Small Ball vs. Big Ball: Which Style Is King in NBA Playoffs?

Daniel O'BrienFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2013

MIAMI, FL - MAY 24: Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers reaches for a loose ball against Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat in the second half during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on May 24, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
J. Meric/Getty Images

Over the past decade, the NBA has trended toward a smaller and sleeker style of play, with less emphasis on size and more value placed on speed and outside shooting.

However, the 2013 NBA playoffs are making a strong case for the big man. When utilized properly, players with a size advantage are dominant weapons that win ballgames.

With every possession paramount, some things become more valuable in the postseason: rim protection, brick-wall screens, close-range opportunities and indefensible hook shots.

The NBA's final four features three superb examples of the big-man movement: the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers. Even the marquee small-ball squad, the Miami Heat, has demonstrated the importance of interior play.


Big Men Loom Large in Western Wars

It's tempting to highlight the injuries of Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook and say that the Western Conference should have been a guard's conference in the playoffs.

Sure, their teams would have been much stronger, and in Oklahoma City's case, the Thunder would have contended for a title. But there are two key takeaways: A healthy Lakers club would have been a force if it could optimize the use of its twin towers, and OKC desperately needs a big man.

Other Western threats struggled without ample post production.

The Houston Rockets offense was far too perimeter-based, and they failed to out-duel a weakened Thunder squad. The Los Angeles Clippers floundered without a true post-up center and succumbed to the stronger Grizzlies. Golden State's shooters had their moment in the sun but toppled against Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter.

Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have carried Memphis the last few weeks, exposing the Clips' poor post defense and then embarrassing Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.

The Grizzlies' twin towers are combining for 35-plus points and 18-plus boards per game in the postseason. Randolph's low-block production pairs sensationally with Gasol's high-post playmaking.

Elsewhere in the West, Andrew Bogut's resurgence gave the Warriors some teeth, but he was eventually bested by San Antonio's frontcourt. The ageless Duncan is posting 18 points and nine boards per contest, while posting his highest playoff usage rate since 2009. He and Splitter are doing all the little things to march closer to the NBA Finals.


Beasts of the East

In the Eastern Conference, a different group of big men made their mark.

The Chicago Bulls outplayed expectations during the absence of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich because Joakim Noah was all over the place. He finished the Brooklyn Nets series with back-to-back double-doubles and then anchored Chicago's Game 1 win in Miami with another one.

Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler rebounded strongly in the first round to help the Knicks past a too-small Boston squad, but the Indiana Pacers' low-post depth clearly overwhelmed him in the conference semifinals.

New York's disappointing playoff exit highlighted the reality that it needs legitimate big-man offense.

Indiana's cast of titans is led by 7'2" Roy Hibbert, who's proving this postseason that he's worth the mountain of money the Pacers spent on him in the offseason. Nearly all of his numbers are up from the regular season: points, rebounds, field-goal percentage, free-throw attempts and free-throw percentage.

His block on Carmelo Anthony was the play of the season for Indiana, while his absence during LeBron James' buzzer-beating layup was the biggest non-play of the season.

Even the Heat, who have a small-ball lineup, are winning with post-ups and high-percentage plays at the rim. In Miami's most recent triumph, it pounded the Pacers 52-36 in the paint. How? Using LeBron and Dwyane Wade's size to post up against Indy's guards and keeping reserve big man Chris Andersen heavily involved.


In Playoffs, Series Are Won in Paint

Squads that relied too much on outside shooting saw early curtains this postseason, and units that earned trips to the free-throw line advanced.

It's no coincidence that the top six teams in three-point attempts are all long gone. No club averaging more than 22 triple tries per contest made it past the second round.

Also, all eight squads that had a negative free-throw attempt differential are sitting at home. Regular-season forces like the Thunder (-3.9), Knicks (-7.4) and Clippers (-10.6) couldn't consistently exert pressure on opposing defenses in the paint.

Consequently, these small-ball franchises are left wondering what could have been if they had invested in superior interior production.


Teams' Offseason Needs Speak Volumes

Small ball didn't cut it for these teams yearning to upgrade their frontcourts this summer, and it's a testament to the big-man culture of the 2013 playoffs.

Amidst the league's small-ball craze in recent years, many teams underrated the importance of a well-placed big man.

Lionel Hollins, Frank Vogel and Gregg Popovich have each found ways to maximize the talents of their frontcourts and thus find themselves in the conference finals.

Guard play is still a critical aspect of any successful squad. However, in the 2013 playoffs, we're finding that NBA success is a tall, tall order.


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