Clippers vs. Wizards: Why the late-game small lineup worked so well

USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards pulled away from the Clippers last night by employing a small lineup with Trevor Ariza as the de-facto power forward. Why did it work so well? We asked the players and coaches.

WASHINGTON -- In a season of lineup roulette, it should come as little surprise that the five-man unit that Randy Wittman used to close the Wizards' game against the Los Angeles Clippers had not played one minute together prior to Monday. But with the Clippers using Grant Hill at power forward, Wittman decided he needed to find a different combination.

So, he trotted out the following unit: John Wall, Garrett Temple, Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza and Nene.

At the time of the move, the Wizards were clinging to a one-point lead. The offense was floundering and the defense was letting Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford go where they wanted. Chris Singleton was the de-facto power forward, but he committed a costly turnover and couldn't hit enough jumpers to space the floor.

Then, Wittman went back to Webster, and suddenly, the tied turned. The Wizards went on an 11-2 run to turn a close game into a blowout, and it was all due to the small lineup that pressure the Clippers all over the floor on one end and opened the floor for Wall and Nene on the other.

"It spaced the floor. It gave us an opportunity, with the clock in our favor, to walk the ball up, use clock, spread the floor with Nene and John out high with three guys around him that could make a play, make a shot. That was kind of my thinking there," Wittman said.

"It wasn't a situation where they were willing to go to [Lamar] Odom [in the post]," he added, discussing the defense. "We didn't have to worry about a mismatch at the other end, because he was really spacing the floor, setting pick and rolls. I just thought, from an offensive standpoint, [it helped us]. [But] we also were able to scramble around, switch pick and rolls. When they ran pick and rolls on Crawford, we were able to switch Webster onto Crawford. "

There were actually a lot of things the Wizards were able to do with this lineup.

  • With 5:14 remaining, Wall and Nene used their foot speed to trap Bledsoe beautifully along the baseline and force a turnover.
  • On the next play, Wall switched onto Caron Butler, fronted him beautifully and deflected Grant Hill's entry pass for a steal.
  • On the play after that, Temple and Ariza switched a baseline screen that popped Crawford out to the top of the key, and when Crawford thought he was being trapped, Ariza stepped into Crawford's passing lane and intercepted his bounce pass to the roll man.
  • Temple then bothered a jumper by Caron Butler after a timeout.
  • Following a DeAndre Jordan dunk, Bledsoe committed another turnover when Nene contained him on the baseline after a pick and roll and Temple cheated off his man to intercept the bounce pass to the corner.

On the other end, the Wizards' offense wasn't perfect, but it did still score 11 points on eight possessions, including big threes from Webster and Ariza.

"We kind of did the same thing we did against San Antonio where we had a lot of success spreading the court," Wall said. "You are able to get to the basket, you're able to find open shooters. We've got Nene in there cutting to the basket. It's more exciting for us to play like that. We had a lot of free lanes."

Wall wasn't the only one to talk about the offensive impact of the lineup; Nene, Webster and obviously Wittman himself did too. And they're right that the floor is more open with those five guys on the floor than with another big sharing the court with Nene.

To me, though, the lineup's defensive impact was much more significant. The length of all five players allows for the Wizards to have so much flexibility with their coverages. They can zone up on the opposite side and cover so much ground with their length. They can switch screens to prevent hot players like Crawford from getting clean looks and not have to deal with mismatches. It's that second factor that Temple noted when I asked him about the unit's success.

"That was something we ad-libbed, but being professional basketball players, we understand what to do in situations like this. If you have a guy like Jamal Crawford coming off a screen, you don't want him to get any looks," Temple said. "So we decided to make sure there was always a guy on him. Even if it was a big, we might have switched. At the end of the game, if he's hot like that, you might need to [switch a big on him]. But we were lucky that we were able to do it with [a smaller guy] with a lot of success [with that lineup]."

The obvious next question: will we see this lineup more often? Wall did say the lineup was "more exciting," after all, and anything that makes Wall better is A-OK by me. But Wall also made a good point that it's not a unit that'll work in all situations.

"We'd like to do it more, but you can't do it when you play certain teams," Wall said. "Like, if Blake Griffin was in there tonight, it'd be tough because you couldn't put Martell or Trevor on him. So you just got to try to figure out what teams [are good matchups]. They went small and we just wanted to match up, try to beat them in a different way."

All that's true. But still, I'd like to see the Wizards go small like this more often. They've built this team to have a lot of length, speed and quickness defensively. It's about time that they use more five-man units that actually show these skills off.

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