OK, so… now what?
this Milwaukee Bucks and phoenix suns Meeting in the Finals last season, each team is pinning their hopes on a return to the Finals this June. Instead, they both lost Game 7 on Sunday and entered the offseason with some lingering structural issues.
In some ways, this is normal. The reality of the NBA is that nearly every team ends the season in at least somewhat disappointing fashion with its weaknesses exposed. While there is some degree of variance, the reality is that over the past few days, four teams have ended their seasons after a very strong season. The other 20 teams are eager to solve their problems.
Unfortunately, “let’s run back and lose again in the second round” is not a rallying cry. The stakes only get higher as the team gets better; win a championship (as Milwaukee did) and the goal immediately becomes a repeat. Just winning 50 games and losing to another top contender feels like a failure.
Behind their 2022 playoff shortcomings, however, is a potential failure for both teams: their inability to handle fragmented lineups. This is not a “small ball”, but a “space ball”.
Space balls occur when the size of the players on the field is not the problem, but the position where they stand.That’s when Mavericks Put five capable 3-point shooters on the perimeter and leave Rudy Gobert Being in no man’s land with Ayton, or when the Bucks’ rim protection-first defensive spirit makes them basically bold Grant Williams eliminate them.
It’s the latest evolution in the playoff tactical game that continues to evolve at a dizzying pace: put five players on the perimeter, shift everything to defense, play one-on-one against defenses that can’t help easily, or just enjoy opening up 3s or reach the basket. Forget pick-and-rolls, it’s more of a pick-and-roll. The Space team may set up a screen to switch, but after the screener gets out of evasion and repositions along the 3-point line, the dribbler’s final phase is isolation.
While other coaches may have tried it from time to time, the real turning point in spaceball came in the Clippers-Jazz series a year ago. Los Angeles coach Tyronn Lue used it as a way to press Gobert in the series. scissors no superstar forward Kawhi Leonard And has too much guard talent.It worked so well that they came back from a 25-point deficit in Game 6 and stunned jazz and win the series.
It’s an evolution beyond the Golden State Warriors’ infamous small-ball “death lineup” that relies on five mostly convertible players to block opponents’ 3-pointers while creating a myriad of them for themselves. Breaks and kicks. The Warriors’ grouping works because they have the greatest 3-point shooter in history; the space ball, by contrast, works because the 3-point threat is distributed throughout the lineup.
Just look at the huge three-point gap in the first two rounds. Dallas and Boston rank first and second, respectively, in postseason 3-pointer frequency and second and third in limiting opponent 3-pointers. For the playoffs as a whole, Dallas has made 12.9 more 3-pointers per 100 possessions than its opponents, while Boston has made 11.0 more.
In a series of processes, it created an impossible mathematical problem. After leading the league in 3-point shooting in the regular season, Utah was eliminated with 72 attempts and 44 attempts in six games against Dallas. In seven games against Phoenix, the Mavs lead the same category with 83 attempts and 33 hits. Meanwhile, Boston nearly doubled Milwaukee’s 110-57 3-pointer in seven games in the second round of the East.
Phoenix, Milwaukee and Utah have all tripped themselves up trying to handle space balls with traditional fives.In contrast, when Nets Against Boston’s three small guards in the first round, their efforts were swept away. However, at the heart of Brooklyn’s peculiar lineup is that it has to be matched with Boston’s space-ball pairing and has no power forward.
Milwaukee tried to play well against Boston, and in five games, it turned out fine — the Bucks had plenty of rim protection, and they had Giannis on the offense.The same goes for Phoenix, leading the series 3-2 and hoping it will tire the Dallas star Luka DoncicInstead, the Suns lost their final two games by 60 points. The longer the series goes, the more obvious the space-ball advantage of Boston and Dallas.
Individual data further underscore these trends.Bucks outscore 19.2 points per 100 possessions Brook Lopez On the court in the Boston series, he made an eye-popping 47.1 3-pointers per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, Dallas averaged 46.9 3-pointers per 100 minutes in Maxi Kleber’s playoff minutes while allowing just 28.1.
Of course, I’m oversimplifying the 3s.Both Dallas and Boston are in Dončić and Jayson Tatum Focus their attacks.Mavericks and celtics Also played great individual defense on Sunday and throughout the playoffs, which was a major factor in their win.
