The Washington Wizards beat the Toronto Raptors 117-106 on Tuesday night to take a 2-0 series lead.
The Wizards have looked like the significantly better team through the first two games of the series, thanks in part to a lineup tweak that has baffled Toronto’s already-shaky defence.
The Wizards have started using small-ball lineups, spreading the floor with four shooters surrounding one big man. It’s a staple of almost all modern NBA offenses, but something the Wizards were reluctant to use throughout the season when they finished 19th in offensive efficiency.
Specifically, the Wizards have started using Paul Pierce as a power forward, shifting him from his usual spot as a small forward, and the effect has been significant. Two of the Wizards’ four most-used lineups in the playoffs involved Pierce at the four, and both have been crushing the Raptors, albeit in small sample sizes.
The lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Pierce, and Marcin Gortat has played 18 minutes and outscored the Raptors by 11 points while shooting 45% from the field and 44% from three-point range. When looking at this unit’s production per 100 possessions, they’re crushing the Raptors with a 127.5 offensive rating and a 26.8 net rating.
The second lineup of Wall, Beal, Porter, Pierce, and Nene Hilario has outscored the Raptors by nine points while shooting 53% overall and 50% from three in nine minutes. This unit is posting a 138.1 offensive rating with a 75.1 net rating.
Neither of these lineups played more than 10 minutes during the entire regular season.
Again, these are small sample sizes, so the numbers can be skewed. But the small-ball formula seems to be the difference in what was expected to be a close series between two teams that have been struggling.
The concept of small ball is simple (and the rest of the NBA understands this, the Wizards have just been slow to embrace it): with four shooters spreading the floor, the defence can’t over-help or they will leave a shooter open.
On one of the game-clinching baskets by the Wizards, this simple pick-and-roll by Gortat and Wall becomes difficult to defend, because the small-ball lineup stretches the defence:
As Wall and Gortat run the pick-and-roll, the rest of the Raptors defenders can only offer tentative help, wary that they will be abandoning shooters by trying to stop Wall and Gortat.
When Wall hits Gortat rolling to the rim, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan commits to helping and tries to stop Gortat (instead he weakly fouls him). Gortat ultimately finishes the layup, plus the foul, but if he wanted to, he could have kicked it out to Pierce for an open corner three. If Patrick Patterson (#54) ran to cover Pierce in the corner, Pierce would have Porter open on the left elbow.
It sets off a chain reaction. One defender will have to over-help, leaving somebody open. When the defence sends someone to cover that open player, a different offensive player will be open. It’s a highly effective formula that only the best NBA defences can scheme to cover. The Raptors are not one of them.
Wizards coach Randy Wittman was on the hot seat for much of the season, partially because he seemed stuck in his ways, refusing to change his philosophies. Two games into the playoffs, Wittman has already conceded to modern NBA offence principles, and the Wizards look like the superior team because of it.
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