Heat’s versatile lineup raises questions for Spurs

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After a long wait, the San Antonio Spurs finally know who they’re facing in the NBA Finals. While the Indiana Pacers put up a valiant effort in forcing the Miami Heat into a complete seven game series, it’s no surprise that the Spurs tip-off with LeBron James and Co. in Game 1 of the Finals on Thursday night.

The strangest thing about this series is how little we know about how these two teams match up. When they last faced each other on Easter Sunday, the Heat sat James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers. I’m sure you’re familiar with the first time this season these two teams met. They faced just once in last season’s lockout-shortened schedule, although Wade and Manu Ginobili didn’t feature, and Richard Jefferson was still on the Spurs. So in effect, you can’t take much from that one either.

All this to say that we really have little idea of what to expect in terms of matchups between these two, although, looking at some of the data available there is some cause for concern for the Spurs.

The Heat garnered some fame this season for, among other things, going to a sort of position-less style of play. While not wholly accurate — Chris Bosh doesn’t bring the ball up the floor or anything — Miami has managed to blur the lines between the traditional five positions. That’s been possible thanks to two things: LeBron James’ transcendent talent and Bosh’s ability to extend his shooting range out to the 3-point line. Now the Heat can play a wide-open offense that attacks opposing defenses at multiple points and stretches those defenses to the breaking point.

Two of the Heat’s three most-used lineups during the regular season featured James as the de facto power forward and Bosh as the center. Miami’s second most used lineup in terms of minutes played during the regular season boasted a 117.2 offensive efficiency and a 97.5 defensive efficiency. Their third most used lineup had a 114.9 offensive efficiency and a 94.9 defensive efficiency. The 97.5 defensive efficiency in that first group is the only number not good enough to lead the entire league for a team efficiency, and it still would’ve finished second.

This is a problem for the Spurs. Yes, Kawhi Leonard is a capable small-ball 4 and someone who was brought in to defend the likes of James. While guarding LeBron is an impossible task and one that relies on team defense more than any one individual, that’s not where the problem is. Where the Spurs are vulnerable is with Bosh.

During the playoffs, San Antonio’s small lineup featuring Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Leonard and Tim Duncan has played 39 minutes and (small sample size theater) has a -25.3 net rating. While Duncan was an NBA All-Defensive second team selection, his strength lies in protecting the paint. If he has to extend his defense out to the 3-point line to cover Bosh, the Spurs are more than vulnerable at the rim. They’re sitting ducks.

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has gone to Tiago Splitter as the lone big in moments where the Spurs need to be more mobile defensively, often on plays late in games where San Antonio would like to switch every screen. But Coach Pop can’t play Splitter over Duncan for long stretches against the Heat.

The Spurs have had several days to gameplan for each outcome of Monday night’s Eastern Conference Finals Game 7. Now that the Heat have emerged victorious, the Gregg Popovich and his staff have another couple of days to fine tune their strategy. Faced with a team capable of playing the best player in the world wherever they want, likely in places that will wreak havoc for your defense, Coach Pop has his work cut out for him.

I don’t envy him right now.

Lineup data courtesy of NBA.com/Stats

  • kalone

    Call me crazy, but at least on defense, it seems like Tiago might be just as good or better than West at guarding Bosh anywhere on the floor. Splitter is taller and faster, and from what we’ve seen of his team defense is at least West’s match between the ears. One would think Diaw could be capable even with the drop-off in physical stature and talent. Hoping Bonner can is a little fantasy wish-fulfillment, but he did ok against Memphis and Bosh isn’t leaving any fire trails on top of his sneaker prints.

    Tynan said on Twitter that the Spurs have not been great at defending offenses with stretch-4s. My question is, does that hold true when Duncan and Splitter are on the court together; and also how does Miami not having a big post game affect the way a team can defend a stretch 4? If the purpose of a stretch 4 is to clear the lane, it seems like San Antonio’s answer is to not try to adjust to the Heat and not play small, right?

    The Haslem/Bosh/James front court might be the toughest matchup rather than James at PF, because both the bigs can stand out at 15-20 feet and let James/Wade slash while Chalmers/Miller/Battier hang in a corner.

