The nice thing about having three All-Star players is that you can get by against most teams without one of them, especially when your best All-Star is the most versatile player in the league. The Heat should overcome the Pacers in the second round without Chris Bosh, who is out indefinitely after straining an abdominal muscle in the second quarter of Miami’s 95-86 victory in Game 1 on Sunday. And if the power forward’s absence extends beyond that, the Bosh-less Heat would still be favored in the Eastern Conference finals against a Sixers team that is 1-11 against Miami over the last two seasons and a ferocious Celtics club dealing with its own health issues. The gap is smaller, though, and the chances for an upset against any of those three teams increase. The Heat may still reach the NBA Finals without Bosh in the worst-case scenario, but beating a team like the Spurs or Thunder would require Miami to be at full strength.
Now, LeBron James will play huge minutes at power forward in “smaller” lineups that have done quite well this season, with and without Bosh. Counting only lineups that logged at least 10 minutes together in the regular season, the Heat used James at power forward for 376 minutes and outscored opponents by about 14.5 points per 100 possessions — a number that would have led the league by a long shot, according to Basketball Value. The two such units that recorded the most minutes did not feature Bosh, as the Heat often used James as power forward when one or both of the other stars rested.
David West was unable to punish James in the post in Game 1, both because Miami makes it a chore just to enter the ball, and because LeBron is just as big and strong as the Pacers’ power forward. Miami’s move to sign Shane Battier and retain Mike Miller has it stocked with defenders capable of guarding small forward Danny Granger, sparing each of the LeBron/Battier/Miller trio the full-game burden. The Pacers were unwilling to go small/fast along with Miami on Sunday, forcing West into an awkward matchup on defense with Battier. That pulls West from the paint, opening driving lanes, and over the course of the series it will provide Battier some good looks as West scrambles around in an unfamiliar, perimeter-oriented assignment.
In five meetings this season, the Heat are plus-35 against the Pacers in about 41 minutes with James at power forward, per NBA.com. The sample size is tiny, but we have no evidence Indiana can combat this.
But there are caveats, in both the short- and long-term:
• Caveat No. 1: Miami is obviously better off with all three of its stars. Whenever one of them is hurt, the talk-radio blathering inevitably focuses on the “issue” of whether Miami might improve without that injured player. This is always nonsense and shows no understanding of the difference between individual numbers and team numbers. The Heat outscored their opponents by about seven points per 100 possessions this season, third best in the league, per NBA.com. With all three of their stars on the floor, they were plus-12 per 100 possessions, a huge jump mostly linked to an increase in scoring.
So while James might put up monster individual numbers when Bosh or Dwyane Wade is out, the team — the only thing that matters here — is a different animal when all of its best players can play together. Imagine that! (As an aside, Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com noted that the Heat were even better — about plus-17 per 100 possessions — when the Wade/James duo played without Bosh, but also that most of those lineups feasted on opposing backups in a small sample size.)
Bosh was poised to play an especially important role in this series against the 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert on both ends of the court. He obviously can’t match the Indiana center’s height, but he fought hard on the block as Hibbert’s primary defender, forcing Hibbert into a couple of shots that came a foot or two further from the rim than he’d like. Bosh also fronted Hibbert often. He has the quickness to do that and then spin quickly around to Hibbert’s back if an Indiana guard tries to drive right at the fronted Hibbert and sneak by on the baseline — a classic anti-fronting strategy, one at which Leandro Barbosa is especially good.
The bigger Bosh dividends should have come on offense because he can drag Hibbert out of the paint and generally get the big man moving around. Miami was actually establishing a nice rhythm doing this just before Bosh’s injury, with Bosh scoring 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 16 minutes. Check out this play from the second quarter, focusing on the Bosh/Wade action in the paint.
The Heat are deadly at running these kind of cross screens under the hoop, but this one is unusual in that Bosh, a power forward, starts way in the corner and is the one taking the screen (from Wade) rather than setting it. The goal is to take advantage of Bosh’s speed edge and spring him in the paint. Wade’s defender, George Hill, understands this and helps way off Wade in order to try to bump Bosh. Look at the situation when Bosh catches and turns:
This is trouble for Indiana, thanks to Bosh’s speed and smart play design. The possession ends in a miss, but the Heat know they are on to something here.
And here’s a similar cross-screen play that again forces Hibbert to rove, resulting in an easy Bosh jumper:
The Heat lose a lot of this creativity when Bosh is gone. No other Miami big man comes close to duplicating his skills, especially because Udonis Haslem has completely lost his jump shot. The Heat reverted a bit to the “your turn, my turn” offense in the second half of Game 1, with Wade and James running variations of the high pick-and-roll (or side pick-and-roll) while the other stood around. That was good enough to win a close game in which Miami’s defense was outstanding. But the Heat are vulnerable when predictable, and the Pacers will watch the tape of Game 1 and realize that without Bosh, they can load up more on James and Wade. Even so, that’s tough to do when the Heat station Wade and two good outside shooters around a James pick-and-roll.
That brings us to caveat No. 2:
• The Pacers are very good, and they understand how to attack Miami. As I noted last week, their offense improved dramatically as the season went on, matching the level of their solid defense and giving the team the tools to push Miami. We’ll get to this more later in the week, but the Pacers generally had the right idea on both ends of the floor Sunday; they just didn’t quite have the precision, speed or shooting accuracy to execute it. Will that change as the series continues?
• The third caveat is the simplest: Miami will be playing a dangerous game if coach Erik Spoelstra asks James to approach 45 minutes every game, a possibility if LeBron must play power forward for extended time. James played at least 42 minutes in 15 of Miami’s 21 postseason games last year, and in the Finals, the Mavericks were convinced that they could exhaust him in a long series. This is one reason Dallas began running a bunch of staggered pick-and-roll plays for guard Jason Terry once it became clear that James would defend him down the stretch of games. Dallas wanted James to expend maximum energy on defense, confident the minutes load would eventually take its toll on body and mind.
Miami has made one adjustment in the postseason that could mitigate this: The Heat have played much more with small lineups that don’t include James at all. Going “small” was almost exclusively a LeBron thing in the regular season; no lineup that featured another Miami guard or wing player as the nominal power forward logged even eight minutes all year, per Basketball Value.
One such lineup — Wade, Miller, Battier, point guard Mario Chalmers and center Joel Anthony — has already been used 22 minutes in the playoffs, and a second has played seven minutes, according to NBA.com’s stats database. Much of this shift had to do with Miami’s first-round matchup against a Knicks team that played small off the bench, lost Amar’e Stoudemire for Game 3 and had a limited Tyson Chandler in Game 1. The Heat played this kind of small lineup for 3:59 of the second quarter in Game 1 against Indiana, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence that this stretch came when foul trouble forced Pacers coach Frank Vogel to play his two backup big men, Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, at the same time. Indiana was plus-3 in those minutes. It will be interesting to see if Spoelstra has the confidence to use these groups if Hibbert or West is on the court.
Bottom line: Miami is still the favorite here, but things get trickier.