The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs essentially made the same starting lineup change for the exact same reason during their respective conference finals. The to-date results, also similar. What's different is the degree to which each move mattered. The Spurs needed a tactical edge against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Heat just needed the mentally fragile Indiana Pacers to keep falling off a cliff.
Let's start in the East. Sticking with their small-ball schemes, the Heat moved Rashard Lewis into the starting lineup for Udonis Haslem with the intent of putting an additional shooter on the court against the Pacers. The move also put defensive pressure on Roy Hibbert, forcing the 7-foot-2 center into uncomfortable spots away from the basket not to mention just away from the basket. Miami wrapped up the series with resounding Game 6 victory.
For Game 5 of their Western Conference finals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs also dug deep into their bench for a stretch-four option. Having lost two straight games in the series and a whole bunch more to the Thunder when Serge Ibaka plays, San Antonio needed to find an opportunity.
Apparently, that meant Matt Bonner starting in place of center Tiago Splitter. That swap forced Ibaka, OKC's main shot blocker, out of the lane. Even though Bonner didn't score, the move helped start San Antonio down the path of ball movement and 3-point prowess for a dominating win for a 3-2 series lead. The possible closeout game takes place Saturday.
All things being equal, we're talking mirror image maneuvers. The thing is things are not equal. That's because of the Pacers' faulty equilibrium.
Look, Lewis made 9 of 16 3-pointers over the last two games. That's some fine shooting, enough to overlook his 0 for 5 in Game 4.During those final three games, two won by Miami, Hibbert went 5 of 19 after shooting 17 of 35 in Games 1-3.
Only pure stat-thinkers would look at those numbers plus the actual game scores and think it's all because of the lineup switch. Hibbert's erratic play has been well documented during the playoffs. Same with Indiana's truly random results, like losing by double digits twice to the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks or by 23 in a possible closeout win against the Washington Wizards.
If we're talking unpredictable, then we must mention Lance Stephenson. Considering the Hibbert scenario not to mention limited bench scoring and spotty point guard play, the Pacers needed the adult version of Stephenson. Instead, Indiana got the air blowing, face slapping, no-more -than-12 points-in-any-of-the-final-four- games version. The free-agent-to-be now should get himself a moving van because it would be a stunner if the Pacers ask him to stick around.
Lewis might have the reputation of a shooter, but not enough for consistent use him in their lineup prior to the last three games. The ex-Wizard had four 3's in his previous 17 contests before Game 5. Kudos to coach Erik Spolestra for recognizing an opportunity and it working out so well. Yet if the Pacers had the sanity component in their bag of tricks, they make the Heat pay for Lewis' presence in some capacity. They didn't so they didn't.
We might have a NBA finals rematch, though the Spurs aren't home yet especially since Game 6 takes place on the road. Based on the WCF's prior results, the Thunder likely win and do so with big margin.But that's why San Antonio had to try something. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, OKC is a major threat. When Ibaka joins them, they typically handle the Spurs.
The Pacers proved throughout the playoffs that they couldn't handle their emotions.
That's not Miami's problem. Putting Lewis in the starting lineup might have been the tipping point in the ECF. The analytic community thinks that's the case regardless. If the same lineup change leads to the same result but against a mentally strong team, we're indeed taking series-changing decision. Against a Pacers team shakier than reporters asking Gregg Popovich in-game questions, we are not.