The Benefits of Smallball

MIAMI, January 11 – The Miami HEAT have had this card in their pocket for some time now, waiting for the right moment to unveil the newest wrinkle in their ever-expanding offensive dynamic.

That moment came Sunday night against the Portland Trail Blazers, after a late-game smattering of a Wes Matthews-LaMarcus Aldridge two-man game put Portland up seven with 2:11 to play.

So, Erik Spoelstra subbed out his center, Joel Anthony, and inserted another small forward, James Jones. A lineup of Jones, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carlos Arroyo and Chris Bosh then scored on its next five possessions, mounting an 11-4 run to force overtime.

In extra time, they put up 14 points in nine possessions, hitting five jumpers and a pair of free throws, eventually winning, 107-100. Just as important, with James defending the 6-foot-11 Marcus Camby, the HEAT held Portland to 11 points in their final 14 possessions – not counting opportunities gained by offensive rebounds – allowing .78 points per possessions with their smallball lineup.

The idea is nothing revolutionary. Offensively-gifted teams have been going small for years in order to optimize their advantages gained from speed and athleticism. But it’s a new dimension for Miami, so let’s go to the video of those final possessions in regulation to see why:

In their first small-lineup possession, James is guarded by Nic Batum, just as he had been all night. Bosh, to the left of the top of the key, is drawing an opposing four or five. In this case, he draws Camby out of the paint, as Bosh does regularly with his mid-range shooting prowess.

So far, so normal.

Where the HEAT confuse the Blazers is by sending Jones and Wade on crossing routes underneath the basket, with Matthews on Wade and Aldridge now stuck on Jones, the sub for Anthony. Portland doesn’t switch as Miami’s wings cross, but the action forces them to chase each player away from the basket, drawing Aldridge, in particular, way above the free-throw line.

But, by the time Aldridge gets there, it’s already too late. James has already struck, darting down the center lane to drop in a layup. The shot is well contested, but almost entirely due to Batum’s defensive ability, as Aldridge and his size is already taken out of the play with his momentum carrying him up and away, and Camby, whose head was turned, is forced to help from the top, where he does little.

Were one of Miami’s centers in the game, Aldridge would have likely been closer to the basket to help Batum, but, at the very least, he would have been waiting, ready to help on James, rather than chasing a sharpshooter out to the perimeter.

In this play, James is effectively running his own secondary break, pulling up for three as the rest of his teammates set themselves in the halfcourt. But look at where the rest of the defense is. Camby and Aldridge are again nowhere near the bucket and Matthews is forced off of Wade – and helping off Wade is never a recipe for success – as the primary-helped defender.

In transition, the shorter Patty Mills picks up James, giving James ample space for the three. But if Mills had picked up him sooner, or Nic Batum had been there in his stead, James would only have had to beat his man off the dribble and finish with the 6-foot-5 Matthews helping at the rim.

Just like the last possession, the ballhandler, now Wade, brings the ball up the left side of the floor in transition, picked up by Mills. And just like last time, Camby is pulled up top and out of the play.

This time, Matthews slides behind Aldridge, making Portland’s power forward the primary helper. But Aldridge still has to worry about Jones, sitting behind the arc in the right corner, so when Wade gets by Mills, Aldridge has to come all the way across the lane to help. Aldridge gets to his spot in time, but Wade has plenty of time to prepare, and he shifts directions to go right around Aldridge.

With another center in the game, even if we account for transition and keep Camby up top in the hypothetical, either Matthews or Aldridge would have had much less space to worry about between Jones and the ball. The HEAT may have scored regardless, with how good their running attack is, but, in this case, their unorthodox lineup created even more confusion for the Blazers in transition, who otherwise may have been able to keep track of their expected marks better.

This opportunity is created as much by Mills’ overzealous shot-contest, which took him out of the play and freed James, as anything else, but, once again, the positioning of Camby and Aldridge is crucial. Camby has to cover for Bosh on the left wing, and Aldridge has Jones in the right corner.

The result: a nice open lane for James to cut through as Camby and Aldridge scramble to shut the door between them. If Aldridge had been defending someone standing even five feet closer to the bucket, he might have gotten in front of James in time. In this case, Camby did well just to foul James and prevent a layup.

In overtime, though, despite scoring 1.55 points per possession, a small limitation of the line up cropped up, mostly due to shot selection. The Blazers had Camby on Bosh and Aldridge on Jones, both HEAT players drawing their men far outside the paint, and with bigs on the outside, Portland’s rotation slowed, making it easier for Miami to earn open looks just from perimeter ball movement.

But, other than a pair of free throws, every single one of Miami’s shots was a jumper after the Blazers had a break to slow down and adjust. Most fell, and the HEAT won, but taking perimeter shots with the middle of the floor wide open can defeat the purpose of the small lineup, and enlarge the defensive risks a team takes in using it. Basically, why have James guarding a center if the HEAT aren’t going to fully utilize the spacing they’ve manufactured?

None of this works if James can’t guard a center, and he had no problem with Camby, a hustle-offense player who hits some mid-range jumpers but does little damage with his back to the basket. So, as long as he did his job on the boards – and he did with 13 – James could roam off Camby in the same way he could against any other small forward.

Against a skill five, or one that can throw his size around, things get tougher, because going small does nothing to change that Miami depends on getting stops in order to activate its transition offense.

But the broader point is that playing James at center is not intended to work every game or become the starting lineup. It’s intended to be a weapon, one that can maximize the assets the HEAT already have by pulling opposing big men out of the lane, giving James, Wade and Bosh free range to work as they please in the middle of the floor.

That’s exactly what happened in Portland, and even if we don’t see it next game, next week or even until March, that’s exactly what we now know could happen again.

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