But here’s the thing: Their Spaceball lineup largely accomplishes that. Playing this way allows both teams to keep multiple elite 3-D wings on the floor, swapping everything, rather than having a vulnerable true five lying around in the opponent’s pick-and-roll.Kleber, the man I scouted as a small forward Five years ago in Germany (who, by coincidence, had a teammate named Devin Booker) ended up spending most of this series at center against a 7-footer who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Long player and Giants Gobert last round.
What happened with the Bucks and Suns on Sunday seemed to have important implications for how teams build their roster.
Do you think the center is now a dinosaur? Just wait. Gobert has been one of the league’s most valuable players over the past few regular seasons, but the Mavs’ space-ball approach, like the Clippers a year ago, made him irrelevant. It’s not that he sucks; it’s that he can no longer counteract the carnage on the periphery. Even without Dončić, the Mavericks beat the Utah Jazz twice by this method.
Ayton suffered a similar fate in the Western Conference semifinals, as did his backup JaVale McKeeIt’s ironic that Phoenix, which lost in the NBA Finals a year ago, lost this year because it didn’t have enough quality dimensions because of its lack of perimeter grouping against the space ball.The only good player on the Suns between 6’7 and 6’11 is Cameron Johnson; when they try to downsize without a traditional center, they end up and also small. (For the second consecutive postseason, there are Dario Saric may help. )
Boston, meanwhile, relentlessly exposed the Bucks’ limitations on the space ball, starting with Al Horford’s 30-point explosion in Game 4. Horford was very effective on the perimeter, waiting for Lopez to walk away, and the Bucks instead let Lopez guard Grant Williams in Game 7.He with Derrick White Awarded as many open 3-pointers as possible, the Celtics scored an absurd 55 and the Bucks cheered.
To make things difficult for opponents, it turns out that space balls aren’t a bad defensive strategy either, especially if you have the right type of striker. Williams is a revamped college center whose interior defense is much better than his 6-foot-6, thanks to a barrel chest and massive lower-body strength. Horford is big enough to hold off Giannis — who has been defending well — even the seemingly huge Lopez.
So what does this mean for Milwaukee and Phoenix? Would they dare to just run back and hope for a better next year? Or has this postseason exposed more meaningful gaps in their roster?
Neither team has the ability to play playoff space or defend it.Milwaukee’s best way to deal with it is to play Giannis at five and leave Bobby Portis and Lopez on the pines, but the Bucks don’t have enough perimeter talent to trust such a lineup long-term. (Obviously, having Khris Middleton helps.)
A stark contrast from a year ago: PJ Tucker doesn’t have their own space-ball forward, and in particular, Milwaukee doesn’t have the right perimeter talent.Tucker will now play in the Western Conference finals against Boston as part of Miami’s more space-ball-friendly lineup, where he may play center Bam Adebayo Not on the floor.
Another problem with spaceball is that it forces you to have five good perimeter players, not just two or three, so it pushes your depth to the limit — something that doesn’t usually happen much in the playoffs.The Bucks are finally counting on George Hill and Grayson Allen and pay for it.Phoenix tries to dust Tory Craig Disastrous in Game 7.
This brings us to the offseason. Ayton will receive a new contract as a restricted free agent in Phoenix. Meanwhile, if the Bucks want to add more open-ended players to a roster with limited salary flexibility, Lopez may be the Bucks’ easiest player to trade. The Bucks and Suns reached the Finals this way a year ago and are pretty locked into their current group, but they appear to be at a tactical disadvantage in the future playoffs without some changes.
It may also determine actions in other regions.For example, if you’re in Memphis, you’ll feel better on the space ball in the playoffs Jaren Jackson Jr. Five points to put a traditional center next to him.If you are Brooklyn, use Andre Drummond and LaMarcus Aldridge It feels silly; what the Nets need is their own version of Tucker, Kleber or Williams.
Finally, as the entire league gathers in Chicago this week for the combined NBA draft, people are wondering what this means for the space-sized forward in the draft. Players like Colorado State’s David Roddy or Ohio State’s EJ Lidell may look like fringe draft picks in some ways, but could be of great use as a space-ball forward.
Of course, the narrative about this trend could still change depending on what happens in the next two rounds. For now, however, it’s worth noting that last year’s finalists were eliminated this weekend, largely because of a tactical style they couldn’t match. Spaceball is the biggest story of the 2022 playoffs, and it could be the story of the 2022 offseason as well.
(Top photo by Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)