The dirty little secret of the 2013 NBA Finals so far is that the Miami Heat have been far better off when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been off of the floor. Miami’s best stretches of basketball in this series have not involved two of their acclaimed big three, but instead LeBron James and a cast of role players that fit better with his skillset and present more problems for San Antonio’s help heavy scheme.
During that 33-5 run in game two that helped Miami seal the victory, Wade played just 30 seconds while Bosh played just a tad over a minute, and neither player scored. That tear was based upon the same principles that helped the Heat win the NBA title last year: swarming defense and terrific floor spacing.
When Wade and Bosh are not playing at the all-star levels that they are accustomed to, then there’s no denying that a line-up of Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers better complements James than Wade or Bosh. Though Bosh is an adequate floor spacer, his shot has been off since the Indiana series, and he offers very little help on the boards on a consistent basis. Wade has never been able to stretch the floor, and with diminishing athletic abilities, perhaps due to injury, he’s not getting to the rim and getting efficient shots, which cramps Miami’s spacing. Allen, Chalmers and Miller are all very reliable spot-up shooters and Andersen does a good job of rebounding, running to the rim in transition and making smart cuts towards the basket that draws in the defense and gives those shooters more space.
James’ once-in-a-lifetime passing ability gives Miami the ability to run all sorts of sets that force the defense to focus on LeBron, opening up opportunities for those deadly shooters. As we learned in game two, James doesn’t even need to have the ball for that unit to operate effectively offensively; when Miami began the run late in the third quarter, they did so with Chalmers handling the ball and James acting solely as a screen setter in pick-and-rolls, giving the Spurs an unfamiliar look and forcing them into uncharacteristic defensive mistakes. And then when James started getting the ball, the Spurs began sending the help that Gregg Popovich had ordered up, and LeBron almost never makes the wrong read when someone leaves his teammates open.
Defensively, this unit made San Antonio work extremely hard for shots, and more often than not they ended up taking poor shots or turning it over during that run.
Chalmers, James and Andersen are all above average defensive players with good footspeed and excellent instincts, so when they attack ball-handlers, they know exactly where to pressure them to and where the subsequent rotations will be. Mike Miller is likely an average defender at best at this stage of his career, but the battered and bruised veteran competes very hard, and his effectiveness on the glass and knowledge of Miami’s scheme prevents him from being a liability. Ray Allen is the one horrible defender that the Heat have, but even he, by some miracle of God, has not been abused in this series; perhaps the most telling sign of Manu Ginobili’s decline was during game two when he just couldn’t seemed to get by Allen on a few one-on-one plays.
It’s not Miami’s best defensive line-up, but if Wade and Bosh continue to struggle offensively, then the monumental improvement in offensive efficiency with the bench unit on the floor makes up for the subtle drop they’ll have defensively.
Though the sample size is small, the numbers show just how much better the Heat have been with Wade and Bosh out of the game. According to NBA.com/Stats, in the 65 minutes Wade has played in the first two games, the Heat have scored just 101.2 points per 100 possessions while allowing 103.8 points per 100 possessions. In the 31 minutes without Wade on the court, the Heat have scored an astronomical 132 points per 100 possessions and held the Spurs to just 91.2 points per 100 possessions. Bosh’s numbers aren’t quite as bad, but they still clearly illustrate that the Heat have been played better on both ends when he has been on the bench.
This puts Erick Spoelstra in a very interesting position. If Wade and Bosh bounceback, then the Heat can go back to relying them for 36-38 minutes a night and to give LeBron a break each half without the team completely falling apart. But without an improvement in production from those two, it would be dumb for Spoelstra not to play James alongside better shooters and rebounders for longer stretches. Of course, it’s not that simple, as things like ego and pride are involved in such a major decision as reducing Wade and Bosh’s minutes in the NBA Finals.
Ironically, two of the three coaches without enough clout to pull off such a move are within arm’s reach of Spoelstra right now. One of them (Pop) probably wouldn’t be so friendly if Spo asked him for advice, but Pat Riley may be able to lend a helping hand.
However Spoelstra chooses to handle this situation, you can bet that he’s spent a lot of time thinking about what he might do if Wade and Bosh get off to another poor start. In the macro, it’s tough to replace two of the game’s most well known stars with one-dimensional role players, but in the context of this series, and with the game’s best creator there to make that one dimension much more valuable, Miami’s best chance to win may be with most of the big three on the bench.