Going small, winning big
Warriors, Bulls lead move to shrink-wrapped success
Posted: Monday April 30, 2007 5:41PM; Updated: Monday April 30, 2007 5:41PM
MIAMI -- On the subject of size, the news is not good. Its importance has shrunk.
Ever since 6-foot-10 George Mikan was taught to skip rope, pivot like a danseuse and shoot a simply unstoppable hook six decades ago, big men have been dominating basketball. But this year's playoffs may be launching a revolutionary dynamic.
In Oakland, the Warriors have gone small to seize a 3-1 lead over the title-favorite Dallas Mavericks. The Miami Heat were taken a step further Sunday -- on their home court, the defending champions were swept by a Chicago Bulls team that has spent the last two years loathing its absence of size and low-post scoring.
"The game has become a game of speed in about 10 to 15 cities,'' Miami coach Pat Riley said. "It's a whole different world.''
Several changes have merged this year. Zone defenses make it easier to shut down the likes of Shaquille O'Neal by doubling him in the post before he can receive entry passes. The dearth of new centers capable of playing down low like Shaq has forced GMs to seek alternatives to the traditionally dominant big man.
But the real key has been the adjustment in the perimeter rules enabling smaller, quicker players to slash unimpeded to the basket. They've become the aggressors who put big men on their heels and send them to the bench with foul trouble.
"It wasn't that long ago when I played that there were certain defensive guards and you wouldn't even consider penetrating on them, because they would just slam you and put their hands all over you,'' said Bulls coach Scott Skiles, an NBA point guard for 10 years. "Well, nobody can do that now. So you're making a big mistake out there offensively if you're not always aggressively trying to attack the middle of the floor, and seeing if you can draw the help and kick it (out to the perimeter) and play that way. Hopefully you get your share of free throws out of it as well as your open jumpers.''
This trend arrives at an especially inconvenient time for the Mavericks, who replaced coach Don Nelson two seasons ago to implement a more traditional halfcourt offense under Spurs disciple Avery Johnson. The small-ball tactics are an affirmation of everything Nellie believes in -- and he's now using them with overwhelming success against his former club, whose size upfront and disciplined structure look like sedentary weaknesses against the relentless one-on-one pressure applied by Baron Davis, Jason Richardson and Stephen Jackson, none of whom is taller than 6-8.
Other factors are involved too, and of course the Mavericks could still return the series to normalcy with a run of MVP performances from Dirk Nowitzki. A year ago the Lakers' big lineup was threatening to knock off the small-ball Suns, and Riley still believes that the tempo will eventually slow down amid the intensity of the NBA Finals, much as it did last year when his Heat clamped off the athletic advantages of the Mavs to sweep the last four games.
But it's nonetheless intriguing that the Bulls are now being rewarded for not acquiring a low-post presence like Pau Gasol, who was offered in December for Luol Deng and Thabo Sefolosha. The Heat undoubtedly wished that trade had been made as they watched Deng, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich explore the perimeter without defensive restraint.
"They posted up five times (in Game 3) -- five post-ups -- where we post-up 40 times,'' said Riley, who wasn't complaining about the demise of his approach so much as he was applauding the ingenuity of Skiles and Chicago GM John Paxson. As Riley noted Sunday, the Bulls had been outscored in the paint 46-18 in Game 4 and yet consummated the sweep with their 92-79 win. "An incredible display of basketball,'' he said.
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