OK, so what now?
The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns met in the NBA Finals last season, and each squad had high hopes of being back there this June. Instead, they both lost seventh games on Sunday and head into the offseason with some lingering structural questions.
In some respects, this is normal. The reality of the NBA is that nearly every team sees its season end in at least somewhat disappointing fashion and with its weaknesses glaringly exposed. While there are levels to this, the reality is that four teams saw their seasons end in the past few days after very strong seasons; 20 other teams crave having their problems.
Unfortunately, “Let’s run it back and lose in the second round again” isn’t much of a rallying cry. As teams get better, the stakes only get higher; win a championship (like Milwaukee did) and the goal immediately becomes repeating. Merely winning 50 and losing a tough series to another top contender feels like failure.
So let’s not overreact to what happened. The Bucks still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Suns still have Devin Booker, Chris Paul and (we think) Deandre Ayton. They’ll be back.
Underlying their 2022 postseason shortcomings, however, there is one potential failure that was consistent across both teams: They could not deal with spread-out lineups. This isn’t “small ball” so much as it is “space ball.”
Space ball is what happens when the size of the players on the court isn’t the issue, but rather where they are standing. It’s what happens when the Mavericks put five capable 3-point shooters on the perimeter and leave Rudy Gobert and Ayton in no man’s land, or when the Bucks’ protect-the-rim-first defensive ethos leaves them essentially daring Grant Williams to eliminate them .
It’s the latest evolution in a postseason tactical game that continues evolving at a dizzying pace: String five players on the perimeter, switch everything on defense, go one-on-one against a defense that can’t easily send help, and either feast on open 3s or get to the rim. Forget pick-and-roll, this is more like pick-and-run. Space-ball teams might set a screen to get a switch, but the endgame is an isolation for the dribbler after the screener gets the hell out of dodge and relocates along the 3-point line.
While other coaches likely have tried this from to time at some point, the real turning point for space ball came in the Clippers-Jazz series a year ago. LA coach Tyronn Lue turned to it as a way to neutralize Gobert in a series where the Clippers were without superstar forward Kawhi Leonard and had a surfeit of guard talent. It worked so well that they came back from 25 down in Game 6 to stun the Jazz and win the series.
It’s an evolution one step beyond the Golden State Warriors ‘infamous small-ball “Death Lineup” because it depends on five mostly switchable players shutting down the opponents’ 3-pointers while creating myriad drive-and-kick chances of their own. The Warriors’ grouping worked because they had the greatest 3-point shooter in history; in contrast, space ball works because the 3-point threat is distributed across the entire lineup.
Just look at the massive 3-point disparities in the first two rounds. Dallas and Boston are first and second, respectively, in playoff 3-point frequency and second and third in limiting opponent 3s. For the postseason as a whole, Dallas takes 12.9 3s per 100 possessions more than the opposition, and Boston 11.0.
Over the course of a series, it generated an impossible math problem. Utah was out-3’d by 72 attempts and 44 makes over six games against Dallas after leading the league in 3-point frequency during the regular season. The Mavs’ margin in the same category was 83 attempts and 33 makes in seven games against Phoenix. Meanwhile, Boston nearly doubled up Milwaukee on triples, 110 to 57, over seven games in the East second round.
Phoenix, Milwaukee and Utah all tripped over themselves trying to deal with space ball with traditional fives. In contrast, it might have looked weird when the Nets were playing three small guards against Boston in the first round, and they got swept for their efforts. However, the kernel of truth in Brooklyn’s odd lineup was that it had to match up against Boston’s space-ball pairings and ran out of big forwards.
Milwaukee tried to go big against Boston, and for five games, it was working out OK – the Bucks had a ton of rim protection, and they had Giannis to carry the offense. Ditto for Phoenix, which had a 3-2 series lead and a hope that it was fatiguing Dallas star Luka Dončić. Instead, the Suns lost the final two games by 60 points. The longer the series went, the more Boston and Dallas pressed their advantage with space ball.
The individual data underlines these trends further. The Bucks were outscored by 19.2 points per 100 possessions with Brook Lopez on the court in the Boston series, surrendering a jaw-dropping 47.1 3-point attempts per 100 possessions in his minutes. Meanwhile, Dallas averages 46.9 triples per 100 in Maxi Kleber’s playoff minutes against just 28.1 allowed.
I’m being overly reductive about the 3s, of course; both Dallas and Boston have superlative individual talents in Dončić and Jayson Tatum to center their attacks. The Mavs and Celtics also played great individual defense on Sunday and throughout the playoffs, and that was a major factor in their wins.
