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Have the Heat found their best lineup?

5/14/2011

Miami Heat Getty Images

The Heat may have stumbled upon their best five-man combo, a unit that can carry them home.

The management of lineups has been an exercise in compromise for the Heat all season long. In his effort to find the right combination of skills and size to complement LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has tinkered from the moment of the opening tip in Boston on Oct. 26 until the fourth quarter of the clincher Wednesday night.

Despite the gifts of these three stars, this hasn't been an easy task for Spoelstra, because the menu of options at both point guard and center presents serious limitations. The Heat's best offensive lineups require defensive sacrifices. The most athletic combinations often require the stars to play out of their natural positions and comfort zones. And the role players with whom Spoelstra is most viscerally comfortable can hamper the team's offense at times.

Spoelstra's opening night point guard, released by the team several weeks ago, spent the conference semifinals on the opposing bench yelling out play calls for the Celtics. He's had a procession of three centers come and go from the starting lineup. On Wednesday night, Spoelstra decided that a fourth choice -- Juwan Howard -- might be his best second option. Spoelstra went for long stretches without a point guard on the floor, scrapped the experiment, then picked it up again. He flirted with smaller lineups with Bosh as the only big man, and perimeter-heavy units that situated James at the power forward spot flanked by either Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Joel Anthony.

The Heat finished Game 5 on a 16-0 surge, and the five-man unit on the floor for 14 of those 16 points consisted of Wade, James, James Jones, Bosh and Anthony. Prior to their 4-minute, 48-second stint Wednesday, this combination had seen a collective 23 minutes and change together in the postseason and only nine minutes or so in the regular season.

Both before and after Wednesday night's rally, the lineup including Jones and Anthony has been destroying the competition, outscoring opponents 124-94 per 100 possessions. We have to chalk some of this success up to good luck, of course. When James drains a 3-pointer over two defenders, as he did with 40 seconds remaining in Game 5, the other four bodies on the court could just as well be Arthur, White, Getty and McClanahan.

But when you go to the video, the wisdom of this unit becomes apparent: With this group on the floor, the Heat don't have to compromise very much. They're able to maximize Jones and Anthony while limiting these role players' liabilities, thanks in large part to James and Wade.

Anthony has been a pet project of Spoelstra's dating to the center's early days with the organization in 2007, yet even Spoelstra likely had reservations about how pressure defenses like Boston and Chicago might exploit Anthony's presence on the court. By pairing Anthony with Jones, the Heat's best floor spacer, Spoelstra is able to compensate for the defense's inattention to Anthony. Since Boston, like Chicago, likes to crowd the strong side and bring a third body (often Anthony's man) into the potential path of the attacker, whether it's James or Wade.

Don't the Heat lose something by not having a point guard on the floor? Not at all. During the 32 minutes this unit has seen together, the majority of the Heat's non-transition possessions fall squarely into one of two general categories: High pick-and-rolls for Wade or James and "elbow" sets.

In the first, Wade or James handle the ball -- the play is for them. In just about every pick-and-roll action for Wade or James, the third perimeter player on the floor -- whether that's Mario Chalmers, Mike Bibby, Jones or Eddie House -- spots up behind the arc. No ball-handling skills required.

When the Heat go into their elbow sets, the nominal point guard has a single ball-handling responsibility: Feed the "4" man at the elbow (usually Bosh or James). After that, the point guard clears to the corner where he sets a screen to release the man on the wing (usually Wade or James). When the the Heat run these sets without a point guard, Wade and James assume the task of feeding the elbow and clearing.

Jones has been the Heat's fourth-best offensive player this season and the team's only consistent long-range specialist. Every lineup can use a guy who can space the floor, but against the brand of pressure executed by Chicago and Boston, having a weakside threat to keep the defense honest is even more vital. The Bulls, like the Celtics, are forever pulling to the strong side. Without a release valve or a place to reverse the ball against that pressure, an offense can get strangled in the half court.

Defensively, Anthony needs no introduction to anyone who has watched Heat basketball over the past six weeks. Miami is more than 19 points stingier per 100 possessions when Anthony is flying around the floor, trapping ball handlers, recovering to the paint, darting along the baseline to block shots and generally making life miserable for anyone in an opposing jersey trying to score. He and Bosh have established a sharp mode of communication as the Heat's frontcourt defensive tandem. In short, the Heat can't achieve level of aggressiveness they need to defensively if Anthony isn't on the floor.

What about Jones? He's a very slight 6-foot-8, but he's a strong system defender who makes few bad decisions. Jones can guard Luol Deng a dynamic player but not necessarily an isolation scorer or a post threat. This affords Spoelstra the flexibility to put James and Wade on Derrick Rose. Spoelstra will throw several different bodies at Rose throughout the game, but in crucial possessions, James and Wade remain his best options. Having Jones on the floor gives him that luxury.

We often flog coaches for not establishing firm rotations in the postseason, but Spoelstra's constant experimentation in the Boston series might have unearthed something invaluable -- a rarely-used five-man combination that could be a magic bullet against the NBA playoffs' top seed.