  • KD Tolliver

    . . . so, you’re suggesting that Splitter or Duncan guard James when the Heat go small?
    Disastrous.

  • kalone

    Who has Lebron after Leonard?

  • Woody

    Spurs in six. I agree with Wayne, thebigfundamental.com

  • KD Tolliver

    Not either of those guys, other than a few inches of height they would be at every disadvantage. I don’t even think either of them has a strength advantage. You just gotta hope like hell that Leonard stays out of foul trouble, mix in some Danny Green, stay glued to the shooters and pound the glass. Even still 50/50 at best.

  • ananuri

    I think we should have 2 bigs on the floor all the time – indiana lost when hibbert was forsed to the bench (either by his coach or by foul trouble). Splitter or diaw can defend one of perimeter guys (battier / miller / allen). That will force james to defend one of our bigs in the post on the other side, which can be only good for us.

  • Len

    Absolutely agree. I think going small to match the Heat is the worst possible decision and should only be used as a last resort. If the Pacers series showed anything, it’s that the Heat are most vunerable against a big line up.

  • Len

    Force the Heat to try to match the Spurs bigs, rather than the other way around. It may be a mismatch when Tiago is chasing Battier around the perimeter but it’s also a mismatch when Battier is trying to guard Tiago in the post.

  • Len

    If the Heat play James at the 4, subbing Diaw for Tiago is another option. The Spurs can give LBJ a different look defensively.

    Also, look for Pop to try his luck having Bonner check Bosh. It has not worked well in the past as I remember Bosh having his biggest games vs the Spurs doing it. But Bonner has been playing inspired defense this postseason. It might work or it might blow up but look for Pop to try it.

  • Len

    I don’t think Green will get any time vs LeBron. Look for Diaw to get a crack at him, maybe Manu a few times too. Tiago might get a cameo appearance.

  • Southern_Dandy

    If after watching how the Pacers discombobulated the Heat by playing two bigs all the time, Pop goes out and tries to match up with the Heat’s small ball lineup, then he isn’t the coach I think he is. They need to do whatever they can to short circuit Miami’s lineups. That means two bigs on the floor at all times. That means limited play for Bonner and Diaw at the 4, and more Dejuan Blair. This will limit the amount of time that Spoelstra can play Battier as their small ball 4 on D. He’s already shown an ability to guard physical 4s like Boozer and West, and Blair is closer to that mold than Bonner or Diaw do.

  • Graham

    Diaw’s a great option in this series. He’s very mobile and can keep up with Battier if they DO go small, and can at least keep up with LeBron, if the first game in miami is an indicator. I agree we should start Tiago and at least try to force them to adjust to us, but going to Diaw won’t hurt. Bonner even can get some good minutes, I doubt Battier or the other Miami bench players can burn him off the dribble.

    On offense, Diaw acting as a high post distributor will be HUGE. Miami likes to swarm, but even the pacers had a lot of success with their sporadic ball swinging, and we absolutely can take advantage of that.

    Defensively, Green looks more than able to keep up with this iteration of Dwayne Wade, and with help I think Kawhi can force Lebron to take those slightly less efficient jumpers. Keep Lebron a jump shooter, take the supporting shooters out of rhythm and we will be in great shape.

  • Graham

    Gotta disagree. We should start Tiago for sure and try to dictate matchups, but Diaw and Bonner absolutely can impact this series. Diaw is a great option as a secondary LeBron defender, and gives the offense a critical piece to breakdown the agressive Miami D. Bonner has plenty of guys he can hide on during miami small lineups like Battier or Miller, and having potent 3 ball threats will punish Miami’s style of D.

  • Southern_Dandy

    I’m not saying that those guys can’t help. But Indy’s success against the Heat comes from the fact that Miami can’t rely on their normal small ball lineups. Battier was virtually useless in that series because Indy had two traditional bigs on the floor at all times. Diaw and Bonner, for all the good they do, are not tradional bigs, and thus allow Miami to stick with familiar lineups. If that happens, Spurs have no shot. I’m actually hoping we see Aron Baynes gets some time.

