Playing ‘small’ — without a big body at centre who can both defend the rim on one end and be dominant enough to collapse defences at the other — has proven to be an effective way to compete in the NBA. When the Golden State Warriors started playing an undersized Draymond Green at centre, it proved to be the key that unlocked a dynasty.
It’s been an option that’s been around for ever. Teams have resorted to playing five slashing, scoring ball-handlers to upset the rhythm of games for years. Like the no-huddle offence in the NFL, it was situational tactic that has become nearly standard because when well-executed, it’s difficult to defend.
Small ball is now a fixture.
And why not? It’s not like the NBA is loaded with big men that can punish smaller matchups. Nikola Jokic in Denver is one; Anthony Davis with the Los Angeles Lakers is another, Bam Adebayo in Miami – though he’s more of a hybrid big to begin with. Rudy Gobert with Utah, if his teammates can find him on the roll.
After that, the list gets pretty short.
But at the very the top of any list of bigs who can make lives miserable for smaller players – or almost any player – would be the Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid, who is big enough to hide smaller players behind him, has hands soft enough to make him a finisher and shot-maker from all angles and is an 85-per cent free-throw shooter this season on nearly 12 attempt a game. ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ – the tactic where teams would foul Shaquille O’Neal and take chances with his career 52.7 per cent free-throw shooting — is not an option.
After six years of promise interrupted by injuries, the seven-foot, 300-pounder is putting together the season of his career and potentially one of the best ever, leading the Sixers to the best record in the East and getting lots of buzz as a short-list MVP candidate.
He rolled into Sunday night’s match-up against the Toronto Raptors coming off a career-high 50 points against the Chicago Bulls and averaging 30.5 points and 11 rebounds a game while shooting 40 per cent from three.
This would seem to be a problem with no ready answer.
The Raptors – you may have heard – are lacking when it comes to big bodies they can use to make life difficult for Embiid and, by extension, the 76ers. They’ve had to rely on the burly but otherwise limited Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher, who is long and fast and fearless, but weighs just 200 pounds. Even though they’ve found great success recently by playing small – with some combination of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam at centre — with point guard Kyle Lowry missing his third straight game with a sprained thumb, the Raptors' margin for error seemed razor thin.
But even against those odds the Raptors were able cobble together enough good moments from enough different players – including Boucher and Baynes – to overcome Embiid in an impressive 110-103 win — the Raptors' fourth straight, three of them without Lowry as Toronto improved to 16-15, pulled into fifth place in the East, only percentage points out of fourth, their 14-7 run taking them miles from their 2-8.
Embiid did his damage, but it was limited. The Philly centre finished with 25 points and 17 rebounds, but he shot just 6-of-20 from the floor, although going 12-of-14 from the free throw line helped his cause.
Meanwhile, the Raptors answered with Boucher, the rail-thin Montrealer who came off the bench to shoot 5-of-6 from deep and score 17 points off the bench – all in the second half and 11 in the fourth quarter. He also had three blocks, including one on Embiid late in the fourth when the Sixers were trying to claw back into the Raptors' lead.
“It wins you games. It wins you games,” was VanVleet’s assessment of Boucher’s tear. “Chris was balling. That’s the luxury of having a gunslinger like him that can get hot at any moment … That’s what it’s going to take, it’s a team game and we need everybody to pull their weight, and Chris did that and then some tonight.”
Baynes wasn’t too bad either, with eight points on nine shots in 28 minutes. Every little bit helped as the Raptors were led by VanVleet’s 23 points and nine assists and Siakam with 23 points and eight assists. The Sixers most effective player was Simmons, who put up 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting, but the Raptors' team defence was the real star as they held Philadelphia to 38.8-per cent shooting and only really stayed in the game because they held a 35-18 advantage in free throw attempts.
“The way we play, the way we scramble around, we’re doubling on the post, on the block, it doesn’t really matter what size the guy is that’s guarding Embiid, if you can push him out far enough, we’ll double and rotate out of that,” said VanVleet. “…But OG and Pascal gave Joel a great fight, different looks and with Baynes and Chris coming off the bench to give him another look ... as much as we might be out-sized, they still gotta keep up with our speed and flow offensively.”
All game long, the Raptors' means to neutralize Embiid and the Sixers' size advantage generally was to swarm defensively, push the ball in transition before Philadelphia could set up in the half court and to take – and ideally make — threes. Toronto shot 14-of-34 from deep for 41.2 per cent, while the Sixers were just 11-of-37.
The strategy came together beautifully late in the third quarter. Trailing by 11 after Embiid had scored on a pair of post-ups with three minutes to play in the period, Toronto scored three quick triples – two by Boucher – on an 11-0 run sparked by a pair of Raptors steals, allowing Toronto to start the fourth quarter down 84-83.
There was some mystery before the game about whether the Raptors would try to match up with Embiid and start Aron Baynes – the closest player Toronto has in size and strength – or would the Raptors continue to play small against the Sixers, who not only feature Embiid but play six-foot-10 Simmons as their point guard?
But when the ball went up Nurse decided to stick with his strengths and had six-foot-seven OG Anunoby take the jump against Embiid, with Siakam and DeAndre Bembry – starting in place of Lowry – joined by Fred VanVleet and Norm Powell as starters.
There were problems immediately. Embiid’s first bucket was a post-up against the six-foot-six Bembry, who he outweighs by 60 pounds. He picked up a pair of free throws when six-foot VanVleet tried to battle him for a loose ball. At the other end the sure-handed Powell suddenly couldn’t finish with Embiid looming in the paint, and when the chance presented, Simmons was galloping the floor as a one-man fastbreak. In a blink, the Sixers were up 22-8.
But the advantages of playing five players based on skills instead of positions or size is you end up with a lot of playmakers on the floor and after their initial stumbles, Toronto began to find their way back. Making bombs from three is always a great equalizer. The Raptors made four of them in the space of two minutes late in the first quarter that were the backbone of 20-2 run that Toronto used to end up leading 28-24 after one quarter.
At that point the big man the Raptors struggled to contain most was Simmons, who put up 13 points in the second quarter, alternating between full-court attacks on the rim while helping generate the Sixers' 19-4 edge in free throw attempts — which, along with the Sixers' 8-2 edge in offensive rebounds, were a better indication of the true tilt of the first half than the Sixers' 55-52 lead necessarily was.
But the Raptors seemed determined to prove this season that size is not destiny. So rather than fold at various points, they dug in and turned the second half entirely in their favour.
“Obviously, Pascal's not a centre, OG's not a centre,” said Bembry, who had 10 points on four shots in 20 minutes, making his third straight start in place of Lowry. “…We've all got to play a lot bigger, especially teams like this where you have a point guard, however big Ben is. We've just got to play big. It's working so far."
The Sixers had a distinctive size advantage over the Raptors and for one night, it didn’t matter a bit.