By Lang Whitaker, NBA.com
VIDEO: Erik Spoelstra speaks with the media after Heat practice (April 22)
MIAMI — You probably know all about the Big Three, Miami’s terrific trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Those three form the Heat’s power base. But for the Heat to three-peat as champs, they also need big performances from what Shane Battier says the players refer to as The Little 12.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has referred to his bench as a bullpen for a few years now, borrowing some baseball terminology. On Sunday, Spoelstra revived this trope when referring to James Jones, who made a somewhat surprising appearance off the bench in Game 1 against Charlotte and came up huge. After the Heat’s practice Tuesday, Spoelstra stressed that the bullpen parallel was simply a way to get players to understand what they were working toward.
“This year is different than years before,” Spoelstra said. “Look, it’s not an -ism or anything like that. It’s something they can wrap their minds around. It’s something that’s been done before. Because of the way the season went on and the makeup of this group, we have a lot of guys that can contribute, and we’ll need those contributions, but it might be different game to game, series to series, quarter to quarter, and it’s a little bit different than the way this team was before. And the quicker we’re able to wrap our minds around it and adapt to that, I think the more we can play to our strengths. Hopefully.”
Spoelstra has shown that he’s not afraid to make bold moves with Miami’s bench rotation. Last season, Battier didn’t play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but in Game 7 he scored 18 points in 28 minutes. During those same Finals, Mike Miller went from the bench into the starting lineup, getting the nod in the final four games against San Antonio.
While Miller is the only one of Miami’s top 11 rotation players departed from last season’s team, this season Spoelstra has juggled minutes up and down the bench. In February, Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis combined to play 17 minutes for the month. Against Charlotte on Sunday, Haslem started, and he and Lewis combined to play 21 minutes.
Spoelstra said that having this loose collective of versatile players is something the Heat have been trying to compile for a few seasons, noting they’ve played 14 deep three straight years: “Our first year, we did not have enough depth. That wasn’t the reason why [we lost in the 2011 Finals] — Dallas beat us, fair and square. But we had injuries, and we got to that point and we were very flat. That was the first step of doing it, but it’s constant sacrifice. Constant acknowledgement of that sacrifice. It’s not easy. Everybody says, in life, in business, and in pro sports, ‘Yeah, I’ll sacrifice.’ But it’s always easy to sacrifice when you’re not the one sacrificing. As long as it’s somebody else sacrificing, everybody buys into the sacrifice.”
“Look, every player wants to play,” Battier said. “Once you get to this league, we’re all here for a reason. But you have to have to understand what we’re trying to accomplish. And although you don’t agree with it, for the betterment of the team, you suck it up, you cheer your guys on, and you produce when your number is called.”
According to Haslem, having other teammates go through similar journeys makes it more relatable for the rest of The Little 12.
“You never really know what a guy in that situation is going through until you go through it,” said Haslem. “But there’s other guys who are going through it with you. So what we did is we kind of formed a pact, the guys who weren’t playing. We made sure we kept each other encouraged, we kept each other ready, we played pick-up games with each other, three-on-three, four-on-four, whatever we could do. We got shots up together, we did conditioning together. You know, it’s a lot easier when you got guys that are in the same position going through it with you.”
On Sunday, with Miami up 35-34 with 4:19 to play in the second quarter, Spoelstra brought in Jones, earlier than he usually looks for him.
“I was a little surprised,” Jones said after the game. “Not surprised that he called my name. I was surprised he went to me early. But not so surprised that I wasn’t prepared. We’ve said all along, we have 15 guys who can play. Most nights we only play nine. Which nine play? We don’t know. But we don’t need to know. We just need to know that whichever nine go out there will commit and perform.”
Jones had announced he was “definitely thinking” about retiring … back in 2012. He did not, though this season he logged just a combined 70 minutes from November through January, and didn’t play a single second in February. He also didn’t play in any of Miami’s four regular season wins against the Bobcats. And yet Jones posted a plus-9 player rating in just over 4 minutes of action in the first half. By the time he’d totaled 12 minutes of court time, it was up to a plus-17. He finished with 14 minutes of action and a plus-18 rating, to go along with a dozen points.
“We learned this from early on, that he is a unique guy,” Spoelstra said of Jones following Game 1. “He is one of those unique players that you can pull out of your bullpen and not many guys have that type of mentality — patience to understand the big picture, willing to sacrifice, and don’t have an ego in that regard, yet having incredible confidence when they do play. That’s a tough balance to achieve and he understands the big picture. These are small opportunities but he makes the most of it.”
“We said it early in the year,” noted Wade. “If we want to win a championship this year, we’re going to have to do it a little different. Last year, Rashard Lewis didn’t play as much, or James Jones didn’t play as much. This year those guys are going to have to be a huge part of it.”
So if Spoelstra signals down the sideline during the rest of the postseason, he may well be calling for a lefty reliever or a groundball specialist from his tried and tested ‘pen, although Battier said the “bullpen” analogy is mostly reserved for Jones, who had an uncle who was a major league baseball player.
“He’s the Joe Nathan, the Rivera if you will,” Battier said. “When we can’t make a shot, he’s the guy who you signal for the righty, and bring him in. It’s a metaphor for the rest of us. We call it The Little 12. Bullpen, Little 12, call it what you will.”
Just so long as you call them.