clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Analyzing the smallest of small ball against the Timberwolves

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Timberwolves, like the Hawks in the previous game, are banged up enough to permit the Bobcats to run their smallest lineups without much issue. No Kevin Love and no Nikola Pekovic means Minnesota must rely on their backcourt scoring more. With that, we saw three-guard lineups from them with J.J. Barea, Luke Ridnour and Ricky Rubio on the floor. In response, we saw the Bobcats put out possibly their smallest lineup ever. In today's breakdown, let's look at this two particular similar lineups that Charlotte used a couple times: Kemba Walker, Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions, Gerald Henderson and Bismack Biyombo / Tyrus Thomas.

Second Quarter

We begin down 45-34. Wasting no time, Minnesota tries to capitalize on the Bobcats' small lineup and zone defense. They spread the floor with Barea near the scorer's table, Ridnour in the left corner, Dante Cunningham in the paint and Andrei Kirilenko in the right corner. An error in communication sends Henderson up the lane to follow Cunningham but Ben Gordon is already right there, leaving Kirilenko wide open. He calls for the alley-oop.

Biyombo, covering the left baseline makes the late recovery, but it doesn't matter. Rubio's lob flies into the bleachers.


Then Charlotte and Minnesota exchange empty possessions for a bit. Ben Gordon travels, Barea airballs a three, Ramon Sessions makes a bad pass. There would have been another empty possession for the Timberwolves, but despite good defense, they gave up a Cunningham jumper off the inbounds with the shot clock running down. The Bobcats can live with that, playing good defense but getting beat at the last second with a low-percentage shot.

Ben Gordon followed with a drive around a flat-footed Rubio for an easy layup. That's the benefit of a lineup like this: With so many quick guards on the floor, at least one of them will have the speed to get around their defender for a bucket, which then helps the offense find rhythm getting to the rim.

But then Minnesota showed how this lineup's defense can easily be exposed. The Bobcats found themselves all out of position, with Biyombo guarding Cunningham, Henderson on Rubio and Walker on Kirilenko right at the charge circle. Barea dumped the ball down to Kirilenko, Gordon came with the help defense and Kirlenko kicked it back out to Barea, who had backed out to behind the arc for an easy open three.


The mistake came early in the possession. Henderson guarded Rubio to begin the possession as Kemba got back on defense. Biyombo knows that if he gets on Kirilenko without Henderson and Kemba knowing they need to rotate, Cunningham will be open for a quick cutting dish through the lane. So Biyombo gets out on Cunningham and Walker is forced to stay on Kirilenko. If anything, the easy thing would have been to switch Kemba onto Rubio and Henderson onto Kirilenko. The zone defense cannot work if you're not in position by the time your opponent sets up the offense.

Mike Dunlap subbed in Tyrus Thomas for Biyombo after this play, keeping intact the four-guard lineup. The Bobcats continued to exploit the mismatch as Walker screened Rubio as he handed the ball off to Sessions. Cunningham switched but couldn't stay in front of him and Sessions got the layup.

Back on defense, the Bobcats played more good defense only to give up a scrambling Cunningham jumper. Walker nearly came up with the steal but the ball found its way to Cunningham as the Bobcats tried to grab the loose ball and the former Bobcats hit the open jumper.

Gordon got Mickael Gelabele to fall for the pump-fake, then drove down an empty baseline for an easy floater.

Tyrus Thomas then refused to let Barea get by him in isolation, picking Barea's pocket, then giving the ball up to Kemba for an easy layup in transition.

In response to the Bobcats making their previous five field goals, the Timberwolves tried to switch things up, moving back into a taller lineup, Kirilenko moved to power forward, Cunningham to small forward and brought in Greg Stiemsma at center. But the first possession was a turnover. And so was their second possession.

The Bobcats made up some ground with some free throws but had a turnover that led to some free throws in transition for Minnesota as well.

One of the neater things you can see the Bobcats do with this small lineup is how they can create space with almost any player. Yes, Ben Gordon is only a bit more likely to create room off the dribble than to fumble the ball off his own testicles (or his defender's testicles) but it can happen against slower opponents who don't defend guards very well. We can see the Bobcats' liquid offense on this next play.


It starts with the ball in Sessions' hands. Gordon and Tyrus Thomas are bunched towards the right sideline near the corner. Thomas sets a screen that stuns Kirilenko momentarily before Gordon cuts through the paint to the left side. Henderson sets a soft screen that in effect just gets Kirilenko turned further away from seeing the ball.


With plenty of space in the middle to drive, Sessions makes his move inside. Luke Ridnour, who was either paralyzed by voodoo or stood in the same spot so long that his feet grew into the court, did nothing to impede his path.


The defense suddenly sucks in to compensate. Greg Stiemsma leaves Tyrus Thomas wide open just inside the three-point line and Kirilenko gives some space to Gordon. Cut off by the four defenders in front of him, Sessions passes out to Gordon near the sideline.


Stiemsma is still in the paint and Thomas still very much open. Kemba moves towards the weak side to give Gordon more space. Kirilenko recovers to chase Gordon. The offense resets and Gordon becomes the ballhandler, freezing Kirilenko with a hesitation step and getting inside with ease.


