A few weeks ago I examined how constant fluctuation in the Miami Heat starting lineup is a feature, not a bug, of their versatile and multidimensional bench unit. After starting Udonis Haslem and resting Shane Battier in their first-round matchup against the Charlotte Bobcats, the Heat started Battier and limited Haslem to three total minutes in their second-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra is not frantically searching for productive combinations of players: he’s respecting the strengths of the Heat’s opponent and then re-jiggering his lineup in a way that will neutralize that strength. With a bench unit consisting of veterans — frequently and derisively identified as “aging” veterans — Spoelstra and the Heat have the rare advantage of being a team almost entirely devoid of ego or infighting. Since the changes don’t pose a threat of harm to individual attitudes or team chemistry, the Heat have constructed a defensive identity of constantly, well, shifting their defensive identity.
After last night’s 102-90 victory the Heat now hold a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Indiana Pacers. Over the course of facing their third playoff opponent, the Heat have also thrown their third dramatically different defensive concept on the hardwood. Unlike in their first two rounds, however, the Heat did not enter Game One with this defensive personnel group in place. In fact, it took Spoelstra almost 2.5 games to deliver the correct adjustment to the lineup.
That crucial adjustment? Spoelstra has used Rashard Lewis as a primary defender on David West. After Lewis received DNP-CDs in the first two games of this series, he received 17 minutes off the bench in Game Three and 26 minutes with a start in Game Four. In the two games Lewis has posted a +/- of +35 — meaning that the rest of the Heat have been at -11 while Lewis has sat.
This single change produced a variety of positive cascading effects that went a long way in helping the Heat own a double-digit lead for the majority of their relatively easy victory last night:
Positive Effect #1: Chris Bosh has been liberated on offense.
When Haslem started Games Two and Three, he and Pacers center Roy Hibbert would guard each other. This meant that renowned third banana Chris Bosh and David West would guard each other. The matchup left Bosh — always angling to get off an outside shot — bothered by West’s mobility as a defender. Bosh scored a meager 27 total points, 9 per game, in the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Since Lewis — perhaps the stretchiest stretch-4 in league history — started Game Four, West’s defensive responsibility moved away from Bosh and on to Lewis. The matchup between West and Lewis meant that Hibbert and Bosh were now responsible for guarding the other.
While Hibbert is an elite interior defender, he instantly becomes awkward and vulnerable when asked to leave the confines of the paint. Hibbert’s reluctance to defend on the perimeter is a weakness that the Atlanta Hawks exploited to perfection in the first round of this year’s playoffs. In Game Four, it was Miami’s turn to exploit this weakness.
The Heat fed Bosh the ball on three of their first four offensive possessions of the game. On all three possessions, Bosh was able to use his deft quickness and range to drain three straight shots, giving Miami a quick 8-0 lead.
It should be unthinkable to sag off a shooter who is sinking 40.4% of his playoff 3-point attempts, but that is exactly what Hibbert did with his tentative defense. Hibbert is a considerable distance away from Bosh on these shots.
On a night when Dwyane Wade did not have his shot (4-of-12), Bosh bountifully provided 25 points on a wildly efficient 12 shots from the field. While those gaudy numbers will not be attributed to Lewis’ row in the box score, his presence on the court went a long way in enabling Bosh’s big performance.
Positive Effect #2: Fronts on West Force Pacers Off Game Plan.
With 0 points in the series, Lewis is making all of his numerous positive contributions as a defender, an unexpected new wrinkle to the old veteran’s game. Spoelstra’s game plan calls for Lewis to front West whenever West attempts to post up and receive an entry pass. Lewis’s superlative effort on these plays led to Indiana turnovers or a hastily improvised Plan B.
Lewis swiped this lazy entry pass from Paul George, igniting a Miami fastbreak:
Plays like the following made a significant contribution to the Heat’s victorious effort—albeit while leaving zero impact on Lewis’s stat sheet. On this possession the Pacers cleared out significant space for West on the left block, but they were unable to deliver the entry pass thanks to Lewis’s tenacious fronting. George Hill, in possession of the ball in this frame, went to Plan B and passed to C.J. Watson, who bricked a three:
Positive Effect #3: Aggressive Trapping Leads to Indiana Turnovers, Miami Fastbreaks
The Heat repeatedly took advantage of Lewis’s fast-for-a-power-forward footspeed to trap Pacers ballhandlers far from the basket. Since the Heat are always playing five defenders who are looking to help, and to help the helper, Lewis was free to effectively blitz Pacers guards at the top of the play. The results were chaotic and spectacular — for Miami.
With West taking his time to get back on this first-quarter possession, Lewis takes the opportunity to double-team George Hill alongside Mario Chalmers:
Hill is able to break the trap, and sends the ball across the court to West, who has now joined the play. Lewis is speedy enough to recover in time, and West’s pass is tipped and intercepted by Chalmers. The Miami fastbreak is on:
On this next play, Lewis and Chalmers hang around the backcourt after a made Heat free throw. The unexpected full-court pressure flusters the Pacers and Chalmers is able to deflect the entry pass. While Chalmers can’t maintain possession and Indiana retains the ball, chalk this up as another positive Lewis contribution that didn’t make its way into the score sheet.
With Haslem contributing an astounding -31 for the Heat in this series — astounding because he’s a member of the team that’s up 3-1 — it’s safe to say that Lewis should receive all of Haslem’s minutes going forward. Thanks to Lewis, the Heat were able to continue stifling the Pacers offense even while noted defensive stopper Chris Andersen was sidelined with a thigh injury. Look to see Lewis back in the starting lineup for Game Five — but who knows which members of the Heat roster will receive minutes if/when they move on to the Finals, and face a whole new opponent.
(Photo Credit: Kayne Charlot)