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MIAMI — Has another injury forced the Miami Heat into another lineup change that will help them win a championship?
It was two years ago when Chris Bosh suffered an abdominal injury in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against Indiana. His absence forced Shane Battier into the starting lineup and unlocked the Heat’s floor spacing around LeBron James, turning them into an offensive juggernaut and two-time champions.
In Game 3 of this year’s Eastern Conference finals, Chris Andersen suffered a bruised left thigh. Andersen wasn’t starting, but his absence forced another lineup shuffle by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Because the Heat needed a back-up center, Udonis Haslem went from starter to reserve, and Rashard Lewis — who hadn’t played in the first two games — was inserted into the starting lineup for Game 4.
Andersen could be back for Game 6 on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) — he’s a game-time decision — but it seems unlikely that Spoelstra would remove Lewis from the starting lineup either way.
Lewis is a series-high plus-35 in the conference finals. Though he shot 0-for-7 in Games 3 and 4, the Miami offense has been at its best with Lewis on the floor. His work (and “work” is the right word here) against David West has allowed the Heat to remain strong defensively without playing big.
With the best player in the world, Miami has a lot of combinations that work. But the one with Haslem wasn’t working that well. Haslem is a series-low minus-43. He has hurt Miami’s spacing offensively and hasn’t been able to make up for it with defense and rebounding. Even in the Charlotte series, which the Heat swept, he was a minus-17.
Going into the conference finals, the Heat just didn’t have many alternatives at the second forward spot. Battier’s minutes are limited as he approaches retirement. And Michael Beasley never earned a postseason role. Neither can really handle West defensively.
Lewis can. He’s listed as 15 pounds lighter than West, but he held his own against bigger power forwards when he played for the Orlando Magic. And now that he’s rediscovered his shot (he hit six of his nine threes in Game 5 on Wednesday), he can provide even more spacing for James offensively.
So with 25-30 minutes of Lewis, a dash of Battier and a fourth quarter that features their three-guard lineup, the Heat don’t have to play big, save for a few Bosh-Andersen minutes, in which they still have solid floor spacing. That floor spacing has made Indiana’s No. 1 defense struggle to get stops.
“They spread you out,” West said Thursday. “We’re not matching up in transition as well as we should. They’re getting us cross-matched. We just got to get a man to a body in transition.”
If they can do that, there’s still the question of what they should try to take away.
“We expect LeBron to have a huge night and be able to play his game,” Paul George said. “But we can’t let Rashard Lewis go for 18 from the 3-point line. That’s an area that we feel like we can cut out, the whole team in general. We do a great job of being able to guard the paint as well as the 3-point line.”
West, the guy who’s responsible for defending Lewis, says it’s a balance.
“We’re not going to overreact,” West said. “A lot of it is the system stuff that we’re doing, just having some breakdowns, maybe putting too many guys in front of LeBron. But we got to take our chances. We have to load to LeBron, load to Wade, and force those other guys to make plays and beat us.”
Lewis hadn’t hit six threes since the 2009 Finals. He probably isn’t going to hit six again. But whether he’s making shots or not, his presence on the floor is working for the Heat.
Thirteen different players have started playoff games for the Heat over the last four years. Spoelstra isn’t afraid to make changes when needed. Don’t be surprised if Lewis, who played just 47 minutes in last year’s postseason, is starting in The Finals.