Heat’s versatile lineup raises questions for Spurs
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