not wanting to take the big shot -- that's bull. He's just a good teammate and a great all-around player. But as the playoffs move on, he's going to have to be more offensive-minded.
"Think about last year against Indiana [in the second round]. The Pacers were up 2-1 and Dwyane played awful in the first two games. All of a sudden he woke up, and the next two games he and LeBron scored something like 70 combined. So if he's injured, that hurts them a lot. They need his scoring big-time. As he plays deeper into the playoffs, Dwyane is going to have to get back to being Dwyane for them.
"I say both San Antonio and Memphis have a chance to beat them. Memphis has a great defensive player in Tony Allen and scoring inside that gives Miami trouble. Mike Conley's been terrific, and they have a great coach [Lionel Hollins]. San Antonio has its three stars and good size, and that size will hurt Miami, too."
Quote Of The Week
"This is going to be short for me. I have a game to get to in Oklahoma City."
Did he really mean to say that? Whether or not he was trying to stick it to the fans of the former Sonics -- and I can't believe that was his intent -- that sound bite is going to stick with Stern and be held against him and his league for a long time in Seattle. As he announced the news Wednesday that Sacramento had held onto its Kings at the expense of Seattle, Stern came across as if (1) He was going out of his way to remind fans in Seattle of the loss of the Sonics, who moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, and (2) Their failure to land the Kings meant nothing to him.
I have to believe Stern didn't mean to come across as vindictive and cold. Even if you accept characterizations of him as a bully who has been in charge for too long, it makes no sense for him to needlessly antagonize fans who themselves were blameless in the departure of their team. From his point of view, it might have been a distracted off-the-cuff remark. But that's not how fans of the former Sonics heard it: Those words are being held against Stern because he is known for saying exactly what he means to say. For them, that single introductory statement has defined the last five painful years.
What Stern ought to do is go out of his way to explain the context of those words, and he had better do it quickly and sincerely. Because if he doesn't retract it fast, then it's going to be assumed that he really did intend to rub their noses in it.
All-Role Player Team
Each of these players has contributed to his team's advancement to the NBA final eight while averaging at least 20 minutes per game. Big-name or big-money stars (including the blue-collar likes of Noah and Hibbert) were not included. You'll see that this is an undersized team, especially off the bench, but what would you expect from a team of underdogs?
C -- Tiago Splitter, Spurs: His return to health from a sprained ankle has been (and will be) crucial to San Antonio. F -- Kawhi Leonard, Spurs: Their second-leading rebounder has been strong in all areas. F -- Jimmy Butler, Bulls: Enhanced his value with shotmaking and defense vs. Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and LeBron James. G -- Tony Allen, Grizzlies: Arguably the league's best defender. His impact grows with each round. G -- Nate Robinson, Bulls: Streaky, yes, but those streaks kept Bulls alive.
F -- Shane Battier, Heat: His shooting is down (in limited attempts) but versatile defending remains a vital strength. F/G -- Quincy Pondexter, Memphis: Shooting 42.9 percent from the three-point line in playoffs. G -- Lance Stephenson, Pacers: Former AAU star has been making big plays within Pacers system. G -- Danny Green: A shooting guard who doesn't need ball to be effective. G -- Iman Shumpert: Recent knee troubles affirm how much NY needs his defense and effort. G -- Marco Belinelli, Bulls: He put up All-Star numbers in several games throughout the playoffs. G -- George Hill, Pacers: His Spurs DNA is coming through in all areas. G -- Norris Cole, Heat: On-ball defense and phenomenal three-point shooting (68.8 percent) have defined his postseason. G -- Jarrett Jack, Warriors: Makes big plays off the bench as a ball handler and shotmaker.