Brooklyn's Smaller Small-Ball

How Miami Adjusted to the Nets' Rarely-Used Lineup

LeBron James
Photo Credit: Chris Trotman

Adjusting to the Miami HEAT has always been a tricky proposition. Most teams see Erik Spoelstra playing Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis and LeBron James at power forward and think, ‘They won’t be able to handle our size’. Not exactly because it’s their best option, but because most teams in the league are constructed around traditional two-big frontcourts, forcing the HEAT to deal with size usually means forcing the HEAT to deal with your best players.

If Miami does deal with that size – if they control the defensive glass, force turnovers and pull your big men out of the paint with shooter – and you choose to matchup small with them, you’re playing at a disadvantage. It may work, but chances are you’ll be using a lineup that hasn’t seen much court time against a team that has endured one trial by fire after another with non-traditional lineups.

The Brooklyn Nets had been able to avoid this predicament. With Brook Lopez out for the season, Jason Kidd experimented and found the combination that would push the team into the playoffs. Career small-forward Paul Pierce would become the starting power forward. Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston would share time at point guard. Minutes for two big men at the same time would be reduced dramatically. The Nets would become the closest thing in the NBA to the HEAT.

But when it came time to adjust during Game 2, Kidd took the positionless concept one step further. He went smaller.

KICKING TRADITION TO THE CURB

Through the first 21 minutes of the first half, the Nets were leading. They were already one shot short of matching their Game 1 total – which had tied a season low – for shots at the rim. They had forced four live-ball turnovers. Mirza Teletovic was shaking free in the corners and had hit four three-pointers. Mason Plumlee had been whistled for his third personal foul a few minutes before, but Kevin Garnett and Andray Blatche were available to man the center spot as usual.

Instead, Kidd flipped the script. No more big men in this performance. Mirza Teletovic, you’re playing center.

Here’s the lineup: Paul Pierce – Joe Johnson – Deron Williams – Shaun Livingston – Mirza Teletovic.

That group would play the final three minutes of the first half and the final five minutes of the game, taking the court for nine total minutes and being outscored by five points. Counting another super-small lineup involving Marcus Thornton and Alan Anderson, the Nets would use Teletovic at center for longer than they used their actual starters.

The kicker? Teletovic had only played designated center – with no Garnett, Blatche, Plumlee or the versatile Andrei Kirilenko – for nine minutes during the entire regular season. And the aforementioned grouping of Teletovic with the starting lineup? They had only shared the court together for two minutes in two games, which could amount to all of a few after-timeout plays at the end of games.

There may have been a scattered lineup here or there over the years where an opposing team tried to go smaller than the HEAT, but for as long as an entire quarter?

“Smaller than us? That would be tough,” Dwyane Wade said. “Maybe closer to the same height, I don’t know if you can get smaller than us.”

“That’s the first time it’s ever happened,” Chris Bosh said after pausing to consider the notion.

Typically a team will go small(er) in order to spread the floor on offense with shooters, but just as we would with a HEAT lineup we must first consider the defensive possibilities. Since Spoelstra wasn’t taking Bosh off the floor, the responsibility fell to Teletovic to defend him. Not an ideal matchup for the Nets on that end, but with team always willing to go switch-heavy on defense it’s an issue that can be mitigated with flexibility.

At least until Bosh goes to set a screen for LeBron James.

Whereas the Nets typical small lineups have a true big man on the floor to pack the paint against James, here Brooklyn was left with very little rim protection. That, in combination with the Teletovic switches, seemed to unlock James’ offense. Before the lineup change James had just one score in the restricted area, but in those last three minutes of the first half he got to the rim three times – twice on Teletovic.

Still, as attractive as constant one-on-one attacks may be without much size on the floor, most defenses aren’t going to get too upset over the HEAT drifting towards a methodical, dribble-heavy approach. But when Miami is on its game, they tend to adjust on the fly. By the next stretch of Teletovic playing center, James was attacking out of the post and setting screens in the middle of the floor with nary a shotblocker in sight, creating shots for himself and others.