  • Ben

    So call me crazy, but what about this idea for a defensive scheme. Spurs stay big, keep KL on Lebron and utilize whichever big is on Bosh as an automatic double on LBJ (similar to how we doubled ZBo last round). If you stay home on the other shooters this then entices the Heat to keep going to Bosh for outside jumpers. Bill Simmons has a thing about how teams leave the guy open they want the other team to go to in order to get them out of their normal rhythm. If we force the Heat to make Bosh their go-to guy, I think that could bode well for us.

  • Southern_Dandy

    I woulds have Leonard on Wade. Trying to stop Lebron is a fools errand. he scores 20-25 on bad nights Wade, however, could be erased entirely by Leonard. And playing lineups that allow Miami to employ their small ball schemes is the quickest way to lose this series.

  • Graham

    Digging deep into the bench to try and force a perceived matchup advantage is a terrible idea. Baynes and Blair are not meant for this series, sadly. Trying to be Indiana is not how to beat the Heat. Being the Spurs is how we can do it. We gain more with Diaw and Bonner than we ‘lose’. We’ll beat the heat with Ball movement and 3 point shooting, not a slew of postups and entry passes, simply because we are built to do one and not the other.

  • Graham

    Green seems more than capable of erasing Wade on his own at this stage, given Wade is a shell of himself. Leonard wont shut down LeBron by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s the only guy who can hope to hold Lebron to 25 points on 40% shooting instead of 38 on 55% shooting.

    Not using Diaw and Bonner because you are afraid of Miami going small is a horrible idea. Our lineup can hang with their small ball ones quite nicely, and breaking with what works for us to try and hunt a mismatch is the absolute worst idea.

  • Southern_Dandy

    Maybe not Baynes. But Blair is certainly suited for this series. As good the Spurs ball movement is, they’ve never faced the speed/athleticism on the wing that Miami possesses. They’ll close out the shooters and forced to to score off the dribble. So either way, the Spurs will be doing things they’re not built for. At least the way I’m suggesting they’re doing it by choice and not desperation.

  • Southern_Dandy

    The guy you want taking the shots for Miaim is Lebron. You don’t want to allow anyone else to get off, because then you’ll be worried about Lebron AND whoever the other guy is. You want to do whatever you can to turn Lebron into Kobe. Don’t double him; he’s too good a passer and he’ll always find the open man. Have Green play him one-on-one no help, and just dig in to shut everyone else down. Make it so that for the Heat to win, LBJ needs to put up 70.

  • Graham

    Blair wont solve Miami, and you just saw Indy get plenty of looks with fairly simple ball movement. I think Miami’s D is very solvable, we have almost ZERO sample evidence as to how these teams match up full-strength. I’m inclined to ride what brought us here over mucking things up because of matchup worries. Changing lineups off the bat NEVER works out well, (that Mavs Warriors series is a sterling example of this).

    Indy didn’t abandon it’s identity because of matchup worries, we can’t either. Above all, familiarity and comfort in the gameplan is the important thing here. Instead of preemptively trying to alter our Offense to counter Miami’s D, we need to simply out-execute Miami and force them to alter their D to adjust to us.

  • Southern_Dandy

    I’m perfectly fine with Lebron scoring 38, as long as he’s not involving the other guys. THAT should be the priority. You want Lebron to take more shots, because it takes them out of their rhythm. So if Lebron’s got 40 and Wade has 11? That’s a good thing for the Spurs.

    And after the Spurs, the team I watch the most are the Heat. What works for the Spurs against most teams will not work against the Heat. The Spurs have no shot of winning this series if they go out trying to out-smallball them. Not only will Bonner not be able to get shots off, he can’t defend anyone on the other end. He’ll give them nothing in this series, and the Spurs will be losing ground any time he’s on the floor.

  • http://www.nba.com/spurs/?tmd=1 TheRealDirtyP1

    I’m with you. If we get beat by Chris Bosh jumpers and not Lebron and Wade going to the rim, I can live with that.

  • Graham

    Agreed on the first point, though the point of having Leonard on LeBron is it makes it harder for him to facilitate, especially with off-ball denial, which he is the best at on the team.

