Eric Spoelstra is being coy about his starting lineup for Game 2.
Chris Bosh is (almost) certainly out. Many presume that means Miami will move LeBron James to now-vacant power forward slot while putting Shane Battier at the other forward. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN’s Heat Index said the Spo “smiled” earlier today when reporters asked if LeBron would start at the 4, saying only that “all options are on the table.”
Going small after Bosh went down is not what Spoelstra did Game 1. He instead opened the second half with a more traditional front court of James, Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf. Still undersized no doubt, but there were two prototypical big men on the court. That didn’t last long, however. LeBron and Battier played the entire fourth quarter at the 4 and 3 spots, respectively, as the Heat dominated the Pacers for 12 straight minutes on their way to the victory. In one 3-minute stretch early in the period, those two — along with Joel Anthony in the front court and Dwayne Wade and Mike Miller at the guard spots — went on a 10-2 run from which the Pacers would never recover.
As that shows, whether or not LeBron starts at power forward in Game 2 is more semantics than anything. Regardless who steps on the court at tip-off, Indiana is certain to see plenty of him at the position throughout the series, particularly if Bosh, as some presume, will not play again.
In some very obvious ways, this benefits Indiana.
The Heat have nobody on their roster who can guard the 7’2″ Roy Hibbert. Without the 6’11″ Bosh — Miami’s tallest rotation player — Hibbert will have an even more glaring size advantage. Bosh isn’t exactly Kevin Garnett defensively, and Roy had his was with him in early in Game 1, but Spoelstra can’t be excited about having to take his chances with any of Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem or Ronny Turiaf guarding Hibbert one-on-one when there isn’t even another traditional big man on the floor to clog up the paint.
For what it’s worth, even battling foul trouble that eventually led to him fouling out, Hibbert went 2-for-3 with two free-throw attempts and 2 offensive boards in 9 fourth-quarter minutes on Sunday, even as the Pacers went away from the post-up game by launching 7 threes in the period. (He did this mostly against Anthony, who covered him for all but the 1:48 Turiaf was out there.) This was against very few double-teams, something the Heat avoid since it, according to ESPN’s Heat Index writer Brian Windhorst, “upsets their floor balance and leaves them vulnerable on the perimeter.” In that sense, Spoelstra seems to embrace the philosophy that his team will play the way it plays — not adjust to the specific match-up issues the other team may present.
Haberstroh expects this to continue — and Hibbert to thrive — in Game 2. “I see Frank Vogel getting back to his roots, and studying the tape to find a better way to get him the ball in the post with Chris Bosh ailing,” he wrote today. “Secondly, the Heat know that locking down the perimeter and creating havoc in the passing lanes will lead them to fastbreak opportunities. They’ll ‘let’ Hibbert get his.”
Protecting the Paint
Even if Roy isn’t able to dominate while LeBron plays the 4 extensively, it will neutralize one of Mimi’s biggest advantages in the series: forcing Hibbert outside of the paint on defense. Neither Anthony nor Turiaf is capable of making anything beyond gimme-putt range. (According to NBA.com, Joel is 3-for-12 outside of the paint over the past two season; Turiaf is 6-for-25.)
Haslem, once a mid-range assassin who hit 45% or better on shots between 16-23 feet for three straight years, has been mired in such a shooting slump that Haberstroh today characterized his jumper as having been “broken for some time now.” Against the Knicks in the playoffs, Haberstroh notes, Udonis shot just 3-for-12 from the midrange. He also didn’t make any of his 4 shots on Sunday, but even if he does regain his accuracy, his inability to create or have any face-up game makes him a such one-dimensional threat that Hibbert will still be able to focus more on protecting the paint than chasing a dynamic scorer like Bosh from the block to the elbow to the wing to the top of the key and back. Roy should now be able to focus his attention on becoming the potent rim protector he was throughout the Magic series.
Then again, the Heat are a mighty fine team with LeBron at power forward. The numbers bear this out, even if they might not translate. (Why? Because, for example, a bulk of the LeBron-at-the-4 lineups, say the people who have watched the Heat more closely than I have all year, came when Bosh was resting and James was playing extended minutes against the other team’s reserves. Also, as Brian Windhorst of ESPN has noted, Bosh sat the last six games of the season. LeBron didn’t play in two of those and Wade sat four of them. So all these lineup and on-court/off-court data sets may be a little wonky.)
More important than what has happened in the past is what will happen going forward in this series. And one thing is inevitable: When Spoelstra puts out a front court of Battier, LeBron and, say, Anthony, it will obviously cause some match-up problems for Indiana. Danny Granger will likely continue to cover James while Hibbert guards Anthony. That leaves David West to run around the perimeter chasing Battier, who took nearly two-thirds of his shots this year from behind the arc. While Shane’s shot has been erratic this year (he shot just 33.9% from three this season and has only made 7 of his 24 attempts, or 29.2%, this postseason), he is a career 38.2% three-point shooter and one of only 67 players in NBA history to make at least 1,000 treys in his career. What this means: West certainly has to respect his range and can’t let him get into a groove, but doesn’t exactly have to treat him like he is Steve Novak or Ray Allen.
