Small Lineup and Sample Size Theater

The Spurs are making life hard on LeBron James.  Through the first home swing of the NBA Finals, the two-time defending league MVP is averaging 17.5 points per game on 42.4% shooting and 16.5 attempts from the field.  Suffice it to say, James’ individual scoring and efficiency numbers are a far cry from those he compiled during that historic regular season.

But it hasn’t mattered.  The Heat are going gangbusters offensively anyway, scoring 111.3 points per 100 possessions, a hair better than their league-leading regular  season mark.

Despite his shooting and finishing struggles, Miami’s success still begins with James.  But that’s well-established by now and hardly worth going over again, for the final means of the Heat’s offensive prowess is something not even LeBron can control: simply, whether or not open three-pointers fall.  Through two games they have been, and an unsurprising trend – touched on here after Game 1 – has emerged.

The more shooters there are surrounding James, the more successful Miami has been overall.  And sometimes, those units have performed just as well defensively as they have offensively.

As always with a sample size so small, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt.  The majority of the Heat’s 33-5 run late in Game 2 came with Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Mike Miller on the floor, for instance, obviously painting a more drastic discrepancy than would more sustained playing time.  But after Game 1, that group’s dominance as well as those of a similar structure shouldn’t have been so surprising.

Five-man units featuring both Allen and Miller were the Heat’s two best options by far Game 1.  That they saw the floor for only 16 total minutes doomed Miami looking back, especially considering the Heat’s starters – who played 16 minutes, the only group that logged double-digits – were outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions as a result of their stagnant offense (87.7 ORtg).

When looking through a more magnified lens, Miami’s dependence on similar shooter-centric lineups for success becomes even more evident.  Take a look at the table below.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 10.16.31 AM

The presence of Allen and Miller is the key here, as evidenced by that pair leading the Heat in overall  productivity whether James in on the floor or not.  But Chalmers is of utmost importance, too, and his spark in Game 2 was the ember that ignited Miami’s huge run.  The offensive numbers are staggering, of course, but it wouldn’t matter if San Antonio exploited these lineups on the other end.  But the Spurs didn’t score enough to negate the offensive binge of these pairs even in Game 1; Sunday was just further confirmation they can hold their own.

This is a good time to laud Miller’s defensive intensity.  Aside from the fact his body is almost completely broken down, the reason he saw so little playing time during the regular season was because he lacked the versatility of Shane Battier on that end of the floor.  Basically, Spoelstra couldn’t count on him to to be the Swiss Army Knife the Heat need to most effectively utilize James and their overall strategy defensively.  But he’s been equally game – especially on Sunday – banging with Boris Diaw or switching onto Tony Parker, showing quick feet, strong hands and unrivaled effort.  He’s even been good for one or two high-flying rebounds a game, too.  With Battier’s jumper ice-cold, the awesome residual effect of Miller’s surprising worth on defense can’t be overstated.

This information overall placates those who hark back to James’ days in Cleveland to describe the current state of the Heat.  Miami has played far better in the Finals with Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh on the bench.  This is another good time to reiterate the sample size caveat, but it’s discouraging for the Heat nonetheless.  The red-hot shooting of reserves like Allen and Miller means the offensive ratings of Wade and Bosh would likely fall behind team average, but the defensive metrics paint a negative impact for Miami’s ancillary stars, too.  Take from that what you will, though it bears mentioning Udonis Haslem’s ratings are similar; Spoelstra’s starters, it’s clear, just don’t work against the Spurs, and that’s obvious even without digging into the stats.

So keep an eye on the Heat’s lineup combinations in Game 3.  San Antonio’s defensive strategy of clogging James’ driving and passing lanes with subtle extra help may work to limit him individually, but the Heat feast as a whole when he’s flanked by shooters coming off the bench.  Of course, that’s only true should those shots go in.  If they don’t fall going forward and James can’t exert himself as a scorer, Miami will be in trouble.

*Statistical support for this piece provided by nba.com/stats.

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Jack Winter