But here’s the thing: Their space-ball lineups have enabled much of that. Playing this way allowed both teams to keep multiple elite 3-and-D wings on the floor, switch everything and not have a vulnerable true five lying around for opponent pick-and-rolls. Kleber, whom I scouted as a small forward in Germany five years ago (where, coincidentally, he had a teammate named Devin Booker), ended up playing the majority of the minutes at center in this series against a 7-footer who was the top pick in the 2018 draft and against the giant Gobert in the previous round.
What happened to the Bucks and Suns on Sunday seems to have important implications for how teams build their rosters going forward.
You thought centers were dinosaurs now? Just you wait. Gobert has been one of the most valuable players in the league the past few regular seasons, but the Mavs’ space-ball approach, much like that of the Clippers a year earlier, rendered him irrelevant. It wasn’t that he sucked; it was that he was no longer in a position to offset the carnage on the perimeter. The Mavs beat Utah twice even without Dončić by employing this approach.
Ayton met a similar fate in the conference semifinals, as did his backup JaVale McGee. In the ultimate irony, a Phoenix team that lost in the NBA Finals a year ago because it didn’t have enough quality size, lost this year because it lacked the perimeter groupings to face off against space ball. The Suns’ only good player between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-11 was Cameron Johnson; when they tried to go small without one of their traditional centers, they ended up too small. (For the second postseason in a row, having Dario Saric might have helped.)
Boston, meanwhile, ruthlessly exposed the Bucks’ limitations against space ball, starting with Al Horford’s 30-point outburst in Game 4. Horford was so effective standing on the perimeter and waiting for Lopez to wander off that the Bucks instead went to having Lopez guard Grant Williams for Game 7. He and Derrick White were granted as many open 3s as they could handle, the Celtics took an absurd 55 and the Bucks were toast.
What made this hard for the opponents is that it turns out space ball isn’t a bad defensive strategy either, especially if you have the right type of forwards. Williams is a converted college center who defends the interior much better than his 6-foot-6 size would suggest, with the help of a barrel chest and tremendous lower-body strength. Horford is big enough to withstand Giannis – a player he’s always defended well – or even the deceptively huge Lopez.
So what does this mean for Milwaukee and Phoenix? Do they dare just run it back and hope to play better next year? Or did this postseason expose a more meaningful gap in their rosters?
Neither team is well-equipped to play postseason space ball or defend it. Milwaukee’s best way of dealing with that is to play Giannis at five and leave both Bobby Portis and Lopez on the pine, but the Bucks didn’t have enough quality perimeter talent to trust such lineups for long. (Having Khris Middleton would have helped, obviously.)
Contrast this with a year ago: Without the go-to space-ball forward of their own in PJ Tucker, especially, Milwaukee didn’t have the right perimeter talent. Tucker will now be taking part in the conference finals against Boston as part of a more space-ball-friendly roster in Miami, one that may feature him in stints at center when Bam Adebayo is off the floor.
The other problem with space ball is that it forces you to have five good perimeter players, not just two or three, and thus it pushes your depth to its limit – a thing that normally doesn’t happen much in the playoffs. The Bucks ended up counting on George Hill and Grayson Allen and paying for it. Phoenix tried dusting off Torrey Craig in Game 7 to disastrous effect.
This takes us to the offseason. Ayton is up for a new contract as a restricted free agent in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Lopez is perhaps the Bucks’ most tradeable piece if they want to add more space-ball-type players to a roster with limited cap flexibility. The Bucks and Suns made the Finals this way just a year ago and are fairly locked in with their current groups, but already it seems they’re at a tactical disadvantage in future postseasons without some changes.
It could also dictate moves in other locales as well. If you’re Memphis, for instance, you feel a lot better about playing playoff space ball with Jaren Jackson Jr. at five than by putting a traditional center next to him. If you’re Brooklyn, running it back with Andre Drummond and LaMarcus Aldridge feels like folly; what the Nets need is their own version of Tucker, Kleber or Williams.
Finally, with the entire league descending upon Chicago for the NBA Draft Combine this week, one wonders what it might mean for space-ball-type forwards in the draft. Players like, say, Colorado State’s David Roddy or Ohio State’s EJ Lidell might look like fringey picks in some respects but could have major utility as space-ball forwards.
Of course, the narrative on this trend could still change gears depending on what happens in the next two rounds. For now, however, it seems notable that last year’s finalists were eliminated this weekend largely because of a tactical style they couldn’t match. Space ball is the biggest story of the 2022 postseason, and it may become the story of the 2022 offseason as well.
(Top photo of Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton: Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports)