Going small brings out Heat's best

SAN ANTONIO -- Risk has always been a hard thing to measure for the Miami Heat.

Bringing together three all-NBA talents in their primes was a no-brainer in 2010, so much so that the rest of that first-year roster was assembled with excessive caution. The Heat brought in a wax museum of hulking, aging big men -- Ilgauskas, Magloire, Howard and Dampier. And why not? So long as the Big Three did their thing, all the Heat needed was some size, experience, rim protection and "no layups" enforcement.

Only the Heat soon realized that the game isn't that easy. Even the most talented teams must innovate and surprise to reach the championship podium. Miami's loss in the 2011 Finals to the Dallas Mavericks brought that home, when the Heat played conventionally against the Mavericks' less predictable, guerrilla attack.

Losing at this level is always devastating, but for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra it was also instructive, a point he revisited again on Friday when asked about downsizing his lineups in the Heat's Game 4 win.

"For us for this roster it made most sense for us to play positionless," Spoelstra said. "It may not be the way for other teams, but we had to go through significant pain to come to that realization. And we've covered all this, but it was obviously the Dallas loss that made us change."

With the Heat trailing the San Antonio Spurs 2-1, the 2013 Finals was beginning to feel a lot like 2011, with the potential to produce more "significant pain." So it was only a matter of time before Spoelstra changed course, which meant inserting Mike Miller in Udonis Haslem's place in the starting lineup.

The adjustment was an important admission: The Spurs are best served by a skills competition, while the Heat prefer an athletic competition.

This isn't to say the Heat aren't skilled -- their brand of basketball can be gorgeous. Likewise, anyone who's watched Tony Parker contort himself off the wrong foot on a reverse, or Kawhi Leonard move on the court, has first-hand evidence of the Spurs' athleticism.

But the Spurs need enough order to ply their craft on both ends of the floor, and certain hazards surface when the game gets boiled down to individual exploits, something we saw last year when San Antonio fell to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals. In turn, the Heat thrive on chaos, situations where instinct governs results and the playmaking of LeBron James can be maximized.

A few things about the Heat's renewed commitment to small ball: First, it wasn't a revelation for Miami (or San Antonio, for that matter). The Heat have played meaningful stretches of the series with only one big man on the floor, to mixed success. Second, the Heat drained only four 3-pointers on Thursday night, with Miller finishing 0-for-1 in 21 minutes in what turned out to be somewhat of a show start.

To the extent the smaller lineup worked offensively -- and it did -- the benefits were derived not from the additional firepower on the perimeter, but from driving lanes created inside. This wasn't stretch for stretch's sake; it was stretch in service of pace and space.

We hear a lot about the Heat's merciless transition attack, but truth be told, they haven't been that committed to moving fast, neither in the regular season nor in the playoffs. This is understandable, because having the best one-on-one player in the league means there's always an out in a half-court possession.

But that won't fly against the Spurs, as James learned the hard way through three games. The integrity of the Spurs' defensive system is predicated on order -- a strong presence in the middle of the floor, one if not two feet in the paint, with an emphasis on preventing skip passes. Every defense in the league is better when it's set, but San Antonio's D is especially constrictive because, by design, the Spurs rarely find themselves in rotations, which is how offensive players generally get open.

Beating San Antonio requires an injection of pace, because tables must be turned. The Heat did so beautifully in Game 4, finding offense on early attacks -- off makes, misses, free throws, turnovers. In short, any change of possession. Early, early, early, before Leonard can station himself in front of James with a plan and before Tim Duncan can ward off any penetration from his perch in the paint, before all the good spots on the floor are claimed by San Antonio's peripheral defenders.

Defensively, the Heat got smarter as they got smaller. After Game 1, it was apparent Miami was overly exuberant on their blitzes. They realized that if they backed off Parker a bit -- meet him at the point of attack but don't trap him indiscriminately -- the Heat's defenders behind the pick-and-roll like James and Dwyane Wade would be afforded the opportunity to be more aggressive, could make more calculated gambles, and have shorter close-outs.

The "positionless" lineup with Chris Bosh as the only big man did something else for Miami beyond pure tactics: It imposed an acute level of desperation on the Heat. It forced Bosh to play big. As Spoelstra said after Game 4, "There's nobody else." It encouraged James and Wade and James to find their inner big men and gave them the space to do that kind of work. It invited Wade to work low on the left side where Haslem or Chris Andersen would otherwise be taking up space.

Most of all, it re-introduced the Heat's most potent, but often most elusive weapon: the element of creativity.