Miami Finds Its Identity
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It's tough to set your playoff rotations when Chris Bosh is missing nine postseason games, Mike Miller is banged up with this and that, James Jones is suffering migraines ... and so on and so on.
Nonetheless, the Miami Heat got through New York and Indiana and Boston through sheer talent and will and determination, slugging their way through the East to reach the 2012 NBA Finals.
But it wasn't until Thursday night in Game 2 of the championship series that the Miami Heat found its Fab 5 that will hopefully take its team to the promised land.
Chris Bosh. LeBron James. Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade. Mario Chalmers.
That is the lineup that is indeed primed for the limelight.
And that's the lineup that played more than 80 percent of the time in Game 2 ... for a change.
James and Battier both played 42 minutes. Bosh and Chalmers both played 40 minutes. And Wade clocked 39.
That's the five that Coach Erik Spoelstra now feels comfortable with and those are the five that rewarded him with a 100-96 victory, in a game that Miami led from start to finish.
When the lights are the brightest, these five showmen know how to turn up the lights in here, baby.
The Big 3--James, Wade and Bosh--have more MVP, All-NBA and All-Star trophies than any 30-and-under trio in the game today.
Battier and Chalmers--who are proven winners throughout their NBA careers--each took over March Madnesses of their own back in the day, with Battier winning the Tournament Most Outstanding Player award in leading Duke to the 2001 NCAA Championship, while Chalmers took the Tourney MOP in leading Kansas to the 2008 NCAA Championship.
Yet these five never got truly acclimated as a tandem until right about now. Mainly because James didn't particularly like guarding power forwards during the regular season.
Lately, though, he seems up for the challenge, which is a good sign for the Heat.
If you look back at the 2011-12 stats, these five men led Miami in regular season and playoff minutes combined. But because Spoelstra also preferred to bring Battier off the bench--he only started 10 times during the regular season--the Heat's best five players only played 54 minutes together as a unit this season.
In the playoffs before Thursday, they had only played 67 minutes together in the postseason.
Yet these were Miami's main five in total minutes played.
Makes no sense, huh?
But when forced to make a decision after Bosh's injury in the Indiana series, Spoelstra decided to start Battier in Bosh's place, having his defensive specialist guard Pacer power forward David West. And the switch worked pretty well for Miami.
As Bosh began to show that he had worked his way back into playing shape, going 14-28-31-34 minutes in the previous four games during his comeback, Coach Spo decided now was the time to play his All-Star big man 40 minutes and place him back in the starting lineup.
"We needed every bit of his big tonight," said Spoelstra in the Game 2 postgame press conference, referring to Bosh's 16-point, 15-rebound performance. "And that's what he brought.
"At practice yesterday, I brought the first group out, saying, 'Get the red team out here and let's walk through a couple things,' and Chris walked right out and put his head under the rim. And so that told me what we were doing today, in terms of starting him. He gave us a lot in the paint and we need that again and again and again."
But instead of sitting supersub-turned-starter Battier, Spoelstra benched team co-captain Udonis Haslem.
Forced to match up with Oklahoma City's successful smallball lineups in this series, Coach Spo pushed his chips all in for this poker game of no-center combos and raised Thunder Coach Scott Brooks once again at the table, playing 40 minutes of smallball as OKC played 32.
Guys who used to average a combined 76 minutes in the postseason, now were only playing to give the starters short rest in both halves (Haslem played 16 minutes, Norris Cole 13, James Jones 6, Mike Miller 1, Joel Anthony 0 and Ronny Turiaf 0).
Coach Spo made the decision early he was gonna ride with his smallball, ready-for-primetime players.
"We want to play to the identity of who we are," said Spoelstra. "We didn't do that the first game and a lot of that is because of the opponent. But our strengths obviously on both ends of the court are to be an aggressive, attacking team."
And the new plan of attack worked. Battier showed he will continue to knock down the open 3s if OKC chooses not to guard him--the career 38-percent three-point shooter was 4-for-6 from trey land in Game 1 and 5-for-7 in Game 2.
Having Battier play heavy minutes alongside James allowed Spoelstra to give Durant different looks on defense--putting Battier in KD's face one possession and having James ride Durant on another, not to mention Wade taking turns disrupting the Thunder superstar.
That defense allowed Miami to limit Oklahoma City to 96 points, which hadn't been done in the Thunder's previous 10 games.
And on offense, the spacing abilities of Chalmers and Battier allowed Miam's Big 3 to have a collective efficient night--72 points on 55 shots--which has been hard to come by during many of these Miami playoff games.
"It was key, having our best players on the floor early, especially when we needed to start off great." said Wade in the post game presser. "We needed to come out and we needed to play well from the beginning.
"And it spreads the floor, having Chris out there. He can shoot it from the 3, he's a great shooter. It spreads the floor and gives us more gaps to get to the paint. We're glad he's back playing his regular minutes. It's gonna be key for us the rest of the way."
OKC discovered the beauty of using Durant at the 4 position in these NBA Playoffs and haven't looked back since, playing smallball a majority of the time in both the San Antonio and Miami series.
And now that Coach Spo is falling in love with playing James at power forward as well, you can expect the continued decline in minutes from Haslem, Anthony and Turiaf.
Because despite all the NBA commercials about this game being BIG, these 2012 NBA Finals are showing us all both teams really just want to get small ... and will likely keep getting smaller.