How to use your biggest weapons
NBA teams can prosper by staying big
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BY DAVID THORPE
This is Part 3 of our three-part Coachspeak investigation series.
Steven Adams hadn’t seen the court in over a fortnight, but Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins was in a real bind. He had benched his starting center weeks before, after seeing him struggle mightily against Karl-Anthony Towns in the playoffs’ first game. But now the Grizzlies were down 2-1 to the Warriors, and missing their star Ja Morant. So, Jenkins broke the glass on his big man.
Adams stepped into the center circle and won the opening tip over Jonathan Kuminga. Then he played 27 minutes, rewarding his coach’s decision with a monster game—10 points, 15 boards (six offensive), three assists, one block, one steal. When Adams was on the court, his team beat the Warriors by 13 points. In the 21 minutes he sat, though, the Grizzlies lost by 16, and would ultimately lose Game 4 by three points to give Golden State a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Still, seeing how Adams played—not to mention Al Horford’s career night in a huge Game 4 win in Milwaukee and the Suns’ centers wreaking havoc on the Mavericks’ smaller bigs—we can witness how some teams use their big men effectively even when those players are nowhere close to All-Star level.
What’s the secret?
That’s the question we asked in Part 1 of our CoachSpeak investigation into the plight of big men each postseason. In an era where most coaches give their big men the hook as soon as an opponent fields five smaller guys, we noticed some teams achieving success by “staying big.” We thought—hoped even—that playoff coaching staffs would see those results and find more ways to take advantage of their tallest guys.
Part 2 of our investigation resulted in what is now plain to NBA fans everywhere: Some teams are doing just that! The Celtics rely heavily on their trio of centers—Al Horford (more on him shortly), Robert Williams, and backup Daniel Theis. Phoenix deploys three bigs as well, typically for all 48 minutes, spelling starter Deandre Ayton with veterans JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo. Milwaukee mans the center spot with Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis while all seven feet of Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing pretty much everywhere. The Celtics and Bucks are playing NBA-champion worthy defense and prove that utilizing big men properly, in a smart defensive system, can greatly enhance playoff defenses in the same way that they did during the regular season.
Watching these playoffs, I see big men doing subtle things to help their teams win: