Five easy pieces for the Heat
May, 29, 2011
By Tom Haberstroh
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
The birth of the "Big Five" lineup with Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller has changed everything.
“I can tell you who the coach likes, it’s who he starts. I can tell you who the coach trusts, it’s who he finishes with.”
-- Red Auerbach
With the Heat down nine points with 6:05 remaining in Game 5 and the Chicago Bulls’ Luol Deng ready to attempt his second of two free throws, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sent Mike Miller into the game for Mario Chalmers. The resulting lineup on the floor starred LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Miller, a cast that features the team’s five highest-paid players.
This was a vision realized. This was the lineup that Heat president Pat Riley imagined when he brought them all to Miami in the offseason. This was the lineup that Spoelstra trusted to win Game 4, and win they did. Two days later, this was the lineup that Spoelstra trusted to win Game 5, a long shot considering the clock and score.
That substitution by Spoelstra sparked a 20-8 run by the Heat that finished the Bulls’ season via knockout.
The Heat dominated the closing minutes of another playoff game with their five-man wrecking crew, which, due to a number of serious injuries, hadn’t even played together until two weeks ago. For the second game in a row, the Bulls searched for answers and found none.
In the 16 total minutes the Heat’s highly anticipated “Big Five” played as a unit in Games 4 and 5, this was the final tally:
Heat 48, Bulls 23.
With Haslem and Miller bookending the Big Three, Spoelstra bucks tradition. There’s no point guard. There’s no center. And evidently, there’s no mercy, either.
How has this five-man unit annihilated the competition?
Defensively, it is a machine -- both literally and figuratively. The Heat’s movements and rotations look so mechanical that it appears almost automated. Whenever a shot goes up, it is contested. Whenever a driving lane appears to open up, it is closed. Whenever help is needed, it is provided.
All in all, the Heat’s defensive efficiency with this lineup is a staggering 73.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. How suffocating is that? The Heat ranked as one of the top defenses in the league, but this unit has allowed nearly 25 points below the Heat's norm.
Of course, we’ve seen only 22 minutes of this lineup this season, so the little data we have should be handled with care. But watch the tape, and you can’t help but be blown away. The Bulls struggled mightily to get a shot off against the Heat’s Big Five, and when Chicago did, it usually resulted in a clanked jump shot. With the Big Five on the floor, the Bulls shot just 34.5 percent from the field and they coughed up the ball once every five trips down the court.
With their athleticism and discipline, the Heat cause death by strangulation, smothering the ball and sucking out any available air space. They do this without a traditional center on the floor, opting instead for lateral mobility and quickness. On the basketball court, length comes in two dimensions: vertical and horizontal. What the Heat lack in height, they compensate with incredible reach. This isn’t just fingertip-to-fingertip reach, but sideline-to-sideline coverage.
Derrick Rose could get around Mike Bibby and Chalmers with relative ease. But not when James, a 6-foot-8 oversized point guard, covered him. In the rare event Rose managed to turn the corner on James, the league MVP was met by either Haslem or Bosh walling off the paint. When Rose couldn’t go by him, the Heat’s other players spread their wings and shut down the passing lanes on the periphery. Several times in the series, Rose thought he saw daylight to dish the ball to a teammate, but either James or Wade flew in to intercept the point guard’s pass and rumble down the court.
When a team looks this dominant defensively, you wonder why most teams don’t try a center-less lineup more often. But the Heat employ unique personnel which allows them to get away with things most teams can’t. Without a 7-footer on the floor, most units get crushed in the rebound column. But in Wade and James, the Heat have athletic freaks who play much bigger than they appear.
While James crashes the boards with the size of Karl Malone, Wade boasts a rebound rate that we’d expect to see from someone who stands 6-foot-8, not 6-foot-4. And Miller? He has grabbed rebounds more often this season than Heat centers Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony. Through physicality and timing, the 6-foot-8 Haslem is the team’s best rebounder. As hard as it is to believe, the Heat’s worst rebounder with the Big Five on the floor is Wade, who is averaging 7.2 rebounds per game here in the playoffs. The result is that the Heat secured 55 percent of the available rebounds with this five-man lineup on the floor, convention be damned.
How about offensively? Yeah, the Heat are pretty good there, too. When they’re not running in transition off turnovers, the Heat space the floor with three shooters outside of Wade and James. When James or Wade penetrates into the teeth of the defense, that forces help defenders to pick their poison: leave a sharpshooter, or stay at home to prevent the kickout.
When you watch the film, you’ll notice that the Big Five unit doesn’t do anything magical from an X-and-O’s standpoint, but the offense remains destructively simple. The Heat plant Miller on the 3-point line, and unleash a barrage of pick-and-roll tandems. Wade-James. Wade-Haslem. Wade-Bosh. James-Bosh. James-Haslem. With two big men who wield automatic 15-footers, it’s an opposing defense’s nightmare. And with this lineup, the Heat have scored 15 points per 100 possessions more than they normally do.
The Heat’s dream lineup has materialized at the perfect time ahead of the NBA Finals. Spoelstra has kept the lineup in his back pocket, trusting the five to finish games for him. With the mind-boggling results, expect to see more of it in the NBA Finals.
The Big Five’s birth also means that we can throw out the two regular-season games between Miami and Dallas. After all its metabolic changes this season, this Heat team looks nothing like the one that faced the Mavericks back in November and December.
Forget 2010, this Heat team looks nothing like any team we’ve ever seen.