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How the Kings turned the small-ball tables on the Warriors

Warriors have to win another road game.

Sacramento Kings v Golden State Warriors - Game Six Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There’s no doubt the Golden State Warriors revolutionized small ball during their dynastic run.

But using small to describe such a lineup is, in reality, a misnomer. Yes, having multiple wing defenders whose heights all ranged from 6’7” to 6’9” is relatively miniscule compared to the traditional lineups that have behemoth seven-footers anchoring their defense.

But the point of having those like-sized wings is to switch screening actions — both on and off the ball — endlessly. Doing so keeps half-court possessions strictly east-west endeavors instead of north-south downhill excursions that generate advantages.

In a sense, it wasn’t really “small” as much as it was “intermediate.”

For years, few teams could beat the Warriors at their own small-ball game. Many tried to copy the formula, but they couldn’t replicate the championship-winning recipe.

Years have passed and the pieces that made the Warriors’ small-ball lineups deadly have all left for various reasons. Shaun Livingston is retired. Andre Iguodala is nailed to the bench with an injury and might be approaching the end of his career. Harrison Barnes is now making it his mission to eliminate the Warriors. The Kevin Durant years have now become a bygone era. Otto Porter Jr. wasn’t retained to save tax spendings.

All that is left now of their wing room are the following players:

  • Andrew Wiggins
  • Klay Thompson
  • Moses Moody
  • Jonathan Kuminga

Of the four listed above, only Wiggins can be considered close to being an All-Defense stalwart. Thompson is far from his pre-injury form as a perimeter defender, while Moody and Kuminga both have potential but are still greenhorns.

Gary Payton II and Donte DiVincenzo both flash wing skillsets but don’t possess the size to freely switch up and down the positional spectrum like a bona-fide wing can. Draymond Green still makes small-ball lineups viable when he’s at the five, but his responsibilities at the backline have been increased with inferior point-of-attack defenders supporting him.

In short, the Warriors’ 2023 small-ball just doesn’t hit the same way it did in 2015-19 — which makes them more vulnerable to other teams who not only are replicating the formula but have improved on it.

It’s widely believed that as a playoff series progresses toward its later stages, there’s little each team can do to adjust in a manner that can surprise one team. All sets, lineups, rotations, and personnel have been scouted and analyzed to death; the only difference lies in which team executes better, which stars step up to carry their team on their backs, and — at the risk of sounding highly reductive — which team wants it more.

The Sacramento Kings were able to do all of the things above in Game 6 — but with the added quirk that they actually had one more adjustment to make.

At the 3:29 mark of the first quarter, Mike Brown benched Domantas Sabonis and subbed in Keegan Murray, Terence Davis, and De’Aaron Fox. That put Trey Lyles, a 6’9” forward, at the five.

Lyles shot 36.3% in the regular season on three attempts per game, which places him at around the league average mark. Being a big who shoots threes at a league-average rate can be enough to punish teams who can’t properly handle a five-out alignment with plenty of spacing.

Having a big who can space the floor gives the Kings’ premier scorers more room to operate and get to their spots:

Typically, Green is more than happy to rotate and show full commitment to help, but with Lyles being a threat in the corner, Green can’t fully sag off and discourage the Fox shot. Moses Moody can’t leave Keegan Murray in the opposite corner, while DiVincenzo shows a bit of nail help but can’t take his eyes off of Malik Monk on the wing.

Brown rolled with the same group to start the second quarter, while the Warriors opted to go with their typical two-big lineup of Green and Kevon Looney.

Looney, in particular, was the target of the Kings’ sudden move to go to small. While Looney is a sturdy and dependable big in most half-court situations, he does exponentially better against traditional bruising bigs — which is why Sabonis has had a mediocre series.

But against someone like Lyles who can stretch the floor, Looney’s heavy feet and lumbering frame doesn’t allow him to make effective closeouts, especially in pick-and-pop situations. His instinct to help on the backline and protect the rim also makes him vulnerable to sudden kickouts toward stretch bigs.

Case in point:

Monk calls for the Lyles screen but rejects it. Nevertheless, Thompson is there to step in front and keep up with Monk laterally, but Looney’s instinct to help in drop coverage compels him to sink toward the paint.

The problem? Looney’s man didn’t roll but opted to park himself at the top of the arc. Lyles gets plenty of space and time to shoot the ball, with Looney’s closeout not affecting him one bit.

Giving up that kind of shot makes defenders antsy and jittery in an effort to not make the same mistake again. Looney’s no different — he wouldn’t want to give up another open Lyles three on another pick-and-pop situation.

But Lyles also wasn’t born yesterday. He uses the fear of his outside shot to attack Looney’s closeout and drive to the rim against a small backline:

Green is more of an ideal solo big to counter small-ball — but the problem was that Green collected three fouls and was forced to spend time on the bench, which forced Kerr to leave Looney out there to deal with the Kings’ lineup. Looney tried his best to shore up gaps and close holes, even while giving up the Lyles matchup and guarding Davis instead.

But the spacing, speed, and pace of the Kings’ smalls was too much for him:

The spacing that was unlocked with Lyles in the lineup meant that even a sliver of help was liable to get punished. The Kings threatening to drive and put pressure on the rim forced mistakes from personnel that couldn’t afford to make them.

Jordan Poole, in particular, has a habit of being lost on defense due to a general lack of awareness and losing track of his assignments:

But the difficulty was roster wide. Monk and Fox in particular feasted on drive and kicks. Putting pressure on the rim — especially with the luxury of having open driving lanes due to the spacing afforded by the small five-out lineups — allowed them to collapse the Warriors’ defense toward the paint and open up targets on the perimeter.

Monk and Fox combined for 54 points and were allowed all the breathing room by Brown’s lineup tweak. The Warriors struggled to find answers and were thoroughly hammered in every category of note:

  • Points in the paint (36-44)
  • Fastbreak points (9-18)
  • Bench points (21-52)
  • Rebounds (42-53, 11-18 on the offensive boards)

As the page turns to Game 7, one wonders what adjustments Steve Kerr can make to counter Brown’s sudden shift to small ball. Perhaps simply re-inserting Green in the lineup in place of the struggling Poole is the answer.

But Game 6 — and this entire series — has put into question the viability of a lineup that has two non-shooting bigs. The Warriors were able to get away with such a lineup for years due to the otherworldly shooting talents of Curry and Thompson, while Green’s knowledge of nullifying the negative spacing he engenders has played a huge role in whichever center he’s partnered with — Andrew Bogut, Zaza Pachulia, and now Looney — to thrive alongside him.

This series may be proving that the two-non-shooting-big lineup is on its way out. Spacing has always been important, but never has its importance been more pronounced than in this series. Brown gave his main offensive creators more room to operate with simply by providing them with more shooting threats on the perimeter.

The Warriors, meanwhile, must find a way to get their main guys more breathing room, something they didn’t have tonight. They had nothing going on offense (due mostly to a rejuvenated Kings defense that stifled them at every turn) and now find themselves in a Game 7 situation that they should’ve tried much harder to avoid.

But that didn’t happen — and while they may have shot themselves in the foot, the Kings’ inspired play and tactical adjustments helped point the gun.

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