In Shanghai we saw it — Chris Bosh and the assortment of other Heat centers could do little to slow the bigger, stronger DeAndre Jordan short of fouling him. With Chris Paul feeding him the rock, Jordan shot 8-for-8 in a Clippers win.
In Hartford we saw it — the Knicks went to the Raymond Felton/Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll early and the Celtics with their smaller lineup couldn’t contain Chandler, who racked up 16 points.
Two of the best teams in the NBA this season — the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics — are leading a “small ball revolution.” Which is less revolution and more reaction to the kind of players coming into the NBA now — 30 years ago mobile bigs like Chris Bosh or Kevin Garnett, guys who can step out and stroke an 18-foot jumper like it was a layup, were basically nonexistent.
So some of the NBA’s elite teams are going with what would be untraditional lineups, ones that count on what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra likes to call “position-less” basketball. You can post up Bosh or you can post up Dwyane Wade, whatever creates the mismatch. If that means Bosh is at the three-point line drawing the opposing big man out of the paint, then good. Use the versatility of sometimes smaller players.
And they are doing it because it works — Miami won a ring last year and Boston took them to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals going small.
But there are ways to attack “small ball” for the handful of teams have mobile or hard to defend traditional centers.
In the East, the Heat and Knicks will have to deal with 76ers and Andrew Bynum, and New York and Chandler (who is an often underrated pick-and-roll big man). This isn’t a simple matter of putting Bynum on the block and making the Celtics bring a double team, it’s also dealing with pick-and-rolls when both size and speed come into play.
Put another way, Jared Sullinger can’t handle Chandler rolling to the basket. Boston can counter that by going with Darko Milicic, but he doesn’t have the foot speed to play that way. It’s a hard matchup for them that will require much better pick-and-roll coverage from the Celtics guards, something Doc Rivers pointed out Saturday.
Not a lot of teams can play the Heat and Celtics this way — mobile traditional big men are still hard to find — the problem is some very elite ones can. We mentioned the Knicks, Clippers and Sixers, but there are more. The biggest threat is the Lakers who run two very mobile big men out in Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. They will be a load for every team (because they have great point and wing play, too). Then there is Memphis with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
It will be interesting to see how over the course of a season, in games that matter, how Boston and Miami deal with these challenges. They might just overwhelm some teams with offense. The Celtics can run Garnett out there longer (not ideal long term but for a game here and there it is doable). There are counter measures.
The bigger challenge will be in the postseason, when teams can scheme, set up matchups they like and run those plays until the other team stops them. Smart money is still on Boston and Miami in the Eastern Conference finals, but it won’t be easy because there are ways to attack them