CLEVELAND – During the second quarter of his Washington Wizards’ 97-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night, Randy Wittman tried something he had never done before as a coach.
One of the Cavaliers’ many strengths is their big front court and, as a result, rebounding. Cleveland entered the night with the second-best rebounding differential in the NBA. So to counter it, Wittman, who had a depleted front court with backup big men Nene and Drew Gooden III unavailable due to injury, decided to go small. Really small.
Wittman trotted out 6-foot-7 Jared Dudley, who was drafted as a small forward eight years ago, at center with the lanky 6-9 Otto Porter Jr., Washington’s starting small forward, at power forward flanked by John Wall, Bradley Beal and Garrett Temple with 7:58 left in the period. The lineup was effective: Washington went on a 7-0 run with the quintet on the floor to extend Washington’s lead to 46-36 before the group was broken up.
Wittman went back to the lineup in the fourth quarter when starting center Marcin Gortat encountered foul trouble. In all, the lineup was on the court for eight minutes and had a plus-three. The Wizards also went used the small look with Ramon Sessions in for Beal for a minute in the final period.
“We did a lot of different things tonight by the gut feel for how the game was,” Wittman said. “I felt that if we could space the floor with shooters, as a big, it’d give them trouble, that they’d maybe have to go to something else.”
A year ago, such a scenario was unfathomable. The Wizards were one of the final teams to nearly always use lineups with two traditional big men during the regular season. That changed in the playoffs with more small-ball lineups and Washington, with some new personnel, carried the transformation into this season. But it reached a new level of small Tuesday and the team hadn’t even used the tiny-ball lineup at practice.
“I had some lineups out there tonight that I don’t know I had ever dreamed about,” Wittman joked.
The strategy was similar to what the Golden State Warriors did against the Cavaliers in the NBA finals, when they stunningly had 6-7 Draymond Green play center. That lineup is now considered one of the league’s deadliest.
“It’s my first time playing five,” said Dudley, who finished with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. “That’s a little bit of the Draymond Green at the five.”
With the lineup on the floor, the Wizards switched on every pick and looked to push the ball at every opportunity.
“My whole thing was switch, contain,” Dudley said. “We’re up so I don’t want any three-point shots because only threes can hurt us. And when shots go up, run back to the paint and try to get a rebound. And once we did that, give the ball as fast as you can to John [Wall] or Brad [Beal].
“There’s really no action on the fast break: Just give the ball and kind of see. They weren’t getting back a lot of times and once they stopped us, [we said] ‘Alright, let’s run a set.’ John controlled the game, top to bottom, and I think everyone did their role tonight.”
Up next: The Wizards return home Wednesday to host Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers at Verizon Center to complete their third back-to-back set in eight days.
The Lakers will be coming off a 103-91 loss to the previously winless Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday. Bryant announced Sunday he will retire after this season.