Miami Heat Turn Small Ball into Championship-Worthy Defense

Rob MahoneyNBA Lead WriterJune 18, 2012

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 17:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks to pass in the second half against Udonis Haslem #40 and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat in Game Three of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 17, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder rolled through the defending world champions, a team carried by giants and the hottest squad in the NBA without much incident, but last year's much maligned runners-up have managed to provide OKC's greatest competition yet.

The Miami Heat are just the kind of walking paradox that is supposed to win but expected to fail—a standing that positioned the Thunder as the slight favorites in these NBA Finals and set up the Heat for yet another year of disappointment.

But naturally, the series hasn't been quite so simple, and the narrative hasn't been quite so convenient. The Heat are still a long way away from winning an NBA title, but they've taken a 2-1 advantage in the series by dictating matchups, grinding out possessions on offense and stalling the Thunder with their defense. 

That last part isn't at all insignificant, considering that Miami's chief evolution over the course of this season is to implement more "small"—by conventional positional standards, anyway—lineups. Israel Gutierrez of paraphrased the Heat's rotational development nicely:

The concept of "small ball" is nothing new to the NBA, but the Heat seem to be redefining what's possible within it. On the offensive end, the Heat are getting every benefit that comes with playing the smaller, quicker, better shooting lineups, but they're doing it without conceding a thing on the defensive end.

Not rebounds, not blocked shots, not position battles. Nothing.

The Heat don't in any way have a traditional defensive scheme or traditional defensive personnel, and thus this small-ball look is fundamentally different than just about every other nominally similar outfit the league has ever seen.

LeBron James is able to make a bigger impact as a wing defender than any other player in his positional class. With Dwyane Wade's tremendous defensive instincts, Chris Bosh's length, Shane Battier's enduring defensive value and the subtle defensive contributions of Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and James Jones, the Heat have provided quite the foil for the league's most efficient offense. 

The Heat D hasn't been perfect over the course of Miami's playoff run (case in point: the Eastern Conference Finals), but it's flexible in all the right places and has the potential to strangle offenses within an inch of their life.

Oklahoma City is obviously far too proficient to be asphyxiated, but that James Harden has struggled, Russell Westbrook has dashed headlong into trouble and Kevin Durant was draped by James at the tail end of Game 3 is no coincidence. This is a tremendous defensive team finally getting back into proper form, small ball or not.