Oklahoma City's Minutes Problem
When the Miami Heat made their biggest run of Game 3, a 15-3 stretch at the end of third quarter, they had LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the floor. The Oklahoma City Thunder, meanwhile, had three of their best four players sitting on the bench.
Substitution patterns have become one of the biggest storylines of the NBA Finals, and for the second consecutive game, Scott Brooks has not put his team in the best position to succeed. Brooks' coaching philosophy appears to differ radically with Erik Spoelstra's, a difference which reveals an interesting contrast between the two teams.
Spoelstra is coaching desperate. In terms of the players on the floor, he is micro-managing every possession. He's repeatedly called timeouts after the Thunder have made 4-0 or 5-0 "runs". In the last month, he's changed his starting lineup six times. In contrast, Brooks has kept the same starting line-up for over a year and a half, ever since Kendrick Perkins was acquired at last season’s trade deadline.
No NBA coach would tinker with his starting line-up in the regular season like Spoelstra has done this postseason. Because no individual game is that important, it's counterproductive to try to find slight match-up edges at the cost of altering your rotation and knocking players out of their normal rhythm.
But in a best of seven series between two teams this evenly matched, a small lineup adjustment that creates a four or five-minute run can be the difference in a game. In the middle of their crucial third-quarter run on Sunday, Spoelstra gave LeBron a 1:02 rest and then put him right back in. He knew the Heat could exploit that Thunder line-up and he was determined to waste as little time of that precious opportunity as possible.
That's how he has managed the minutes of Miami's three stars in the Finals. The only time LeBron, Wade or Chris Bosh aren't on the floor is because they’re resting from playing so much. In the last two games, LeBron has averaged 43 minutes, Wade 42 and Bosh 38.
In contrast, Brooks pulled Russell Westbrook with 5:00 left in the third quarter because he felt the young point guard was playing a little out of control. However, the NBA Finals are not the best time to try to teach a lesson, as the Thunder didn't have the offensive firepower to keep their lead when Westbrook and Durant weren't in the game.
In the two Heat wins, Durant averaged 39 minutes, Westbrook 40.5 and Harden 34.5. Oklahoma City's “Big Three” is much younger than Miami’s; there's no reason the older Heat players should be able to play more minutes.
Brooks has scoffed at the idea of changing his starting line-up, emphasizing the importance of remaining consistent. However, there's a line line between consistency and stubbornness. The San Antonio Spurs used Manu Ginobili off the bench in the same way the Thunder use Harden, but when they really needed a win in the playoffs, they would move Ginobili to the starting five. Gregg Popovich wasn't going down without playing every ace he had in his pocket.
The handling of Serge Ibaka has been even more baffling. Ibaka is the team's best shot-blocker, and their only big man who can jump with LeBron and Wade. In the fourth quarter of Game 3, with Ibaka on the bench and either Nick Collison or Kendrick Perkins at center, Miami's two stars repeatedly drew fouls and scored right at the rim.
The Heat, and LeBron in particular, thrive on dominating less athletic big men. In the fourth quarters of The 2011 Finals, Tyson Chandler shut down the lane and forced Miami to win from the perimeter. Ibaka, while not yet on Chandler's level as a defender, is one of the only players in the NBA who can replicate his effect on the game, and he needs to be on the floor a lot more than the 29 minutes he has averaged in Games 2 and 3.
There's a great scene in the recent documentary of the Dream Team, when Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are splitting the group into teams. On camera, Magic instantly dismisses collegiate player Christian Laettner as someone who couldn't help either team. With so much talent on the floor, the level of play had been raised and there was no way Laettner could keep up.
Twenty years later, there's a good chance 6 of the 12 players on Team USA are playing in the NBA Finals. Miami almost always has at least two All-Star caliber players on the floor; the Thunder need to do the same. As this series goes forward, the best chance for Oklahoma City to win is for Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka to play 40+ minutes.
At this level of the game, you need to play your best players as much as the other team plays theirs.