With three Wolves now in the paint to stop his movement, Gordon looks to pass out. Thomas has moved only slightly to the corner three and Gerald Henderson is swinging out from a baseline cut. But instead of passing to Henderson, Gordon finds Thomas, who steps into the most inefficient shot in basketball - the contested long two.


He bricks it.

There are some things to like and dislike here. It's not hard to see why this lineup can result in some very good looks at the rim. Sessions, Walker, Gordon - any one of them could have gotten past their defender and created passing lanes and scoring opportunities. They had a few spaces for decent shots. Gordon could have shot a decently open three immediately after the initial pass from Sessions. Sessions could have passed to a very open Thomas earlier in the possession for a better shot than what they got. And Gordon could have found Henderson for the midrange two instead of Thomas. There were some decent looks there opened up by dribble-drive penetration.

Fourth Quarter

It's important to note that a lot of what works and what doesn't can't simply be classified into large or small ball. Ingredients of both can work in different ways from game to game. For instance, the Bobcats revival in this game came a lot from the lineup of Kemba / Sessions / Gordon / Adrien / Haywood. Sure, Haywood's presence indicates going big but using three guards is also small. I'm looking at these particular lineups because they're the epitome of small ball, but interchanging some pieces of each can clearly help. Moving on.

The itty bitty kitty lineup returned with about 6 minutes remaining in the game. Biyombo was in instead of Thomas, just like the first time we saw it. And the Bobcats began by posting up Ramon Sessions on J.J. Barea. Yes, you read that correctly. Ramon Sessions backed down J.J. Barea so easily on the right block that Barea had to foul before a shot.

Resetting after the foul, Ben Gordon got the ball and then drove himself into a corner trying to create a shot. Rubio plied the ball from his hands and turned the other way. Kirilenko would be fouled after Minnesota swung him the ball on the baseline in transition and Biyombo had to recover late. Ramon Sessions got free throws on the next play after drawing a foul trying to cut across the lane. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would enter for Gordon at this time.

This lineup faced some difficulties. It gave up an iso pull-up three to Barea and turned the ball over. Gerald Henderson tried to post up Barea but was forced into a highly-contested turnaround jumper over two defenders with no one to pass to. Thankfully the Bobcats were in the bonus and Sessions is fantastic at drawing fouls, which kept the Bobcats offense moving.

Ben Gordon returned in Kidd-Gilchrist's stead after a pair of Rubio free throws that came as a result of a fastbreak started by a poor pass from Sessions.

On the ensuing play, Henderson set a pick for Walker a little outside the right elbow. Rubio tried to go over the screen and Kirlenko hedged very poorly, trying to stick to Henderson. The result - Kemba got lots of space down the middle for a floater from 12 feet out.


Barea followed with a bricked isolation midrange jump shot and Kemba tried to exploit a mismatch on Kirilenko with a stepback jumper on the Bobcats' next trip down the court.

What happened next is interesting. Kirilenko had the advantage of being matched up on Sessions. He got the ball on the right block, proceeded to back down Sessions into the paint and then spun for a right hook but way overshot it because he was forced by some impeccably-timed Biyombo help defense.

Charlotte, up three points with under two minutes remaining, then found themselves in the interesting position to try to burn clock on offense. That hardly ever goes well for this team, considering they have a hard enough time getting a good shot with all of the shot clock, much less a fraction of it.

Barea then hit a three on the next possession to tie it up. The play is a perfect example of the difficulty of defending the paint with a zone defense that struggles to defend the perimeter. Rubio drives from the right wing towards a pretty much empty frontcourt.


Biyombo helps to prevent the Rubio layup, which leaves Kirilenko open on the corner three. Kemba tries to anticipate the pass to Kirilenko, which instead leaves Barea open for the three.


The thought is nice, but Kirilenko is a 28.6 percent three-point shooter and Barea makes 34 percent of his long shots.


Hindsight's 20/20 and all that, but Kemba probably should have A) not played so close to the paint (Biyombo's there to help, you don't have to leave your zone) B) stuck to the better shooter and if anything, played the middle of Kirilenko and Barea but further out. Granted, Rubio's no-look pass was fantastic, but it doesn't make much sense to have such crowded space like that.

And then the Cats came back with Ramon Sessions' second bad inbounds pass leading to a turnover. Ridnour missed the bunny but Kirilenko followed with the dunk to put Minnesota up 99-97.

The Bobcats got a great shot after this, switching Barea onto Kemba, who then drove into the teeth of the defense, passed out of layup to find a cutting Biyombo. Biyombo gathered himself for a layup, got fouled and hit the shot as he fell back.

Rubio again put Minnesota up two by driving baseline around Biyombo for a reverse layup. Considering Rubio's offensive deficiencies, this was rather impressive. Biyombo certainly didn't expect it, coming late with the challenge.

The rest, well, we already know. Near-turnovers abound, spectacular defense from the Timberwolves - and it was all nullified by a wild three from Henderson. Barea couldn't get around Walker's defense, eventually tripping on his feet into a hapless prayer of a shot that went unanswered.

The Bobcats' smallest of small ball lineups had mixed results but ultimately it helped them find their groove. Minnesota's lineups didn't give Charlotte fits on the boards or in the paint. In fact, were it not for some unforced turnovers, the Bobcats could have found themselves in a better situation at times.