The only thing more surprising than Rashard Lewis’ impact on the Eastern Conference Finals is that not even he saw it coming.
“When [Coach Spoelstra] called my name [in Game 3], I sat there like, ‘Did he just say my name?’” Lewis told Grantland’s Zach Lowe. “And he looked at me like, ‘Let’s go!’”
That the two-time defending champion Miami Heat have been forced to rely on Lewis – for his worth on defense as much as the other end! – when the stakes are so high seems a losing proposition in a vacuum. The 34 year-old former All-Star played just 60 games during the regular season, constantly toeing the baseline of Spoelstra’s playing rotation in the process. And he notched a pair of DNP-CDs in the first two games against Indiana before his name was suddenly called midway through the second quarter of Game 3.
What’s followed has been startling. Lewis has played 43 of a possible 79 minutes since his initial turn in the series, even opening the Heat’s pivotal 102-90 Game 4 win on the floor – his first time as a starter since January 10th. More impressive than the quantity of all those minutes have been their quality, despite almost no counting statistics of which to speak. Lewis didn’t score a point, grab a rebound, or dish an assist in 17 minutes of Game 3, and went scoreless again – missing five makeable three-point attempts – during his 26 minutes on Monday night.
Which makes his significance to this series even more stunning. Yes, that really is Lewis’ name topping Heat regulars in net rating against the Pacers with a whopping +43.5 points per 100 possessions. Context matters here, of course. Despite that heavy workload in the last two games, Lewis has still played the fewest minutes among Spoelstra’s 10-man rotation. And obviously, the sphere of his influence has limits; such an overwhelmingly positive net rating doesn’t mean for Lewis what it would LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh. But the eye-test confirms that his supreme two-way impact is real.
Of the most consistently confounding trends gleaned by league observers is defenses overreacting to player reputation: Just because a guy was a knock-down shooter or good shot-blocker in the past doesn’t mean he is in the present. We know that. But watching basketball and playing it are two different things, and NBA players – as a group and individually – routinely err by overvaluing history. That’s what’s happening with Lewis and the Pacers. He hasn’t been the shooter he was in Orlando or Seattle for many years, but the threat of a two-time All-Star and former three-point king stationed in the corner looms nonetheless. He hasn’t made a three-pointer in this series so far, and most of his attempts have been woefully inaccurate. But the extra step Indiana is compelled to take in Lewis’ direction matters just as much as any make, and is the chief means behind Miami’s sky-high offensive rating when he’s on the floor.
Still, it’s his worth on the other end that deserves most plaudits. Lewis has never been known as a good defender. Even before multiple knee surgeries that precipitated his rapid overall decline, he lacked the quickness to keep elite wings in check and the bulk to bother capable post-up threats. At least he was a ‘tweener back then, though, and had enough length and athleticism to act as a credible defender. He’s not and he doesn’t now, but you wouldn’t know it without holding those preconceived notions.
Lewis, simply, has been by far the Heat’s best option against long-time thorn David West. Now, that Lewis can guard anyone better than LeBron in 2014 counts as one of the season’s most shocking revelations; that he’s actually managed to frustrate West on a consistent basis might be its biggest.
Indiana hasn’t attacked this matchup the way you’d think it would. You can count on one hand the number of times West has gone at Lewis in the post, a mind-boggling non-development considering the merits of both players. On the few occasions he has, though, Lewis has been bullish, using physicality and speed to force West into shots more difficult than those he’s accustomed to against the Heat.
That’s Lewis forcing West into a difficult up-and-under after a catch in space on the pick-and-roll.
And this is Lewis in a similar situation, cutting off West’s drive from a pick-and-pop before ably contesting a right shoulder turnaround.
While his individual defense has been stellar, Lewis’ fit in the Heat’s aggressive scheme has been even more instrumental to their team success.
In this sequence from the third quarter of Game 4, the full spectrum of Lewis’ work against the Pacers is on display. First, he executes an effective trap on George Hill with Mario Chalmers, using quick feet and high hands to disrupt a pass to the popping West and force Hill farther and farther from the basket. As Chris Bosh splits the difference between West and Ian Mahinimi, Lewis recovers to West fast enough after the trap to maintain their preferred matchups. But his job isn’t done yet. Sensing a duck-in, Lewis gets low and aggressive to prevent a quick pass to West from Mahinmi.
The end result is a thwarted Indiana possession. Lewis didn’t get credit for that yeoman’s work in the box score, but the Miami coaching staff understands the value of such defensive commitment. After his team’s Game 3 win, Spoelstra called Lewis’ zero- point, rebound, and assist performance “one of my favorite stat lines of all time.”
Digging below the surface to understand Lewis’ wholly surprising impact on the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s not hard to see why.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.
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