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The Heat Should Keep Playing Small Ball

Every NBA game between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers is a contrast in styles. While the Pacers rely heavily on a starting lineup featuring two traditional big men, the Heat employ a multitude of flexible lineups favoring speed and shooting. This contrast presents advantages and disadvantages for both teams; each game, each team has to either make the other team adjust or adjust themselves.

Through the first three games of Eastern Conference finals, the Heat were making the adjustment, using lineups with two traditional big men far more often than they did during the regular season. And though the Heat won two of the first three games, it didn’t work too well.

Miami Heat Minutes Played And Point Differentials, By Lineup

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The Heat regularly use just three players who could reasonably be categorized as bigs: Chris Andersen, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem. With Andersen unavailable in Game 4 because of a calf injury, the Heat were forced to stay small. They used the combination of Haslem and Bosh for just six minutes together about 13 percent of the game, a single stretch in which they outscored the Pacers by one point. Over the remaining 42 minutes, the Heat’s smaller lineups outscored the Pacers by 11 points. The Heat beat the Pacers 102-90 and lead the series 3-1.

For the most part, the Pacers have outscored the Heat when Miami has two big men on the floor; the less Miami does that, the better off it is.

Playing these small lineups helps spread the floor, opening driving lanes for the Heat’s ball handlers and stretching the Pacers’ defense. In Game 4, that stretch effect (and the open lanes that resulted) were one of the main factors in the Heat’s series-high 34 free-throw attempts. The Pacers complained about the officiating, but the Heat’s free-throw rate in Game 4 was roughly as far above their season average against the Pacers as their free-throw rate in Games 1 and 2 was below it.

The Heat’s small lineups also coincided with the best game in the series from Bosh — 25 points on a 76.2 true shooting percentage. This development shouldn’t have been unexpected. Across the season, Bosh’s true shooting percentage was about 8 percentage points higher when he played without either Andersen or Haslem as compared with when he played alongside one of them.

Game 4 gave the Heat firm control over the Pacers and the rest of the series, but it also provided an emphatic reminder: The Heat are at their best with a small lineup on the floor, even with its inherent drawbacks.

Ian Levy is the senior NBA editor for FanSided.com and the man behind the curtain at The Step Back and Nylon Calculus.

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