MIAMI — Apologies in advance for the argument this article will introduce.
Or, rather, re-introduce.
Big vs. small.
Such a debate may seem familiar to those who follow American politics. In that arena, it references the size of government and is responsible for planting partisan hacks across the media landscape. It will never be settled, so long as ideologues on the left and right remain entrenched in their profitable positions.
In the NBA, the debate has quite a different application: roster and lineup construction. And, at least in terms of how to counter the back-to-back champion Miami Heat, you may have come to believe it has been settled beyond any dispute or doubt. After all, over the past four years, NBA analyst after NBA analyst has pounded the table, telling you that teams need to pound Miami.
That bigger is better.
But what if it isn't?
What if some of the data discount the conventional wisdom?
What if size isn't Miami's kryptonite?
"I think it's been countered," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "If you compare numbers from game to game, our rebounding numbers aren't indicative of our win-loss record. Rebounding is probably the biggest indication that a team is bigger than us, and more active on the offensive boards, and when we're out-rebounded, we've still proven that we can win."
That statement deserves a deeper dive. The problem with rebounding statistics is that they are subject to other factors, such as how well each team defends, since defensive rebounds are easier to accrue than offensive rebounds. The most common measure, rebounding differential, is especially imperfect.
Yes, the Heat were 19-5 when they out-rebounded opponents this season, compared to 33-22 when they were out-rebounded and 2-1 when they tied the other team in that category. But that was hardly definitive proof of rebounding's relevance to their results. Miami beat the Mavericks, Clippers and Wizards while being out-rebounded by 22, 21 and 17, respectively, in those games.
Even by the more advanced, and slightly more accurate, statistic of rebounding percentage (the Basketball-Reference.com estimate of a team's retrieval of available rebounds), it's tough to draw a Heat-specific conclusion about the correlation between corralling caroms and winning.
Yes, in the 12 games that the Heat grabbed the highest percentage of available rebounds, they were 12-0. And in the 16 games that they grabbed the lowest percentage of available rebounds, they were 4-12. But that's true of many teams since it speaks in part to making your opponent miss more shots.
Indiana was 16-0 in its 16 "highest rebound percentage" games and 6-9 in its 15 "lowest rebound percentage" games. San Antonio won each of its top 27 "rebound percentage" games and lost its bottom four.
And so on.
So, yeah, when Miami is getting bullied on the boards, it has a harder time winning. But so, it seems, do other elite teams.
What of Battier's other assertion—that the Heat traditionally have more trouble rebounding against bigger teams? That would seem a given, right?
Typically, Memphis and Chicago have manhandled Miami on the glass, and they did it again this season, out-rebounding the Heat all six times (total of 61 boards), with the Heat going 3-3 in those games.
But look at four games against the Pacers, who are widely perceived as having the most fearsome front line in the conference—Miami and Indiana finished with 147 rebounds and two wins apiece. Whereas Brooklyn, which sized down in the final three meetings—after losing center Brook Lopez to a foot injury—out-rebounded the Heat in all four matchups by a total of 25.
You could argue that, on many nights, Miami's rebounding numbers spoke more to its spirit than its stature. On Nov. 20, Miami out-rebounded the Magic by 15 and won by 28 in Orlando. Three nights later, with the Magic starting the exact same lineup—this time on the Heat's floor—Miami got out-rebounded by eight and won by just two.
So what, in Battier's opinion, has mattered more than rebounding?
"I think our Achilles' heel is turnovers," he said. "When we've turned the ball over, we've struggled."
When the Heat committed 17 or more turnovers this season, they were 11-11. When they committed 11 or fewer, they were 10-4.
Those high-turnover games came against all sorts of teams, and the low-turnover games came against some of those same teams.
Does size cause turnovers?
Or is it more related to focus (for the unforced ones) and length (for the forced ones)?
"Exactly," Battier said of the latter.
Again, this is where the Nets are instructive.
In the first meeting, Brooklyn started the 7'1" Lopez next to the 6'11" Kevin Garnett. But in the second, third and fourth games, the Nets played the 6'7" Paul Pierce at power forward, with Garnett starting at center once and the 6'10" Mason Plumlee starting at center twice.
That's hardly a huge front line.
Yet the Nets won all four meetings this season, albeit three by a single point and one in double overtime.
"It comes down to talent," ESPN analyst Hubie Brown said. "The Nets are very fortunate that they have an abundance of guys at the center and power forward position that are 6'9", 6'10" guys, but long. Then you have Pierce, who has always been a great defender, as long as there's a day off between games. Then in the backcourt, (Shaun) Livingston was a godsend."
Livingston, projected as a top-flight point guard prior to a catastrophic knee injury, stepped into the starting lineup at a wing spot after Lopez's injury. And he stepped into one of the hardest roles in the sport.
