The Miami Heat, Smallball, And Being The Favorite

May 26, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward Shane Battier (31) reaches out to save the ball against the Indiana Pacers in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Miami in July 2010, the Heat immediately became the NBA’s overwhelming favorite. Faster, stronger, massively intimidating and hated all around, Miami was, on paper, better than everybody right out of the gate, and deserved to be scorned for it. When the Big Three’s initial foray into NBA existence halted at the hands of the Dirkus Circus, it was hailed as a victory for the underdog, because it was. When they were on the brink yet again a year later, with Chris Bosh’s abdomen torn and the Pacers and Celtics holding series leads, yet another celebration of imminent failure was being planned.

We all know what happened next – the Heat moved Shane Battier into the starting lineup, LeBron James smacked some fools, and rings started dropping. In The Large Book of NBA Things And Stuff, the entry for 2012 playoffs tells of Miami’s hard earned mental break through.

The Heat have won two titles going on a third since that Bosh abdominal injury, but its effects are still being seen today. Bosh being hurt was not only a piece of adversity en route to a title, but the trigger to a massive shift in team persona. By embracing Battier as a sweet shooting miniature version of a power forward, those playoffs were the moment Miami stopped playing as the favorite. They still were the favorite, of course, but this no longer reflected in their style of play. Rather than tilt the game towards their offensive superstars ride the game out on a wave of superior talent, the Heat have switched to what has become almost guerrilla basketball.

They jump pick and rolls with almost reckless abandon, and zip the ball around the perimeter, determined to find a crevasse in the defense rather than create one. They are nothing like how we would imagine Gulliver in a pair of shorts and a headband, backing down Lilliputians and smacking their shots into the 4th row. No, the Heat are the ones tying opponents down with millions of tiny pieces of rope, running circles around lumbering and discombobulated opponents. And while they’ve somewhat relented on a lot of those principals in the face of age, they are still the driving force behind the team.

All of this versatility is a direct result of the Heat’s core. LeBron’s rare blend of skills enables him to adopt a game plan painted with underdog brush strokes, jumping between empowering brute and slick finesse stowaway with ease depending on the matchup, easily effective both in fast break freight train mode and scrambling to front a 7 footer in the post. Wade and Bosh are no strangers to role reversal in their own right – Wade has long been the league’s best 6’3” power forward, a rebounding and shot blocking menace who doles out damage near the rim and can’t shoot, whereas Bosh has all but abandoned his interior offense in the name of drawing opposing shot blockers outside the paint.

But while LeBron, Wade and Bosh obviously created the platform, it was the Shane Battier signing combined with some Erik Spoelstra serendipity that unlocked the secret. Miami was planned meticulously by Pat Riley and the Big Three, but the discovery that the NBA’s most daunting favorite since Shaqobe plays better with an underdog style was happenstance, a perfect display of just how delicate a balance each NBA roster strikes. Even after building a wing-powered trio of the Jordan-Pippen mold, it took Miami some time to understand that Dampiers and Ilgauskii don’t work as Longleys and Wenningtons. This could be less ideological statement and more a testament to their era, but whatever the source, the message reverberates.

It is therefore somewhat fitting that in these Finals, Miami, not favored for perhaps the first time in their current incarnation, are facing something of an identity crisis. As Battier limps to the finish line of a fascinating career, Miami’s unique referendum on what it’s like to play from ahead is in danger. Their ability to find that extra spacer – be it Rashard Lewis, filling in admirably so far, Ray Allen in even smaller small lineups, or a complete wild card like James Jones – could very well decide the fate of this team, both 2014 title-wise and when building the team again this summer. As Goliath prepares to re-arm himself, David’s slingshot, a weapon he has mastered and perfected, could once again be the choice.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.