For six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers made the Miami Heat—defending champions and winners of 27 consecutive victories in the regular season—appear oddly vulnerable, before the Heat reminded all of the advantages of having home court advantage and the game’s best player in Game 7.
Still, the manner in which the Pacers dragged the Heat through the mud, suffocating what had been the NBA’s best offense while bullying their interior defense on the other end, exposed some flaws in that Miami team.
The problem with carrying that train of thought into the NBA Finals is that particular Miami Heat team will not be the one the San Antonio Spurs face.
It took a few injuries and some glaring lack of depth in the front court in last year’s playoffs for the Heat to finally stumble upon a style that worked best for them, discarding size in favor of smaller lineups that injected additional speed into the Heat’s swarming defense and maximized the utilization of LeBron James’ unique abilities.
Remember, then, that it was only after starting Dexter Pittman in a playoff game a year ago proved disastrous (who would have thought) enough that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra finally abandoned traditional principles in favor of positionless basketball.
From that point on the Heat constructed a philosophy built around smaller lineups with James and Shane Battier working in tandem at the forward positions alongside Chris Bosh in the front court.
In their preferable lineups the Heat surround James with three or four shooters–depending on Dwyane Wade or Ray Allen’s presence in the lineup–severing James’ defender from their lines of defensive help. Those shooters, positioned around the court with near perfect spacing at all times, combined with intelligent passing, force opponents into making no-win decisions. One step too far in James’ direction and LeBron whips a pass to the vacated area, sending defenders chasing ghosts, always ultimately a rotation or two too late.
Normally these tactics come with a tradeoff, notably a lack of size on the defensive end to protect the rim or clean the glass. But the Heat turn a weakness into strength, swarming the ball and creating chaos. It’s a calculated bet that, despite what coaches preach to players at a young age, the Heat can move bodies faster than the ball can be moved under control. The under control part is key, as any hurried decision with the ball often leads to turnovers and quick transition points for the Heat.
Their schemes work because the supreme athleticism of James and Wade allow them to fly around the court, plugging holes the moment they appear. That chaos is coordinated with Chris Bosh’s length and mobility, deterring penetration at the point of attack while still recovering to protect the rim, and the heady rotations and individual defensive work of Shane Battier.
And almost none of this was available to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals due to the unique matchups the Indiana Pacers present. With Roy Hibbert, David West, and Paul George on the court those small lineups all but disappeared for the Heat. By attacking directly with Hibbert and West via post-ups, and crashing the offensive glass relentlessly, the Pacers forced the Heat to abandon their smaller lineups with smash mouth basketball.
Superficially, the San Antonio Spurs share some similarities with the Pacers in that they bring formidable size to the table to exploit Miami’s lack thereof. But the utilization of that size is different, and the devil, as they say, are in the details.
The most obvious disconnect between the Spurs and Pacers size is that the Pacers use theirs to great effect on the offensive glass while, tactically, the Spurs tend to ignore offensive rebounds in favor of getting back in transition defense.
The other difference is that in West and Hibbert, the Pacers had two options to attack smaller defenders directly in the post. Duncan, like Hibbert, is a highly skilled big man. But he long ago shed size/weight–and portions of his post game along with it in favor of mobility, and is not the physically imposing player Hibbert is. Tiago Splitter, for all his strengths, can struggle in post ups that do not take him directly to the rim. Smaller defenders can deter his post game.
The Spurs have size, but they don’t use it as the point of attack. Instead they use their size to carve out space for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, passing over the top of defense, and occasionally sealing off defenders for an easy basket at the rim.
Duncan was the best player in two overtimes of the Western Conference Finals, and he’ll have to establish himself for even longer stretches to punish the Heat’s smaller lineups. Because the alternative is LeBron James dictating the terms and the Spurs matching up with little-used and rarely successful small ball lineups with Kawhi Leonard operating as the power forward next to Duncan or Splitter.
It will be an interesting chess match between the Heat and Spurs, especially with all of Miami’s options now back on the table. The Heat appeared vulnerable for most of the Eastern Conference Finals, but certainly resurgent in Game 7. Miami will be different in the NBA Finals; they will be smaller, and they will be better for it.