Is he smaller now better in the NBA?

A strange little musical premiered two years ago in a small Houston theater. It was set on the fictional island of “Gulliver’s Travels” and told the story of the Lilliput Existers, a basketball team with six inches tall players. The show was called “Small Ball”. It had to be surreal.

But now this Lilliputian basketball team has a mysterious real-world equivalent: the Houston Rockets.

The Rockets don’t play anyone taller than 6-foot-8. Their starting center is 6-foot-5. It’s as if the “Small Ball” manager had also built an NBA team. Apparently, he did. The producer of the musical was Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets.

Since basketball has existed, sport has rewarded size. What the playoffs revealed is that shooting and a new kind of dimension are the keys to today’s success. The NBA is no longer a league dominated by the greatest men on earth. Smaller is better.

The traditional center who plays with his back to the basket is practically dead. There were nine NBA teams that averaged nine or more post-up games per game in 2016. This year there was one: the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Sixers bet on a large formation. In their first-round streak with the Boston Celtics, their giant 7-foot center Joel Embiid was guarded by a 6-foot 8 unseaved center called Daniel Theis. The Sixers were wiped out. “A lot of people always want me to be a great man and they want me to be Shaq,” said Embiid, “but this league and this game are completely different.”

The Celtics are built around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and a bold idea – those skilled, dynamic and versatile wingers who score on offense and choke on defense play the most important position in the league today. After beating the Sixers, the Celtics now have a 2-1 lead over defending champion Toronto Raptors, who won a championship with a similar draw.

Joel Embiid of the 76ers is under pressure from Jaylen Brown, left, and Jayson Tatum, right, of the Celtics.


kevin c. cox / Reuters

The Miami Heat also went through round one after scaling down their starting lineup, turning Bam Adebayo into a 6-foot-9 center and surrounding their smaller big man with shooting. It was a shrewd move before their streak with the Milwaukee Bucks, who widened the field for Giannis Antetokounmpo by playing their 7-foot Brook Lopez center just a few Brook Lopez away from the basket. The Bucks have had the best NBA record this season. The Heat have a 2-0 lead.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers can get small too, but there is no team that goes smaller than the Rockets.

The NBA is notoriously a copycat league. The Rockets are really cats. They seem perfectly content to behave however they please, no matter how annoying the humans around them.

What they are doing this season is experimental even by the standards of a team that shoots more from 3 points than from 2 points. The rockets dwindled. In their playoff series starting Friday night, every Lakers starter will be bigger than PJ Tucker, the Rockets’ 6-foot-5 center. Mike D’Antoni’s innovative teams in Phoenix in the 2000s playing at blazing speeds were known as the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Now he finds himself coaching the Seven Feet or Less Rockets.

It wasn’t exactly their strategy to play without a center at the start of the season, but this was a season where nothing went according to plan for the NBA, the Rockets or Morey, whose tweets in support of the protesters of Hong Kong incited a geopolitical stalemate with China last fall.

At the heart of their latest radical move was the knowledge that they were not good enough to win a championship playing like anyone else. So the Rockets changed the way they played and the way other teams have to play them.

“I think the way you win in this championship is that you optimize your system around your talents,” Morey said.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook are Houston’s talents, for better or for worse, and the purpose of the microball is to create space for them to maneuver and then attack the basket. That meant trading Clint Capela, a 6-foot 10-foot hoop protector and lob threat, for Robert Covington in a February deal that made Tucker their unlikely center. They are now built as a linebacker football defense with no linesman.

Heat’s Bam Adebayo tries to shoot the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.


Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

As they picked up their nerve in the uncertain minutes before making the switch, the Rockets executives wondered: Would it really work?

There was no need to remind them that it worked for another team that was playing smaller for longer than anyone had ever imagined. The Golden State Warriors forced basketball to rethink notions of size, space and shooting during an NBA reign of terror that began with the 2015 playoffs when they benched their center, embraced the ball and won three championships in five years. . No team has been tortured by the Warriors like the Rockets.

It was one thing to play jerky cue ball, like the Warriors did, and it’s quite another to play like that permanently. But there was so much at stake for the Rockets – from the legacies of Harden and Westbrook to the work of D’Antoni and Morey – that they were particularly willing to try anything this season. Doing something no team had ever done wasn’t as risky as it seems. The biggest risk was doing nothing.

“If you are looking to win the title, you have to take risks,” Morey said at the time. “Otherwise you will lose before the playoffs or in the playoffs and most likely you will lose in the playoffs anyway because only one team wins.”

The first sign it might work came on a February night when the Rockets were playing with the Lakers. It wasn’t the friendliest matchup: LeBron James, who is nominally his team’s point guard, was bigger than anyone else in the Houston rotation. The Rockets won anyway. As for Tucker, the unlikely center? He has protected Anthony Davis better than anyone else in the NBA this season, according to league figures.

“As a coach, you are afraid to try something different,” D’Antoni said that night. “But I thought it would work. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be like that. ”

Can they win a title like this? Maybe not. But they think this way has much more chance than any other way.

Now, after increasing their variance and surviving a bizarre streak with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets find themselves with a match that might be more in their favor: They are playing with the Lakers again. Never has an NBA team put so much into play in such a distinctive style of basketball.

Write to Ben Cohen at [email protected]

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