Make no mistake about it: The Miami Heat are still specializing in small ball.
Their 102-90 Game 4 victory over the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals is our latest proof. Without Chris Andersen, usually their most reliable frontcourt player against the physical Pacers, they relied as much as ever on undersized lineups. Chris Bosh acted as a stretch 5 in the first half, going off for three three-pointers and 25 points overall to help create a lead the Heat never coughed up.
But Miami came into the season with something like a facelift on their bench, as they picked up Michael Beasley and Greg Oden. Both were unlikely journeyman bigs, once lottery picks, now marginal NBA players. This after they amnestied Mike Miller, one of the key cogs to their small lineups last season.
After the trying seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, in which the Heat were nearly pounded out of a third straight trip to the NBA Finals, it looked like Miami was going bigger. They were trusting their solid championship culture to turn Beasley and Oden’s careers around like they did for Andersen’s.
There was even the building storyline of Oden and Andrew Bynum facing off once the Pacers signed Bynum midseason after a failed stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. We were going to see some classic big-man ball on the biggest stage—it was like the Pacers and Heat had agreed to create a time portal back to 1990s basketball.
But Bynum has since left the Pacers, and Indiana has reverted to the tried-and-true formula they used to give Miami such fits last season. They’ve gotten over the emotional trauma that seized their team for months, ready to give the champs their best shot again.
Only this time, the Heat seem to be having a much easier time with the Pacers' slow-down style. The post-play isn't working, and lose too much when they have to use their bench. Miami has spanked the Pacers not by sizing up against Indiana’s bulky roster, but by falling back to their own familiar strategies.
Even before Chris Bosh went off from deep, the Heat had taken control of this series by doubling down on speed and shooting and reinvesting in the continuity and chemistry of their core role players. We always knew LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would create the team’s true punch, but did we think Miami would look as fearsome as ever with a remix of their same old supporting cast? From Michael Pina at Sports on Earth:
[Heat coach Erik] Spoelstra… 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.
Allen and Cole have been outstanding in this series, and projections of the Heat getting bigger and more versatile seem like afterthoughts. Oden and Beasley now look like mere bodies used through dog-day stretches of the regular season, when the real Heat were laying in wait for their three-peat campaign to begin in earnest.
Despite the loss of Miller, a pivotal contributor to both of the Heat’s last two championships, Miami hasn’t had to change its style yet. The weak Eastern Conference and even the grinding, top-seeded Pacers still have no answer for their floor-spreading shooting, unparalleled basketball IQ and tenaciously trapping defense.
Give a lot the credit to Cole and Allen. Allen has perfected his role as Miami’s closer, seemingly perfect from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter—he had four three-pointers to push Game 3 out of reach. And Cole has become one of his team’s very best defenders in his third season as a pro, showing no signs of struggle as he sticks to the dynamic Lance Stephenson.
"He makes his mark defensively," James said of Cole to USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt. "He makes us all step up our game defensively. Offensively, whatever he gives us is always extra for us. He attacks the rim, gets himself looks, gets our guys great looks and it's great to have him.”
Once again, the Heat are thriving by eschewing their lack of a big frontcourt. They’ve still got enough smarts, quickness and athleticism to beat out larger men. Despite roster changes made to beef up, the Heat are a small-ball team all over again.
It’s enough against the Pacers—but will it be enough to win a third straight NBA championship? The Oklahoma City Thunder can match (and perhaps overtake) the Heat's otherwise singular athleticism. And the San Antonio Spurs, barely losers of last year's seven-game Finals, have had more than enough time to mull Miami's approach. Gregg Popovich and company don't usually lose when they get a second crack.
Assuming the Heat fulfill the seemingly foregone conclusion of beating the Pacers, we're about to find out if their playing range is enough for another title.