By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat started small, with Shane Battier and LeBron James at forward. In Game 2, they started big, replacing Battier with Udonis Haslem.
The Heat won Game 2, but the bigger lineup didn’t really work. They were outscored by 18 points in 17 minutes with Haslem and Chris Bosh on the floor together. Add that to the combination’s Game 1 numbers and Miami is a minus-28 in 25 minutes with Bosh and Haslem both in the game.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Heat are better off playing small, because they’ve played well when Bosh has shared the floor with Chris Andersen. That pair is a plus-15 in 22 minutes together.
Still, that’s a minus-13 in 47 minutes with two bigs on the floor vs. a plus-7 in 49 minutes with just one big on the floor.
These small sample sizes, though, could be swung by one stretch of 5-6 minutes where James takes over (as he tends to do sometimes), where the Heat defense takes a rest (as it tends to do) or where the Pacers go ice cold (as they tend to do).
But all you have in a playoff series are small sample sizes. And they don’t get much bigger if you add in regular season meetings when one or both teams could have been playing the second night of a back-to-back. You sometimes have to make decisions and adjustments based on what’s happened in portions of games here and there. And it has to be a combination of what the numbers say and what your eyes are seeing.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will continue to mix small lineups with big lineups, in part because Battier can’t give Miami what he used to. When this version of the Heat won its first title in 2012, Battier was the guy – as a small-ball four who could shoot and defend – that really unlocked their floor-spacing identity.
He averaged more than 33 minutes per game in that postseason, but has played less than half that in all but three games in these playoffs. And neither Rashard Lewis nor Michael Beasley has been able to take over that role (or has seen the floor in the conference finals thus far).
“We’ve balanced [big and small] as much as we have in the three years this year,” Spoelstra said before Game 2. “And that was what this season required. So we’ve played a lot of different lineups. We have enough experience, different rotations to be able to play different styles of basketball without compromising what we do best.
“That might be what this series requires, but we have great versatility. We have confidence in our versatility. If we have to utilize all of it, whatever’s necessary.”
Not only has Lewis been removed from the rotation in this series, but so has James Jones, whose on-court numbers have been ridiculously good in the playoffs. So it would help if Bosh could make some shots.
Haslem is a decent mid-range shooter, but decent mid-range shooting doesn’t hurt the opposing defense. Andersen is a strong finisher and his well-timed dives to the rim have been successful against the Pacers in the past, but his range doesn’t extend beyond three feet.
It’s Bosh’s shooting that can really take Pacers center Roy Hibbert away from the basket or punish him for staying there. He did the latter on the one 3-pointer he’s hit in this series (which sparked Miami’s Game 2 comeback), but Bosh has missed the other eight threes he’s taken. And according to SportVU, six of the eight misses have been uncontested, including the very first shot of the series.
In six games against Indiana this season, Bosh is 4-for-20 (20 percent) on uncontested threes. Against other teams, he’s shot 37 percent. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, he shot 15-for-33 (45 percent) on uncontested threes. Then he went to Indiana and hit the side of the backboard.
For the most part, Hibbert has remained in the paint against the Heat. And for the most part, Bosh hasn’t been able to do anything about it. It’s become clear that this is not a good matchup for him, but open shots are open shots and they’ll continue to be there if he’s being defended by Hibbert. But whether the Heat are playing big or small, he’s going to have to start making some.