It's fitting that Josh Smith is on stage for the series that is showing us the future of NBA basketball. Smith was a central figure in the prominent nod in this direction a decade ago, when hoops prophet Billy Knight assembled a team of 6'7 men without positions in Atlanta. The best versions of those squads featured lineups starring Smith, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Josh Childress or Al Harrington with either a point guard like Speedy Claxton or a center like Zaza Pachulia. Eventually, in Knight's final year, it'd be norms Mike Bibby and Al Horford in those spots. That final Knight squad in 2008 took Boston, the eventual champs, to seven in the first round. Then the team got a lot less interesting until now.
Smoove was the linchpin, the multi-tool that made everything fluid. He could protect the rim like a center, distribute like a point guard and slash like a wing. He could also shoot like Larry Hughes. That's not a compliment, but it's an essential piece of Smith's story. The key is that he was so dynamic that he allowed his team to get really weird and small. The mid-Aughts Hawks weren't the only example of avant garde smallball in the previous decade, just the most zealous. They also largely sucked. Not all teams at the speed and size vanguard were so unlikely.
Boris Diaw (originally drafted as a 6'8 point guard by none other than Knight, natch) played center in Phoenix during Amar'e Stoudemire's microfracture recovery. Along with Shawn Marion's versatile game, they allowed the Suns to run as fast as ever and remake basketball. Those Suns also, of course, had Steve Nash. Few teams ever land a point guard so smart and deadly on the run. Still, Phoenix and Mike D'Antoni showed that the smallball vision could be epically successful with the right pieces.
The Suns never won a title, allowing doubters to hold that no such act could be crowned in an NBA still built on the traditional systems of the past. If the odds are right, that's about to change.
For the billionth time this season, the Warriors faced a challenge and responded by shrinking up, moving 6'7 Draymond Green to center and playing with wings and guards only. And for the billionth time, it worked. The Warriors went small to shrink a huge second quarter deficit to nothing, and finished the game the same way.
The twist was that the Rockets did the same, a decision made easier by Dwight Howard's unfortunate knee injury. Instead of hoping Clint Capela could continue to be magical, Rockets coach Kevin McHale went to a line-up with Terrence Jones, Corey Brewer and Smith up front and James Harden and Trevor Ariza in the backcourt. It was a lineup far more subversive than Steve Kerr's oddest units -- Harden is 6'5 but plays bigger, and the other four Rockets are 6'8 or 6'9. When Golden State goes small, it has shooters at four or five positions (depending on how Andre Iguodala is feeling) and typically one small guard (unless Shaun Livingston is in for Curry, as he was for stretches in Game 1). Houston went positionless with length and athleticism at every spot ... and three mediocre deep shooters. (Jones is a career 31 percent from long range; Smith and Brewer are below 30 percent.)
What makes Golden State's small lineup so great is that there's rarely a drop-off on defense. In fact, the Green-as-center units are often the Warriors' best defensive groups, even though Andrew Bogut's an excellent backstop. Length and agility are so valuable in the ultra-aggressive defensive style currently in vogue, a style the Warriors have mastered. The Rockets matched it and stayed in the game into the final minute because of their ability to go positionless with length and speed everywhere. That's some achievement: with Howard out and Curry in full-blown MVP mode, the Rockets hung in until the final seconds.
This battle is happening in the most crucial moments on the biggest stage in pro basketball. The Hawks are a little more traditional size-wise, and LeBron's teams have always broken lineup rules. But even the East contenders still standing are in some ways odes to Billy Knight's vision of positionless basketball. It's well-known that to refresh the Spurs, Gregg Popovich borrowed from D'Antoni's playbook. That's the way things are in the NBA. Teams will mimic what they are seeing the most successful teams doing, and positionless basketball is going to take over soon.
Now someone hire Billy Knight again.
Three more thoughts on Game 1:
* The Rockets switched almost everything, and it worked in the first half. Golden State's huge run in the back half of the second wasn't necessarily because Houston's scheme crumbled. Rather, the Rockets' offense stagnated, leading to more fast break opportunities off of misses and turnovers for the Warriors. But Curry absolutely cracked the switching scheme in the fourth quarter, as he realized he could usually lose the bigger man (often Smith) by floating around and breaking off paths. Houston also miscommunicated a few crucial possessions on whether to switch on back screens, leaving Curry wide open. He's not a guy you can make mistakes on. Ariza did a very good job on Klay Thompson for the most part. It will be interesting if he's going to eventually be assigned to stick to Curry no matter what during certain key stretches.
* Harden is an unbelievable scorer. You wonder how much playing with and behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook helped his development. We can never know for sure; as a No. 3 pick, he very easily could have landed in a city (Memphis, Minneapolis, D.C., Sacramento) where he'd have been tabbed as the focal point from Day 1. Instead, Harden watched Durant became an All-Star, Westbrook become a sensation and built his own name and on-court style with elements from each. That's one hell of a participatory education. It paid off.
* Clint Capela is going to be an above-average NBA starter within four years if he gets a shot. (The Rockets are likely extremely hesitant to let him get a shot anywhere but Houston.) His length and agility are NBA level, he shows good feel in the paint on both ends and he has plenty of room to add muscle. He's way more Serge Ibaka than Rudy Gobert; perhaps because he has Howard in front of him he'll end up more like Ian Mahinmi, who caddied for Tim Duncan and Tyson Chandler for a few years. Regardless, Capela is damn exciting as a defender and transition big.