    Bonner and Diaw are not smallball. Neither of them are getting exposed in the paint this series, and a spot up shooter is not how you take advantage of Bonner. We are what we are at this point, and you don’t know any better than I how the offense deals with miami. Memphis opened my eyes to that our offense can get what it wants with enough work, patience and determination. We should at least find out if that’s replicable against Miami before blowing the gameplan up and starting from scratch.

  • Graham

    Gotta agree. You saw it with Haslem. Letting someone get shots that aren’t used to taking them is a solid strategy. Sure they may get hot for a game, but they rarely can sustain it beyond that. Look at how we baited Allen and Prince.

    Problem is lots of guys on Miami can reliably hit. We basically have Haslem, Andersen, Chalmers and maybe Bosh as guys I’d want to force to beat us. Allen, Battier, Miller, Cole…..those guys can burn us.

    Dirty secret. If we can bait Wade into contested long 2s and 3s, that may be our best strategy. He’s been pretty awful with those shots.

  • Southern_Dandy

    There is no such thing as “simply” out-executing the best team in the league. Indy didn’t have to alter their identity because they were naturally a bad match-up for the Heat.

    And versatility IS part of the Spurs identity. The idea that everyone is ready to play when called upon and that no one’s position is sacred is a hallmark of this team. Sticking with what got you here is noble, but its a losing strategy.Being able to adapt on the fly is necessary in any playoff series.

    And let’s be clear, I’m not advocating completely reshuffling the line up. I’m not even saying that they shouldn’t use Diaw and Bonner at all. I’m saying that Miami struggles against traditional low post play, so as much as the Spurs can play that way, they should. That means more Blair in this series.

  • Graham

    Diaw at 4 is a perfect bridge between big and small as well for this series.

  • Oeste

    I forget who mentioned in, but I did have a friend suggest that a possible option is having T-Mac put in some defensive minutes against Lebron. He has the size and temporary athleticism to give him fits for a few minutes each game, especially should KL get in foul trouble.

  • Graham

    But that’s just it: We have plenty of versatility in the offense already. If they take away the outside, we can and do go to the post. Our offense isn’t just spread and 3, we probe for what they give us and take it. Our lineups as is are more than capable of doing this. I love blair, but Diaw gives us more of what we need, and Bonner could very well be effective simply as a red herring (pun not intended, hah) to force softer help defense to open up Tony’s drives.

  • Southern_Dandy

    I just feel like we need to give Miami looks that they aren’t prepared for and take them out of their comfort zone. I just don’t have a ton of confidence that we can beat them if they’re allowed to run their stuff as always. Tweaking the lineup will throw us off some too, but I think our guys play better off-balance than theirs.

  • ananuri

    Agree – we should play with 2 bigs. Our offense is much better than that of Indiana’s. Pick-n-Roll them all game long, and force their smaller players defend tiago and tim, or switch on defense and give us 3-point shots

  • Len

    I totally disagree about putting Leonard on Wade. Green is a solid defender who can give Wade problems. Basically conceding to LeBron and letting him do whatever he wants is not a good idea. It’s not about LBJ getting his points, it’s about HOW he gets them. If LBJ beats Green off the dribble all night and forces the bigs to help, the Spurs will get destroyed on the glass or they’ll give up wide open 3′s to their shooters. Coerce LBJ into becoming a jump shooter and live with the results, ala Dirk, is the best option.

  • Len

    Blair has no low post play. His only offense is on the PnR.

  • Southern_Dandy

    I agree with you. But if you’re going to concede jump shots, you don’t need Leonard to do that. Give Lebron whatever he wants 18 feet and out. Green is a nice defender, but I trust Leonard more.

  • Len

    Dude, you need Leonard to keep LBJ from getting to the bucket all night. Green is too small and does not keep guys in front of him the way that Kawhi does. Nto to mention, Green would get absolutely manhandled by James in the post. The Spurs got Leonard specifically for guys like James and Durant. He’s going to guard him in the finals.

  • NYC

    That seems more a function of you not having confidence in the established game plan. But remember, the Spurs identity is also not panicking. Alls I’m saying is we really don’t know yet what may or may not work since these two teams have never met up full strength, playing their respective brand of basketball. I say let’s not get too much into our own heads trying to out-fox Miami only to end up out-thinking ourselves. Let’s do what we do best and see how it works out first.

