Making the most of Z

As Tom Haberstroh has described, Erik Spoelstra uses his center rotation much the way a baseball manager uses a bullpen. Spoelstra has a stable of centers, each of whom provides the Heat with different attributes. When Spoelstra needs speed and athleticism he calls on Joel Anthony, who can rotate quickly on pick-and-rolls and run the floor. On nights when the Heat have to contain a powerful opposing center, as they did Thursday in Orlando, Erick Dampier will log minutes. When the Heat want spacing in the half court, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is the guy.

What do we mean by "spacing"?

NBA offenses are extremely difficult to defend, but even the best players in the world -- most of them, at least -- have certain limitations.

For instance, post-up threats like Utah big man Al Jefferson and Memphis forward Zach Randolph virtually demand double-teams if they catch an entry pass deep in the low post. But if they're floating around the perimeter 22 feet from the basket, defenses don't have to do much more than keep a watchful eye out.

When Dampier or Anthony are in the game, they present the Heat with a few offensive complications. Neither guy needs to be guarded more than a few feet from the basket because they have no range whatsoever. On the other hand, if you position Dampier or Anthony closer to the rim, they tend to clog up the middle, making it more difficult for attackers like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to drive to the hole.

Ilgauskas, on the other hand, has a very reliable set shot from 18 feet. Defenses leave him open at their peril. By forcing defenses to guard Ilgauskas from that distance, the Heat have the ability to be more creative.

We saw that in the opening minutes Friday night in Charlotte. The Heat start games in what's called a "Horns" formation -- the point guard up top, the two big men at the elbows and the two wings in the corners:

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Notice something interesting? LeBron sets up at the left elbow -- normally where you'd find the center. Meanwhile, Ilgauskas is positioned on the wing.

Mario Chalmers delivers the ball to Chris Bosh (represented here as the "4"), through whom so much of the Heat's offense is initiated. Once Chalmers passes it off, he cuts to the right corner to set a screen (on Stephen Jackson, who is "x2"), for Wade. The instant that screen arrives, Wade uses it to dive sharply to the basket. While all that is happening down low, Bosh shuttles the ball over to James:

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Now the Heat have the ball in James' hands with Wade beneath the basket. If you're Charlotte, that's a tough proposition: The most dangerous player in the world with possession of the basketball and one of the best finishers in front of the rim.

But the Bobcats are a pretty good defensive outfit. They know how to sniff out an aggressive play. Chalmers delays Jackson momentarily, but Captain Jack catches up with Wade underneath. Furthermore, Kwame Brown -- who is responsible for Ilgauskas -- has dropped down low to help out. He's "x5" in the diagram below.

So Wade is the man of the moment. He gets a pass from James, all the while he has two defenders (x2/Jackson, x5/Brown) converging on him:

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One of the first lessons we learn when we take up basketball is: If an offensive player is double-teamed, that means someone is open. That someone is Ilgauskas, whom Brown left when Wade got open underneath. You can't fault Brown for making a smart help decision. But when confronted with a talented offensive unit like Miami's, a defense sometimes has no good choices -- just the lesser of several bad ones.

Wade recognizes Ilgauskas is alone and quickly kicks the ball out to him for an open shot:

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Big Z drains the shot. In fact, he drains another one on the very next offensive possession, when the Heat run the same play with a small wrinkle (the ball goes directly from Chalmers to James, bypassing Bosh).

This time, when Wade makes his cut toward the hoop, Brown drops down to help on Wade preemptively. When James sees that, he just sends the ball over to an open Ilgauskas.

Another easy deuce.

At this late date in his career, Ilgauskas isn't good for more than about 20 minutes per night. But his presence on the floor in half-court possessions gives Spoelstra far more schematic options. Not only does Ilgauskas force defenses to make tough choices, but his ability to hold down the wing gives the Heat the luxury of playing James closer to the basket -- at that elbow spot, where he can make plays, rather than on the perimeter, where he has the tendency to pound the ball into the floor.