Undoubtedly, however, the Heat will run out some lineups with LeBron playing power forward that are highly effective. See Sunday’s fourth quarter, when the Heat out-scored the Pacers 26-15, for one prominent example. When this is going on and the proverbial house is burning down, what does Frank Vogel do? As the lack of plodding big men keep interior driving lanes open for James and Wade, and guys like Battier and Mike Miller start hitting threes against a defense that can’t rotate quickly enough against precise drive-and-kicks, does Vogel stick with his core lineup? When LeBron and company get off to the races on long rebounds and live-ball turnovers, does Vogel try to keep up and counter with a lineup that has more speed?
If he does, well, we’ll get to that. But even if he stays with his traditional rotations, it will present other defensive problems in addition to the obvious ones in the video here, as Couper Moorhead of NBA.com points out.
playing James at the four and forcing Frank Vogel to decide whether to take out Hibbert or West and match small for well, Spoelstra ensures that he’ll at least create a cross matching scenario for the Pacers. If Vogel leaves his big men in, he’s still not going to want either of them defending James, so as James defends West on one end, it’s up to Danny Granger or Paul George to find James on the other.
That will be problematic, but perhaps not as much as it will be to try to match Miami’s perimeter-oriented attack with an unfamiliar style of small ball.
If Vogel Plays Small Ball
Throughout the season, Vogel hasn’t gone small much. “It’s not something that we want to be part of our regular identity,” said Vogel before an April 7 game against Boston, “but sometimes it’s called for. To be a great team, you have to be able to win playing different ways.” He went on to note his reluctance to play small ball, despite being somewhat forced to do so in a few different games leading up to the Celtics matchup. “We want to try to impose our style of play on everybody we play,” he said. “But we have to be flexible enough to counter if it’s not working … It’s got to be a weapon in your arsenal.”
The team has changed since then. Darren Collison is now coming off the bench and being asked to push the tempo on both sides of the ball. Leandro Barbosa, then a new arrival, is usually the first reserve to enter the game. Then there is Dahntay Jones, who has fallen out of the regular rotation but remains someone Vogel will trust — and may even rely on to defend LeBron at times — to play in this series. Those three guys, combined with starters George Hill, Paul George and Granger, give Vogel six guards and wings to mix and match when he does decide to go small.
Unfortunately, the performance of any lineup he choses to pair with a single big man will be hard to project. Because the Pacers simply haven’t played small ball enough this season for us to have much data.
The Pacers played well less than 100 minutes of small ball this season. This, in a season of more than 3,100 minutes. Below is a chart with every lineup that Vogel used this year that included just one big man (and played at least one minute together). The positive here is that more of these lineups had net positive ratings (meaning, they scored more points than they gave up per 100 possessions). The negative is that only two of the lineups played even 10 minutes together so the results are relatively insignificant.
Pacers’ Regular Season Small Ball Lineups
So far in the playoffs, the Pacers have gone to small ball a little more frequently. Still, they’ve only done so for about 19 minutes of the 293 they’ve played so far in the six post-season games, so we’re still not talking about a large sample size here.
Here are the lineups Vogel has tried.
Pacers’ Regular Season Small Ball Lineups
Not a ton here to use to predict future success obviously. And none of it came against the Heat in Game 1. With Bosh out and James playing power forward for the entire fourth quarter, Vogel played West for all 12 minutes and Hibbert for nearly 9. When Hibbert sat, the front cout was West, Tyler Hansbrough and Granger.
The most prominent instance of small ball in the playoffs so far came during the Game 4 meltdown in Orlando. The Magic were torching the Pacers in the pick-and-roll and Vogel decided to adapt to their quickness. It didn’t work. Hill, Barbosa, George, Granger and West gave up multiple layups as they were out-scored 6-0 in 90 seconds as the Magic surged and Vogel went back to a Hibbert/West/Granger front court. That same small ball lineup was also on the floor as Granger infamously traveled before getting up a potentially game-tying three at the end of Game 1. (They also gave up 4 points during the fourth quarter of Game 3 in under two minutes, but it was irrelevant since the Pacers were so far ahead.)
As mentioned, not much to go on.
And I doubt there will be a lot more small ball lineups to analyze even after this series is over. I’m sure Vogel will use it sparingly for spot minutes or to simply get Barbosa a few extra minutes if he and Paul George ever get hot at the same time or when he wants to shake thing up by playing Hill and Darren Collison at the same time. But ultimately, I wouldn’t expect to see all that much more small ball from Indiana. Vogel prides himself on preaching “smash mouth” and “power post” basketball.
He won’t change that philosophy just because Spoelstra decides to surround LeBron with more shooters instead of offensively inept big men. So it will be up to Hibbert and West to punish LeBron down low and ensure that the advantage Miami small ball gives the Pacers is a larger one than it gives the Heat.