"I did the game in Miami a couple of weeks ago when Brooklyn won, and I've seen LeBron (James) since he came in the league," Brown said. "Livingston played him as well as anybody. He played him off the dribble better than any person ever matched up against him. Why? 6'7", quick feet, long arms. Well, that sounds easy. Well, other teams don't have that kind of personnel."
Plus, Brown noted that when Brooklyn goes to its bench, it isn't bringing off big stiffs but rather, long, mobile players such as Mirza Teletovic, Andray Blatche and Andrei Kirilenko "that can run, jump, do all this kind of stuff. Kirilenko, he can guard anybody. So they have all those type of guys."
So, does Brooklyn have the blueprint?
We won't know until the second round, if the Heat and Nets both advance.
But we do know that it's a huge departure from the "go big" mantra.
Dennis Scott has another blueprint.
It's a hybrid of the big-small approach.
"You need two things at the same time," the NBA TV analyst said. "A point guard who has quickness who can get into the paint, and then I would play big, meaning that I'd have to have one of my two big men, whether it's the power forward or the center, has to be dominant on the block."
He pointed to the success Zach Randolph has had for Memphis when attacking Battier in the block. Scott believes the Heat's "small" second forward (next to James) alignment can still work by pulling out a bigger forward out to the perimeter on the other end. But he also thinks Miami will miss Mike Miller this time around if Battier, Rashard Lewis and James Jones aren't making enough shots.
And if you don't have a low-block option, like a Randolph or an Al Jefferson, whom Miami will see in its first-round matchup against Charlotte? Then length, in Scott's view, becomes a suitable substitute.
Again, this is where Brooklyn—supposedly a small team—comes in.
"That's a good point Hubie brings up, because the length in Brooklyn's case goes both ends of the floor, where a Joe (Johnson) or Deron (Williams), maybe even Paul, you have so many different angles to attack the defense," Scott said. "Then, offensively, you're sitting back and saying, 'Who has the better matchup?' And that's why Brooklyn has been able to be successful against Miami."
San Antonio has size on its roster, starting two 6'11" players in Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan. But Gregg Popovich often put Duncan at center and the 6'8" Boris Diaw at power forward, trusting the weighty Diaw to move his feet well enough to stick with James at times and often just daring the four-time MVP to shoot. Scott predicts more coaches will make "bold decisions" with their lineups against Miami, especially in light of the Heat's increasingly suspect supporting cast.
"The superstars are going to set the table," Scott said. "Can the role players and the others finish eating?"
That will largely depend on how they're shooting.
Remember the earlier numbers about rebounding and how they don't completely correlate with the Heat's results?
Well, their field-goal percentage does.
When Miami shot 52.2 percent or better this season, it was 23-2. When it shot 45.0 percent or worse, it was 3-12. On the flip side, Miami was 5-17 when an opponent shot better than 50 percent and 34-3 when an opponent shot 46.1 percent or worse.
The Heat's primary problems this season were cold nights from their own shooters and lazy nights on defense that allowed opposing shooters, even ordinary ones, to get into rhythm.
That's about focus, not size.
"This team reminds me of Doc Rivers' 2008 Boston team," Scott said. "Remember how we would say, 'Boston doesn't rebound,' and Doc would say, 'I don't care about offensive rebounds. I care about a quality possession and make sure I get a good shot. And I'm telling everyone to get back on defense.'"
How far does this Heat team go?
"My gut is that the Western Conference is going to be the champion this year," Scott said. "But I still think the Heat get to the Finals, but I still think OKC or the Clippers get 'em this year."
It's appropriate that Scott mentioned Oklahoma City.
That team, more than any other, embodies the folly of trying to topple the Heat with size.
The Thunder broke a six-game losing streak against the Heat—dating back to the 2012 NBA Finals—on Jan. 29, and they did so after falling behind 15-2 and benching center Kendrick Perkins. He played just eight minutes in the second matchup before leaving with an injury, and while the Heat won by 22, Miami players still came away convinced that the Thunder pose more of a threat when sliding Serge Ibaka up to center and Kevin Durant to power forward.
Will the Thunder do this again, if they meet in the NBA Finals?
And will it work?
But one Eastern Conference scout warns most teams not to tinker too much, especially if they're not accustomed to the style.
"Going small is a death sentence against the Heat," he said. "Big at least can bother them."
He said that the problem with playing against the Heat's "small" players is that those players are better than what most opponents offer, "and they're used to playing that way."
"Indy going small would be stupid," the scout said. "That's not their game."
Will the Heat win the season's final game again, a third straight time since switching to small ball as their primary strategy?
Either way, the scout won't declare the big vs. small debate done.
"I've heard this all the time the past couple of years, about the ways to beat them," he said. "But if anyone had the answer, why hasn't anyone done it?"
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.
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