By Michael Pina
With about two and a half minutes remaining in the first quarter of Game 3, LeBron James received an entry pass on the left block, threw his hip into Paul George -- knocking the All-NBA defender off balance for just a moment -- spun baseline and held in his mind every intention of violently murdering the rim.
Instead of being greeted by a few square feet of empty hardwood masquerading as his temporary runway, James smacked straight into an impossibly large Roy Hibbert. About one second before, Indiana's defensive tyrant gleefully skipped off his man, Chris Andersen, to come double James on the bounce.
For the very best player in the world, this wave of pressure is nothing new; James normally surfs above it. But that doesn't make restricted airspace any less aggravating and detrimental to Miami's most ideal objective, which is getting to the rim and forcefully introducing the basketball to circular iron.
Instead, James pivoted the other way and found Andersen standing a few feet below the opposite elbow. Just as Indiana adjusted itself to the pass, Andersen immediately shuffled the ball back and to his right, to a wide open Shane Battier in the corner. Swish.
Since Udonis Haslem started at power forward, the Heat began Game 3 with a python around their neck, scrapping together five points in the first nine minutes. Passing windows were narrow and momentary. Driving lanes? Forget about it, marred with road blocks at every turn.
The Pacers, and Hibbert especially, were able to move with more freedom and plug the paint without consequence. Battier's aforementioned corner three was, in essence, lucky. Andersen made an intelligent pass, sure, but this was more the result of unsustainable fortuity than dependable offensive flow. The Heat did not become two-time defending champions by associating with methods they can't rely on. And so, as Miami fought their way back and chipped at Indiana's lead, Erik Spoelstra (the NBA's benevolent Dr. Frankenstein) began tweaking lineups, integrating new combinations; hoping he'd win the lottery or, at the very least, put his players in a position to make him look half as smart as he really is.
With Chris Bosh in foul trouble for much of the second and third quarters, Spoelstra played Rashard Lewis over Battier or Andersen. Lewis played almost the entire third quarter with a plus-14. (Spoelstra also never allowed James or Wade to both be on the bench -- on two separate occasions, one actually took the other out of the game.)
Miami forged into the fourth quarter with a reasonable 71-64 lead and both Bosh and Andersen on the court. They've been decent with these two together in the playoffs, but not nearly as potent as they can be. About three and a half minutes in, Bosh picked up a technical foul, and the Pacers started drooling over a pending two-point deficit.
Spoelstra called time-out, then fired back with a unit he's hardly ever used in both this regular and postseason: Ray Allen, Norris Cole, James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh. They proceeded to fillet Indiana for about eight straight minutes, the longest stretch any Heat group saw in the game, going on a 20-5 run, outscoring the Pacers by 13 points, shooting 56.3 percent from the floor and 66.7 percent from the three-point line.
More than that singular showcase of excellence, though, this unit electro shocked Miami into the best basketball we've seen from them in quite a bit.
The most playing time Allen, Cole, Wade, James and Bosh saw in any month all season together was 15 forgetful minutes way back in January. They shot 26.3 percent. Spoelstra dusted the group off for all but 12 entire minutes after the All-Star break. In that -- equally useless -- time, Miami outscored opponents by nearly half a point per possession, a supreme and completely crazy number that would never hold up over the long haul. (This unit logged 34 minutes in last year's playoffs, but were outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions.)
Why was it so effective? It's super small, with James at power forward and either Allen or Wade at the three. It brings advantages and disadvantages just like any other unit, but the upside here is almost unlike any other grouping in the league.
It turned Allen into Game 3's star, running David West's poor bones all over the court on his way to a 4-for-4 shooting performance behind the arc. Allen came off pin-down screens, sprinted every inch of the baseline and proved what we all already know: West can't touch him.
This is by far the series' loudest cross match, and the biggest question Frank Vogel needs to answer the next time Spoelstra goes small. Does he take Hibbert or West off the floor? Does he put one of them on a less dangerous shooter like Wade? Does he dust off a rancid Evan Turner to give Indiana some more versatility?
With three minutes left in Game 3, Vogel replaced Hibbert (who couldn't be his normal self guarding Bosh way out on the perimeter anyway) with Rasual Butler, but the damage was already done. Moving forward, Indiana has options to combat this unit, but almost none come on defense. Theoretically, they can pound Miami with post-ups on the other end and force Allen to defend someone who can actually dribble. But their lack of depth on the wing and in the backcourt is probably too tough to overcome.
And who said posting up the Miami Heat would be easy? Whenever they go small, a "kill or be killed" mentality swells inside all five guys (especially Wade and James). It has to, or their defense will light itself on fire.
If Wade doesn't steal the ball here, the play is over. He does, though, leading to an open transition three for Allen. The sequence serves as a microcosm for how imposing Miami can be. It's their fourth gear in action.
The Heat can't go small an entire game, but for sustained bursts they're fatal. At the center of it all stands LeBron, the most disruptive force in basketball's universe. If the Pacers opt not to cross match and put West on James, they'd allow George to glue himself to Allen. No more death by long ball.
But doing so opens up a box of trouble. West can't guard the world's best player without fouling him. Miami would string West in pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, leaving Hibbert as the lone man in the paint, letting James pick apart a spread floor. It'd have the same effect as dropping a golf ball onto an overextended drum of damp toilet paper. The ball faces zero resistance and leaves behind a gaping hole.
And then there's Cole. There's absolutely no way of knowing if the third-year point guard -- who doesn't know what losing a playoff series feels like -- can continue to play so well, but in Game 3 he was phenomenal on both ends, erasing Lance Stephenson (which allowed Allen to hide on Indy's stationary point guard rotation) and dicing up Indiana's defense off the dribble.
This group not only has the potential to eliminate Indiana, but also do plenty of damage in the NBA Finals. It's an influential unit that creates mismatches all over the floor.
Against the San Antonio Spurs, small ball either forces Tiago Splitter to guard Allen or Wade on the perimeter, or pushes him to the bench. (When Miami went small in Game 4 of last year's Finals, Gregg Popovich opened things up with Splitter on Wade, but that didn't go too well.) Oklahoma City is built for this type of battle, but Serge Ibaka's calf is a flaring issue that'd make going small against Miami a bumpy ride.
It's understood that we're working with the smallest of sample sizes right now, and if Allen went 0-4 instead of 4-4, nobody would care. But ignore any form of playoff data at your own peril. Spoelstra sure won't dismiss the eight minutes of dynamite he witnessed in Game 3, and we should expect much more of it the rest of the way.
The lineup that tilted the Eastern Conference Finals in Miami's favor didn't "save their season," but it did provide our first real glimpse of a feisty defending champion that's nowhere near ready to relinquish the Larry O'Brien trophy. There's plenty more small ball to come.
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