Hearing the armchair expertise of your typical sports fan—this writer included—it’s easy to believe teams and their coaches routinely fail to think their strategies through.
It seemed like such a foolproof plan on its face: Go small with Shane Battier and Chris Bosh, thereby preventing the Pacers from packing the paint too tightly.
Instead, Indy treated its undersized foes to the first great lesson of these Eastern Conference Finals: Don’t mess with what works.
What worked for Miami through its seven-game series win a season ago was a starting lineup featuring Udonis Haslem at center—or the third forward, depending on your perspective.
While Indy wound up exploiting that first point—Hibbert finished the series with averages of 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game on 56 percent shooting—the means more than justified the ends for Miami: a second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
Contrastingly, Sunday's Game 1 found Heat coach Erik Spoelstra electing to put Bosh on Hibbert, James on West and—most disastrously of all—an aging Shane Battier on George, who finished with 24 points on 7-of-13 shooting.
However, as Bleacher Report NBA writer Ethan Skolnick observes in his splendid recap, the Battier-George matchup wasn’t the only Miami roll that wound up snake eyes:
West kept getting position in the post, even as James tried to front him; the Pacers burly forward would finish the game 7-for-8 at the rim. And Bosh, who has scuffled against Indiana long enough to deem it a trend, couldn't move Hibbert on defense or make him pay for slow pursuit to the perimeter on the other. In the game's first 73 seconds, he missed two three-pointers from the right corner, and threw a pass behind Battier for a backcourt violation.
It’s not as if the Heat need look solely at last year’s seven-game slugfest to see the error of their ways.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), in its 23 minutes over two games against the Pacers during the regular season, the unit of Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, James, Bosh and Battier registered a woeful net rating of minus-21.8
Compare that to the lineup of Chalmers, Toney Douglas, James, Bosh and Haslem, which tallied a whopping 68.6 over 16 minutes—simply substitute Wade for Douglas, the logic goes.
The recourse might sound simple enough: start Haslem, move Bosh and James down a position, profit.
One could argue Miami’s Game 1 gambit may have been more about continuity than simple spacing. In a way, they’d be right: The unit that started Game 1 was by far the Heat’s most oft-used lineup during the regular season, having logged 429 minutes and an overall net rating of 8.1 over 35 games.
Judging by Battier’s postgame remarks (via Skolnick), however, you’d think Miami’s starters had joined in battle for the first time:
Should the Heat start Haslem in Game 2?
"We were aggressive at the wrong times, and we were passive other times," Battier said. "We were in between mindsets the entire game. And as a result, I thought they really dictated what was going to happen on the pick-and-roll, versus what we do when dictate what teams do against us."
There may seem a second, more pressing concern at play as well: By sparing James the game-long burden of guarding George, Spoelstra is necessarily saving his four-time MVP for the offensive end.
But as Sunday’s opening salvo showed, James stands to absorb just as much punishment from West’s bullying back-downs as he will chasing George around the perimeter.
More pressing from the Heat’s perspective is whether—and to what effect—Bosh is able to rebound from five straight subpar showings. Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press laid out Bosh's troubling numbers:
Bosh: 4.4 rebounds per game vs Indy this season, now 3 for 19 from 3-point range in those five games. Obviously, Heat hoping that changes.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) May 18, 2014
As Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb aptly notes, if the Heat think Indiana somehow fears the prospect of Bosh firing from the corner, they’ve got another thing coming—a potential elimination, even:
Interior defenders are reluctant to vacate the paint and put a hand in Bosh's face. Doing so would leave said paint more vulnerable to attack from James and Wade. No matter how many threes Bosh actually makes, teams would rather leave him open than alternatives like Allen or Shane Battier. When picking perimeter poisons, Bosh has been the flavor of the month.
What Haslem lacks on offense—namely, Battier’s flat-footed three-point range—he more than makes up for with his savvy defensive presence, sacrificed inches be damned.
It’s never been about shutting Hibbert down.
Rather, by withholding Battier for when the benches empty—keeping him off of George or even employing him at the 4—Spoelstra is both giving his second unit more long-distance firepower while sparing a once-proud defender the unfair burden of keeping Indiana’s superstar forward in check.
It’s hard to tell whether “pulling Hibbert from the paint” amounts to a tried and true strategy, or merely a tired sports trope. For these Heat, though, this series is no longer about outsmarting or out-strategizing the opponent, or merely absorbing the Pacers’ best punch.
Starting now—just as it was one year ago and how it will always be when a champ is briefly put to the ropes—it’s about hitting back.