- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
In the 2011-12 playoffs, the Indiana Pacers were the team that forced the Heat to implement Erik Spoelstra’s title-winning vision. If Chris Bosh’s injury was the fuse, the size of the Pacers provided the gunpowder to make it all happen. Spoelstra’s big plan? Go small, space the floor and slay the opponent with speed.
It was unconventional, but it worked. The Heat countered the Pacers’ enormous stature up front (David West and Roy Hibbert) by going in other direction -- align Shane Battier or LeBron James at the nominal 4 while playing only one traditional big man. The rest is history.
This time around, the big plan to go small likely won’t change.
On paper, the Heat look as if they’ve had a dominant playoff run. They swept the Milwaukee Bucks. They handed the Chicago Bulls their worst playoff loss in franchise history in Game 2 and held them to their lowest playoff points total ever in Game 4. On balance, the Heat’s average margin of victory this postseason has been 16.5 points.
Yet the general feeling here is that the Heat haven’t played their best ball yet in the playoffs. Not even close.
But that might all be part of the plan.
Spoelstra still hasn’t busted out one of his favorite lineups in the playoffs. And interestingly enough, it’s the Heat’s most unconventional lineup as well.
The closing lineup
It’s fun to imagine that head coaches hold the strategic foresight to keep their best stuff in their back pocket for the championship run, waiting to deploy a secret weapon at just the right time. But typically this notion is nothing more just a fan’s pipe dream; coaches aren’t ones to hold back on the big stage.
But what’s fascinating about the Heat’s postseason so far is that they’ve kept perhaps their most lethal five-man unit completely under wraps. The lineup? James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh surrounded by Ray Allen and Battier.
No point guard, just two elite sharpshooters next to the Big Three. And it could be the key to neutralizing the Pacers’ size advantage.
That space-on-steroids lineup received 134 minutes, the third-most minutes of any Heat formation during the regular season, and blew out the competition by 20 points every 100 possessions. It was Spoelstra’s go-to lineup in crunch time, bringing it into the game like a baseball manager calling his shutdown closer. And more often than not, it did the job and then some.
But so far in the playoffs, it hasn’t even hit the court. Not a single minute.
Why? Is Spoelstra keeping it in his pocket on purpose?
Not necessarily. Thanks to the surprising late-game play of his point guards, especially Norris Cole, Spoelstra has been able to save that lineup. The Heat have played in three games that went into clutch time (the industry standard of the final five minutes and the game within five points), but Spoelstra has ridden the hot hand so far with either Cole or Mario Chalmers as the point guard in that span.
But don’t expect that to continue. Here’s why.
Stretching the Pacers’ bigs
The Allen/Battier lineup next to the Big Three is the manifestation of Spoelstra’s “pace-and-space” ideal. And while it primarily was deployed in the fourth quarter this season, it’d be a surprise if Spoelstra waited that long to stretch the Pacers’ defense thin. Sure, Cole has done a fine Allen impression from deep in the playoffs (11-for-16 from 3-point range), but nothing’s better than the real thing.
The first three things on the to-do list for the Heat should read: “Get Hibbert in foul trouble. Get Hibbert in foul trouble. Get Hibbert in foul trouble.” It was key in their series last postseason, when the Heat were minus-26 with Hibbert on the floor and plus-65 with him on the bench. In this series, the Heat’s super-spacey lineups will be instrumental in getting Hibbert out of the paint and on the move. That’s where Hibbert, quite literally, runs into trouble.
To exploit Hibbert’s cement-filled shoes, the Heat will have to create space and open up lanes for basket cuts and basket attacks. For this to happen, the extra 10 feet of difference between Udonis Haslem hanging out in the short corner and Battier waiting in the “long” corner will be pivotal. Haslem may get the start, but he won’t be trusted to finish. That’s where Battier and Allen should come in. (Side note: It might be counterintuitive, but the Heat’s most foul-inducing lineups tend to feature Allen and Battier, who aren’t elite foul-drawers. Spacing, again, is key.)
The presence of Allen and Battier also will help to avoid the temptation of living in the mid-range. The Heat can’t afford to fall in love with the mid-range jumper like they did in the third and final game of the regular-season series between these two teams.
Yes, the Heat won by 14 points in that game, but that might be a bit of fool’s gold. The Heat shot an unsustainable 17-for-31 (54.8 percent) on mid-range jumpers in that one. In fact, the Heat fired up as many mid-range jumpers as shots at the rim and 3-pointers combined. An overreliance on low-percentage shots is precisely what Frank Vogel’s defense wants.
The board game
This series ultimately will come down to which team asserts its brand of basketball upon the other. The Heat will want to go small and spread the floor, but the Pacers will want to go big and shrink the court in their favor. Neither coach will want to back down from their “identity,” as they like to call it.
The question becomes whether the Heat can crash the boards with their small lineups. But they shouldn’t feel obligated to have Haslem out there to rebound. Contrary to popular belief, lineups with Haslem on the floor have not fared any better on the boards this postseason or in the regular season, according to NBA.com’s stats tool. The Heat have shown they can rebound with Battier or James at the 4, but they’ll need sustained energy and focus to keep the big bodies of Indiana off the glass.
And that Allen/Battier lineup next to the Big Three? That was the Heat’s best rebounding unit of the season. Believe it or not, that undersized unit pulled down 56.6 percent of all available rebounds during the regular season, making it one of the best rebounding units in the NBA (seventh among lineups that played as many minutes, according to NBA.com). The track record is there.
The Heat should try to space the floor as much as they can in this series. After all, they’re 32-0 when they make at least 10 3-pointers this season, but they haven’t hit that mark in the playoffs at all. It’s not a coincidence that some of the Heat’s most 3-point dependent lineups -- especially the Battier/Allen one -- haven’t taken the floor. Yet.