The Miami Heat won the past two NBA championships by embracing their greatest strength. They were fast, smart, intimidating and with LeBron James—the best player in the world—they had the privilege of playing basketball in a way other teams want to but can't.
James is the rarest bird. He guards five positions, (last seen wrestling DeAndre Jordan during Wednesday night's victory over the Clippers), and can score efficiently from just about anywhere on the court.
Miami was best plugging James at "power" forward and surrounding him with shooters and Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh was the de facto center, stretching the floor on offense and providing more rim protection than he gets credit for. Both titles were won by the skin of their teeth.
This season the Indiana Pacers are Miami's largest threat. With Roy Hibbert, David West, Paul George and newly-signed Andrew Bynum, the Pacers are a small mountain. They pushed Miami to seven games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals; this year they're better and primed to have home-court advantage in the eventual postseason rematch.
Without the advantage of playing a seventh game in Miami, and everyone on the team a year older (especially Wade), Erik Spoelstra knows his team won't be able to sustain another playoff run that's fueled by aggressive, rapid fire defensive rotations.
So as they gear up for an inevitable Eastern Conference Finals showdown, the Heat are beginning to embrace more traditional lineups. They're growing, literally.
Aside from an early season matchup against the Detroit Pistons, Spoelstra didn’t start playing larger lineups (units that feature Bosh and Chris Andersen) until the team's second game against Indiana on Dec. 18.
The Heat still spend a majority of their time with James surrounded by shooters, but they've had crazy success whenever Bosh and Andersen share the floor. The pairing is a modestly used weapon with undeniable potency on both ends.
In 166 minutes, Miami is outscoring opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions when Bosh and Andersen both play. (The sample size is much, much larger, but just for the sake of comparison, the Pacers outscore opponents by 13.7 points per 100 possessions when West and Hibbert are paired in the frontcourt. Both numbers indicate complete domination.)
On offense the Heat go from titanium chainsaw to larger titanium chainsaw. Here's the shot chart, featuring gobs and gobs of green around the rim.
With Bosh and Andersen out there, they score 1.2 more points per 100 possessions than average (so, 1.2 more points per 100 possessions than the league's best offense).
But offense isn't the primary requirement for Miami's not-so-subtle transformation. They'll need to guard bruisers in the post, and protect the rim with less risk on the perimeter. This means forcing fewer turnovers and scoring fewer baskets in transition.
It's all good, though, if they can force missed shots, which is exactly what they're doing.
Opponents are shooting just 40.1 percent from the floor when Andersen and Bosh are on it at the same time. The Heat obviously aren’t as quick with their rotations, but instead of apologizing, they make up for it by smothering the paint—ultimately where offenses want to go anyway.
One result is fewer free-throw attempts. Ball-handlers who lacerate Miami's perimeter defense tend to pull up for tough in-between jumpers instead of barreling into two really huge, incredibly long dudes at the rim. Having a shot swatted into the third row is never fun.
Miami likes trapping pick-and-rolls on the perimeter, but with two bigs the general scheme tends to vary. Depending on who the other three players are, and how many shooters the opponents have on the floor, sometimes Miami will swarm and trap, but that strategy is better utilized with versatile units.
The team is comfortable trapping when one center is on the court (either Bosh or Andersen) because the players rotating behind him are speedy and ferocious. But the team is considerably slower when Andersen (or Bosh) is on the floor instead of, say, Norris Cole or Ray Allen. So other times these guys will hedge and recover or even sag back and force for a mid-range jumper.
These two clips show how Bosh and Andersen place a padlock on the rim.
Here’s Andersen limiting this Rajon Rondo/Joel Anthony pick-and-roll by dropping down towards the elbow. Knowing Anthony can’t tie his own shoes without falling over, Andersen ignores him and dares Rondo to shoot a jumper. (The play ends with a missed three after Rondo flips the ball to a wide open Gerald Wallace in the weak side corner.)
When Miami goes big, it also allows their guards to stay at home knowing there’ll be actual rim protection whenever an opponent drives to the basket. It’s why opponents are shooting just 23.6 percent from behind the arc with those two on the floor, according to NBA.com/Stats.
Not surprisingly, Miami owns the defensive glass, too, grabbing 4.3 more rebounds (5.0 on defense) per 48 minutes than their average. Normally one of the three worst rebounding teams in the league, the Heat grab 51.3 percent of all missed field goals—a leap into the top 10 in rebound rate—when those two bigs plant their flag in the paint.
Andersen and Bosh have been great, but Miami has another seven-foot tall card up their sleeve: the potentially devastating Greg Oden.
Bosh and Oden have appeared in just six games together for a grand total of 39 minutes, so some of their numbers are a little screwy (example: Miami’s pace is 104.1, good for fastest in the league and totally unsustainable), but the defense is stellar, giving up only 95.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s what you’d expect when two jumbo-sized people protect the paint.
Whether they go big or small, the Heat are a juggernaut with James, Bosh and Wade on the court. But by implementing larger lineups in his team's nightly game plan, Spoelstra is prepping for an opponent that was constructed to specifically take advantage of Miami's presumed weakness: lack of size.
Who knows if the success they've had the past few years can carry on with a completely different scheme and mindset. But they have to try something new; so far it's working.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.