That slip-screen is going to be important in a little bit. Just as we’ve discussed previously with Bosh, the smaller the Nets play the smaller the help defenders are at the rim. When one of Brooklyn’s bigs is in the game, a Bosh screen at the three-point line brings that defender out of the paint creating opportunities for Bosh on the roll. But with no traditional bigs out there, James’ screens can pull Pierce – a crafty interior defender – away from the rim.

Before we get back to that, what’s the single loudest issue you hear about regarding the HEAT’s smaller lineups? More often than not, it’s rebounding. When the activity level is where it needs to be the HEAT figure out ways to get rebounds, but if not that size disadvantage will rear its head as the team is trying to finish off a defensive possession.

On the other end of the floor, the HEAT had one of the lowest offensive-rebounding percentages in league history. This was largely on purpose, as Spoelstra prioritizes transition defense and rarely has multiple players chase second chances. If you’re in the corner or on the wing waiting for a kickout pass and a shot goes up, just get back and defend another day.

That all changes when the size disadvantage goes away.

So, with the HEAT up eight in the fourth quarter with about three minutes to play and the Nets going with Teletovic at center – again, a lineup that had almost never played, or rebounded, together before – they forced a three-chance, 100-second possession that effectively clinched the game.

“That was a killer; we couldn’t come up with the rebound,” Joe Johnson said. “It was almost as if we just didn’t have the energy or the effort down the stretch. We fought so hard to stay within reach, to stay within the game. Those last few possessions killed us.”

By the time it was over, the HEAT were up 10, or four possessions, with under two minutes to play. And the basket that capped it all off came from James setting a screen.

That’s how the game went for Brooklyn’s super-small lineups on the defensive end. There were only nine minutes with Teletovic-plus-Starters, but in those nine minutes that group had a defensive-efficiency rating of 154.5. Throw a pound of salt on that number due to the incredibly small sample size, but it’s worth keeping in mind should we see the same lineup again.

“They went a little small but [Teletovic] was playing very well so they wanted him on the floor,” Wade said. “We matched up fine when they did it. I guarded him a lot at the end. We were fine with it.”

Of course, we haven’t reached the most important factor in all of this. When the Nets went smaller, the HEAT didn’t have to.

CHRIS BOSH AND VERTICALITY

While his reputation started to catch up to his performances after his showing against the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals and a regular season full of outstanding defensive sequences, it must still be constantly said that Bosh is one of the best and most versatile big-man defenders in the league. Whether he’s fronting Al Jefferson in the post, switching onto Tony Parker or drawing Joe Johnson for nearly an entire quarter, there isn’t a defensive situation in existence that causes Spoelstra to take Bosh off the floor.

In the HEAT’s hyper-aggressive system that asks it’s big men sprint to-and-from every position on the court, Bosh can do it all and then some.

So, when the Nets went small Bosh switched onto Teletovic as if nothing had changed. And while Teletovic hit one three over a solid closeout from Bosh, the spread-the-floor and clear-the-paint mechanics of that lineup didn’t prevent Bosh from being a defensive terror.

According to SportVU tracking data, the Nets shot 1-of-9 at the rim when Bosh was the primary defender. Consider that for a moment. Nine attempts against Bosh right around the rim. Only one shot went in. And Bosh didn’t pick up a single foul all game. He just got to his spots, went straight up and absorbed the contact.

Of course, the HEAT’s defense is bigger than any one player. More so than any other system in the league, if one player is out of sync the entire scheme can crumble. When everyone is helping and rotating on a string, however, it almost doesn’t matter what lineup the other team has out there.

The HEAT’s defense will have to sustain that sort of cohesion and energy, but when it comes to facing Teletovic at center we might never have cause to discuss it again. Those lineups may have just been a one-game blip, but in a seven-game series a one-game blip can be the difference between being up 2-0 and being tied 1-1 going on the road. The Nets made an adjustment they had rarely made all season long, and for that they take home the honor of being one of the only teams to try and go even smaller than the HEAT.

But no team in the league is as intimately familiar with small, positionless lineups as Miami. That’s the HEAT’s world, and in Game 2 they showed how to live in it.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com, Synergy Sports and STATS LLC