  • CIAPop

    That’s exactly how we got torched by OKC, leaving Ibaka open…

  • junierizzle

    I’d rather lose to LeBron making crazy layups than Bosh or Haslem shooting wide-open mid-range shots. You can’t stop LeBron so why even try. Haslem literally won two of those games for the Heat. 8-9 twice on open looks.

  • http://www.nba.com/spurs/?tmd=1 TheRealDirtyP1

    Well I mean the fact that Chris Bosh has been worse at shooting outside than Dwight Howard shooting free throws, I can live with us giving him the open shot. I don’t want Wade and Lebron having a layup contest. Not worried, Pop will figure it out.

  • junierizzle

    The only thing I’m looking for is how the Spurs handle the.D when Miami “turns it on” Are they going to execute like we know they can or will they panic and start turning the ball over like all the rest?

  • STIJL

    I’m ready for the Spurs to make the Heat one of the holiest teams in the league by beating the Hell out them.. GSG!!!! Beat the Heat.

  • http://www.nba.com/spurs/?tmd=1 TheRealDirtyP1

    I’d be with you IF you can show me the T-Mac that wants to D someone up, which idk if we’ve ever seen. He’s never been part of any NBA all defensive team, but was a 2 time scoring champ. Noone has mentioned this, but damn, it sure would have been good to have Jackson for this reason. I know he was out with an injury in the November game, but man, I’d have to think Jack would have gotten more minutes in the playoffs. Oh well, not my place and the Spurs know more about their own players than we do.

  • Graham

    One game, albeit a pivotal one. Notice that relying on Ibaka jumpers as a second option didn’t work out so well for the Thunder this year.

  • junierizzle

    Sure if Bosh continues to shoot like th but that’s a big if.

  • Colin

    “I woulds have Leonard on Wade”

    No, there is absolutely no good reason to do that. Your rationale makes no sense.

  • Southern_Dandy

    Then the Spurs are going to lose. I love Kawhi Leonard, and I believe he’s well on his way to being an elite defender. But he’s not ready for Lebron. No one in the league can guard Lebron 1-on-1. Using Kawhi to shut down Wade is much smarter way to deploy him. Force Lebron to shoulder as much as the offensive load as possible. Lebron the facilitator is much more dangerous than Lebron the scorer.

  • Graham

    Leonard’s on Wade is a waste of Reources. Green can do that job just fine. Leonard is the ONLY guy who can slow Lebron somewhat. Giving him free reign is asking for trouble. You’re basically giving him a layup line to the hoop and asking our guys to live with that. That will not work.

  • Graham

    Leaving Green on Lebron 1 on 1 with no help is green-lighting him for 70 every night. Smart defense on LeBron is how you limit him.

  • Graham

    Diaw’s our second best LeBron defender, strangely enough. Mobile enough to keep up and big enough to not get pushed around in the post.

  • Melbourne Spur

    As easy as this game is to coach (as evidence by all of our comments over the years on this site), I think the simplest strategy has to be to pack it in on D and protect the paint. I’d be forcing LBJ, Wade, Bosh, and anyone not named Allan or Miller into taking long twos and threes, and taking away anything at the rim as much as possible. This is for obvious reasons – 1, it is inefficient offense for Miami, 2, it protects our bigs from foul trouble, 3, it puts us in best position to not allow easy put-backs (although long offensive boards will be available). Then you have the other factors – keeping crowd quieter if there are no driving dunks, etc.
    For me, the biggest one of those is point 2. If Timmy or even Tiago get into foul trouble due to penetration from the Heat, then we will find ourselves in trouble. We need those two on court as much as we need TP to break them down on the offensive end. If the Heat are allowed to attack the rim, I don’t expect Timmy and Tiago to get the benefit of any calls from the refs like Hibbert did, so we need to keep them out by sagging and living or dying by their long game.
    Whether it is small ball or two bigs on court doesn’t change my philosophy here. We have to protect the paint, slow them down, and force long jumpers.
    I’ve been confident all year that we would make the finals, and that we would play the Heat, and that we would beat them. I’m not wavering now. Spurs in 6.