Short is sweet for Miami Heat
Up 2-1 in the NBA Finals, the Heat have turned small ball into a big advantage
MIAMI -- It was a simple defensive switch -- the kind of defensive strategy that would have been considered a concession and a mistake in old-school Miami Heat thinking -- and it left Dwyane Wade defending Kevin Durant during the second quarter of Sunday's Game 3.
It wasn't the first time this apparent mismatch happened in this series, and it won't be the last. On this particular occasion, Durant nailed a pull-up jumper over the extended reach of Wade then decided to tell Wade exactly why it was possible.
"You're too small," the cameras caught Durant telling Wade with a smile.
Wade's natural reaction was the same as any competitor's would have been.
"KD told me I was small, so my whole thought was, 'I got to make a play on him,'" Wade said. "It didn't happen tonight, but eventually it'll happen, where I show them that I'm not that small."
Short of actually growing before Game 4, there's not a whole lot Wade can do about the actual size difference between him, who Pat Riley used to joke wasn't 6-foot-4 but more in the 6-2 range, and Durant, who is listed at 6-9 but is closer to being a 7-footer. But Wade shouldn't really take offense, because that's exactly what the Heat are.
And they've actually been shrinking as the playoffs have progressed. The playing rotation that once regularly featured centers Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf now has power forward Chris Bosh as the starting center and 6-8 Udonis Haslem as the only true big coming off the bench. At 6-8, LeBron James may as well call himself a power forward for the remainder of this season, while 6-8 Shane Battier has been playing the power role for the better part of the playoffs.
Yet somehow, a rotation with only one player taller than 6-8 has successfully fought off bigger, more rugged teams and currently holds a 2-1 lead against a Thunder team with significantly more size.
After Game 3, the stat sheet could have convinced anyone that the Heat were actually the bigger team. Miami outrebounded the Thunder by eight, outscored them in the paint and made more frequent visits to the free throw line.
The Game 2 box score looked eerily similar, as has every game in these playoffs in which the Heat have defeated a team with a significant size advantage.
The concept of "small ball" is nothing new to the NBA, but the Heat seem to be redefining what's possible within it. On the offensive end, the Heat are getting every benefit that comes with playing the smaller, quicker, better shooting lineups, but they're doing it without conceding a thing on the defensive end.
Not rebounds, not blocked shots, not position battles. Nothing.
Offensively, the Heat are not shying away from taking on bigger players, either, while managing to snatch their fair share of offensive boards.
If the Heat find a way to win two more games and claim an NBA title, they would be one of the smallest, if not the smallest, championship teams ever.
Recently, maybe only the 1993-94 Houston Rockets won a title while regularly playing this small, but even they featured a 7-footer in the middle in Hakeem Olajuwon and regularly played 6-9 power forward Otis Thorpe and a 6-10 Matt Bullard off the bench.
The Heat make due with Bosh playing center -- a task he has regularly fought in his career -- and James playing like a big man by posting up often and grabbing more rebounds than anyone on the floor. Somehow, even with Battier responsible for bodying up players like David West, Brandon Bass and Kendrick Perkins, it hasn't mattered to the Heat.
"We're not the biggest team, so we're used to it," Wade said. "We've been playing, at times, small ball pretty much the whole year. Chris is the tallest guy in our rotation. It's fine."
It's more than fine.
It's pretty remarkable.
Going back to last year's conference finals against the Bulls, the James-led Heat have always found ways to adjust to bigger teams.
The Bulls bullied the Heat in Game 1 of that series, dominating on the boards. All it took was a decent dose of a tough-minded Haslem, and suddenly Chicago lost the rebounding edge -- and lost the series in five games.
This postseason, the Pacers gave the Heat the most difficult test, largely because Bosh was out of the lineup for the final five games of that series. With James cleaning the glass as well as anyone, the Heat managed to deal with that enormous size disadvantage too.
Now the Thunder, a team that plays conventional bigs such as Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison while also boasting the length of Durant, find themselves wondering how to benefit from their size against Miami.
"We've never been a team where we throw it inside to our bigs a lot, so I think we need to do it on the backboard, try to get offensive rebounds," Collison said. "Then do things we always do, like set some screens, try to get other guys open, try to find spaces to play off our main scorers."
As is always the case with Miami, James is a large part of the reason why this all works.
Some people with in-depth knowledge of the game consider the power forward spot James' best position. But for someone who considers himself a small forward and has spent most of his career at that position, James is rebounding at a torrid pace (9.7 a game for the playoffs and 10.8 since the start of the second round). His strength, quickness, athleticism and fundamental knowledge of defense allow him to match up with taller players while still mixing it up on the glass.
Frankly, the Thunder don't believe the word "small" should be associated with James at all.
"Yeah, we're not really bigger than him," Collison said. "I mean, he's 6-8, 260, and he's probably more athletic than most of our guys, more athletic than me. So they have that asset, to be able to play him at all those positions."
The way James sees it, the actual size of the players doesn't matter as long as they're fundamentally sound and play with the effort that helps make up that difference.
In Battier, Haslem and Wade, the Heat have three players who pride themselves in those areas. Wade is widely considered the best shot-blocking guard in the game, while Haslem has played undersized throughout his career.
Perhaps the most symbolic move within all this, and what allows the Heat's version of small ball to truly work, is Bosh's willingness to play the pivot. He tried to put on muscle while with Toronto to better mix it up with the league's true centers, but his knees didn't respond well. He had contested the idea of being a center since.
Until this year. That talk of sacrifice that began last season when the Big Three came together has spilled into this small-ball concept.
"I talked to the coaching staff right before the season was over, and [Erik Spoelstra] started really mixing a lot of things up, and he moved me to the 5," Bosh said. "It's something that I had really been fighting my whole career, but not this year."
Instead, he is just fighting, putting up double-doubles in his last two games and even mixing in a pair of blocks in each of the Heat's Finals wins.
Spoelstra says his team doesn't look at itself as being small. But the facts are the facts, and the eyes don't lie.
The Heat are small.
But "too small," as Durant told Wade?
That doesn't define this Heat team in the slightest.
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