Scott Brooks has a big decision to make before Friday night. With his Washington Wizards down two games to none in the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series with the Toronto Raptors, should the coach keep the status quo and start 6-foot-11 center Marcin Gortat (6.5 points and four rebounds in the two games)? Or does desperation call for a more radical approach, replacing the starting five with 6-8 forward Mike Scott (17 points and 3.5 rebounds)?
Tuesday night after the Game 2 loss, Brooks alluded to the possible change by responding to a question about Scott’s success in the backup center role.
“Who knows? [Scott] might be a starting five,” Brooks said.
Scott started only one game this season, replacing the injured Markieff Morris as the power forward in a Dec. 13 matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies. Gortat has been the one constant in the Wizards’ starting lineup over the past two seasons under Brooks, not missing a single opening tip. So, changing the starting lineup to go small would be massive — though not unprecedented.
If, in fact, Brooks’s declaration served as a preview for a Game 3 shift, rather than something blurted out in frustration following a loss, then he can look to recent NBA playoff history as a guide.
A bold lineup change worked for the Golden State Warriors. During the 2014-15 season, the Warriors set the NBA ablaze by lofting three-pointers in heavy volume and running up a league-best 110.0 points per game while anchored by 7-foot center Andrew Bogut. But when the Warriors met the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals, the team fell into a 2-1 series hole. Coach Steve Kerr responded by moving forward Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup to replace Bogut in Game 4. Though Iguodala had not started a game at all that season, his presence created a small lineup that forced Cleveland into mismatches.
The Warriors won the last three games, taking the championship and laying the foundation of their NBA reign. Bogut played less than three minutes for the rest of the series while Iguodala was named Finals MVP.
Golden State didn’t give birth to the small-ball trend and Kerr wasn’t the only coach to make a high-stakes change in the Finals. In 2011, the Dallas Mavericks similarly had fallen into a deficit against a LeBron James-led team. In Game 4 against the Miami Heat, Coach Rick Carlisle started diminutive guard J.J. Barea in place of the bigger, more traditional shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson.
Barea’s playmaking skills combined with Jason Kidd’s passing mastery caused problems for the Miami defense — Dallas played a heavy point guard rotation with another small guard, Jason Terry, coming off the bench and logging more minutes than Barea. The move made Carlisle look like a coaching genius, as the Mavericks also overcame a 2-1 deficit and won the next three games to take the title.
But not every starting lineup change in the playoffs ends with a championship.
In 2007, the top-seeded Mavericks, then coached by Avery Johnson, never got close to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. In the regular season, center Erick Dampier started the third-most games on the team as Dallas posted an NBA-best record of 67-15. Then, the Mavericks opened the first round against the No. 8-seeded Warriors, a high-tempo team with an aversion to defense but an affection for threes. Ahead of Game 1, Johnson chose to combat the Warriors’ strengths by sitting Dampier in place of the 6-8 Devean George.
The decision backfired. Dallas lost Game 1 and the team nicknamed the “We Believe” Warriors went on to take the series in six games, pulling off one of the biggest upsets in NBA history.
These current Wizards are not the 2015 Warriors nor the 2011 Mavericks and one lineup shift will not cure their problems. These Wizards would be better cast as the underdog 2007 Warriors in their efforts to upset the top-ranked Raptors. Even so, they have the additional disadvantage of being down two games. Brooks now has a choice to make: Gortat or Scott?
“I don’t anticipate me changing the starting lineup,” Brooks said on April 8 amid the team’s scattered play in the final month of the regular season.
Although Brooks has denied switching the starters in the past, he could have a change of heart.