SMALL-BALL LINEUP STILL IN THE WORKS
ORLANDO – It’s a lineup that Doc Rivers has used sparingly in four games: Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley sharing the frontcourt with one of the Clippers’ athletic big men and combination of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford as the guards.
But as the Clippers embark on their first extended road trip of the young season this week, it is something Rivers may use more of. The Magic utilize plenty of lineups with only one true pivot player on the floor and the Miami Heat, thanks in large part to the presence of LeBron James, have perfected the so-called small-ball lineup.
“One thing I’ve learned is when other teams are small you could put a point guard [out there at forward],” Rivers said. “It doesn’t matter because it’s not like that four is a guy that’s a rebounder. They’re doing it because he’s a shooter. And he’s small. Miami had Mike Miller, and that was their four. We could put in whoever we want to there, Matt Barnes, [Dudley].”
The idea of using surrounding DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin with a seemingly endless combination of wing players is twofold. First, it allows defensive versatility. They can switch almost everything and particularly with Jordan as the backstop, still have a rim protector while they pressure the wing.
Second, it spaces the floor. On Monday night against the Rockets, Rivers used Barnes and Dudley together for nine minutes, which put Houston head coach Kevin McHale in a bit of dilemma. He could stay big with centers Omer Asik and Dwight Howard, who played most of the night in foul trouble. Or could counter with a floor-spacing wing of his own (Francisco Garcia or Omri Casspi). He chose the latter, and as Rivers has said plenty of times before, that works to the Clippers’ advantage.
Rivers says he envisions using a variety of lineups, including one he calls the “big small lineup” and the “small, small lineup” which would include Paul and Darren Collison on the floor together with one of the shooting guards slotted at small forward.
“The small lineup, I don’t want it to be that small at the one and the two, to be honest,” Rivers said. “I look at it more with Chris, Jamal or J.J., and Matt, Blake or D.J. and Dudley. That’s a big small lineup, if you know what I mean. But if teams are matching up to the small, small lineup then that’s perfect for us. We’ll live with that all day.”
The big small lineup has been on the floor for 21 minutes so far. It remains a work in progress and, as many of the other elements Rivers has in mind, it will likely transform as the season advances. Injuries and a lack of continuity made it impossible to shape the group properly in the month-long preseason and now they’re getting up to speed in the middle of the race, so to speak.
“I think the mistakes that some teams make is that they just go small and there’s no plan to it,” Rivers said. “There’s no plan defensively and there’s no plan offensively and eventually it hurts you. We want to have a unit that when you go small we have an idea of what we’re doing.
“You have an athletic big, whether it be Blake or D.J., one of those two when we go that will be on the floor. That’s great athleticism. That’s an advantage. And we’ll have great spacing with shooting. When we go small, everyone on the floor is a 3-point shooter, minus the big. And then we have our point guard, who can make plays. When you create those three things you should be really good at it. We don’t want the small ball to be the game of chicken where you see if you can out-score them. We want to out-score them and get stops.”
It’s the blueprint that helped Miami and San Antonio reach the Finals last season and has been a trend for most of the last half decade in the league. In 1988-89 the Rick Pitino coached Knicks took an overwhelming league-high 1,147 3-pointers, effectively using three shooters to create room inside for Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley. It wasn’t small ball, but foreshadowed what was to come. By 2007-08, 24 teams attempted more 3-pointers than the Knicks.
“It has been for a while,” Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “I don’t even know if small ball is the right word for it because it’s putting shooters and versatile players out on the court so that the playmakers and shooters can get their opportunities. Small ball is oversimplification for a lineup that has shooters out there.”
The Clippers made shooting and spacing a priority in the offseason, and have used it to the tune of 27 made 3-pointers in their past two games.
“I think we have some versatile lineups that we can go to with Jamal, D.C. and Chris and myself, some mix of that at the one, two and the three and then Jared or Matt at the four and DeAndre or Blake at the five,” Redick said. “We can spread the floor, with Antawn [Jamison], too, at the four, B.J. (Byron Mullens) at the four or the five. We have a lot of different options to score offensively.”
The options will become even more plentiful as the so-called small-ball unit or units get more acquainted.
“When I’m talking small ball I’m talking what you saw in the Finals,” Rivers said. “We have to be prepared to do that.”