The Myth of Small Ball

By Paul Grossinger

Two overtime plays defined the Miami Heat's victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

In the first play, LeBron took about ten steps to the basket and put it in the hoop. Nothing you can do about that – when the refs decide to let James travel to the basket so the Miami Heat can win at any cost, there is no stopping him. Move on.

Its not a moment worth dwelling on. Betting, for sure, mostly if you can find some good picks or sportsbook reviews, but not dwelling.

The second play – now that is another story. Indiana coach Frank Vogel took out Roy Hibbert right before the final play of the game. Vogel, normally a solid tactician, inserted Sam Young instead. James promptly took it to the hoop and won the game.

Afterword, Vogel appeared to rationalize the decision by suggesting that Hibbert's big man tendency to stray from the basket and be out of the position made Young a better fit. In many ways, this was the classic "small ball argument," – that NBA teams are best served by putting smaller, more mobile players on the floor in crucial minutes of the game.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The rise of small ball is just a myth. Big men dominate the game today more than ever.

Consider the Western Conference finalists: The San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies. The small ball myth tells us that the Spurs' longevity is driven by Tony Parker's skills, the team's scrappy wing role players, and excellent three-point shooting. Our eyes tell us that Tim Duncan's continued dominance in the post, with assists from big forward Kawhi Leonard and center Tiago Splitter, are behind the Spurs' continued excellence. The small ball myth tells us that the Grizzlies are driven by Mike Conley's rise as a star point guard, Tony Allen's defense, and teamwork. Reality shows us that Memphis' contention is driven by center Marc Gasol's work in the post, with an assist from forward Zach Randolph.

Miami Heat small forward LeBron James shoots
May 22, 2013; Miami, FL, USA: Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) shoots against Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) in game one of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Photo Courtesy by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports.

What about the Eastern Conference Finalists? The Indiana Pacers play bigger than anyone – their combination of Roy Hibbert, David West, and massive guard Paul George creates the league's most intimidating defense. Their one "small ball moment" in Game 1 was precisely what cost them the game.

And the Miami Heat, who small ball mythologists often tout as the centerpiece of their theory, are anything but. In 2011, Miami played small and Dallas – of all teams Dallas – outmuscled them in the Finals. Since then, LeBron has emerged as a legitimate post-up forward and Chris Bosh, long derided as a soft shooting forward, has morphed into an effective five man. They are – super secretly – the strongest argument that playing big is the only way to win the title.

So, where did the rise of small ball go? Clearly, it's at home now – gone from the NBA Playoffs. It's in Madison Square Garden, with the flawed Knicks or in Brooklyn with the soft Nets. Small ball may look flashy in the regular season but, to win games when it counts, there is only one way.

Go big.

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