You knew the Heat's small ball lineups were making the Spurs uncomfortable when, not even six minutes into Game 4 of the NBA finals, Gregg Popovich was playing a lineup that only saw the court for a total of 12 minutes in the regular season, most recently in a desperate comeback attempt against the Portland Trail Blazers back in December 2012.
Popovich had also played the Four Guards and a Big Fundamental combo of Tony Parker-Gary Neal-Manu Ginobili-Danny Green-Tim Duncan in the playoffs as a shooter-happy lineup to close out quarters. But this was different. Instead of dictating the game he wanted, by the six-minute mark of the first quarter, Popovich felt forced to react to the Heat—who had finally abandoned their conventional lineups and never once played Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem at the same time, or seven-footer Chris Andersen at all.
Size matters in the NBA, but only in so far as it relates to the space a player can impact. When the Heat faced the Pacers, the space that mattered was nine feet in the air, where Birdman likes to fly. But with their shooters positioned around the three-point line and a dribbling dervish like Parker conducting the action, the Spurs attack space on a horizontal plane. When covering that kind of ground, speed, not size, is what counts.
Playing with a lineup that consisted of four wing players and either Bosh or Haslem for the entirety of Game 4, the Heat defense suddenly returned to being the voracious, shape-shifting monster that devoured the league during the regular season. Suddenly, Wade was cutting off passes that had lead to dunks earlier in the series, and James was rotating to block Tim Duncan's hook shot before Ginobili had even begun to dish off the ball.
When the Heat's defense plays like it did in Game 4, there should be a blinking warning that occasionally appears at the bottom of the screen: Warning, this defense is not for everyone. Consult your 6-foot-4 shooting guard before asking him to protect the rim.
There are only a handful of NBA players who can pick a point guard's pocket at the three-point line and also swat a seven-footer at the rim. In Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, the Heat have three such freaks.
Spoelstra calls Wade and James “hybrid wings.” The term conjures the NBA equivalent of throat-ripping, half lion-half eagle griffins, not environmentally responsible sedans. And while Wade and James make the most eye-popping plays, it was Bosh's steadfast net-minding and brilliant navigation of his pick-and-roll responsibilities that stymied the Spurs in the second half.
Removing Haslem from the starting lineup also allowed Spoelstra to sneak an extra shooter onto the court, rendering the Spurs' strategy of cluttering Wade and James's driving lanes much less effective.
“They've been playing small all year, that's when they're at their best,” said a glum Popovich after Game 4.
But is this proof that traditional positions are just an arbitrary construct of THE MAN that— once you get a hit of the Positional Revolution™—totally don't make sense in the first place?
Only if you consider griffins to be as common as house cats. Wade and James are historically versatile defenders. Meanwhile, the two best defenses in the league this year, Memphis and Indiana, rely on personnel groupings that are about as conventional as it gets.
The real question is why Miami seems to play so much harder when they have small lineups. Why does going small transform Wade from a lost puppy who can't keep track of Danny Green into a wolf who can snatch away six steals in a single game?
Spoelstra has a theory: “It's part human nature. There's nobody else. You look around...that's it. So all of our guys need to be big. Not only CB, but Dwyane has to sometimes be a de facto power forward for us, and same thing with LJ. Particularly against a team like this that gets you scrambling or running around on closeouts...there's different guys back there at the rim.”
If you buy this idea, the implication is that the Heat need to impose desperation on themselves in order to raise their game.
How strange is that? A team that wins 66 regular season games doesn't have its winning formula on lock?
It's almost as strange as seeing Danny Green play power forward.
Beckley Mason writes about basketball for HoopSpeak, The New York Times, and other places. You can follow him on twitter @BeckleyMason.