Who should start against the Celtics?

Heat benchAP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Erik Spoelstra has decided to go with his underachieving starting lineup, even though there may be a more effective unit waiting.

In the debate over the Heat’s starting lineup, two camps have been formed: one that prefers the floor-spacing of Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and the one that vouches for the athleticism of Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony.

As radical as it sounds, I’m advocating for a third way: the one that calls for Bibby and Anthony next to the Big Three.

The lineup played only nine minutes together in the Sixers series, but the margin while it was on the floor? Heat 18, Sixers 4. This isn’t just a postseason fluke; that unit outscored opponents 84-68 in 35 minutes of action during the regular season. Compare that to the Heat’s current starting lineup, which has been outscored by 30 points in 2010-11.

And looking at the upcoming Celtics series, isn’t Anthony the perfect complement to Bibby? The Heat would benefit from the floor-stretching effects of Bibby and they can pair him with Anthony, who can erase his mistakes on the defensive end. It’s puzzling why this configuration isn’t considered a possibility because it offers the Heat the best of both worlds: the floor-spacer and the defensive savant.

The biggest misconception about defending Rajon Rondo is that the burden falls solely on the player who guards him one-on-one. No, the real Rondo stopper is the one who meets him at the point of attack in the pick-and-roll and corrals him away from the rim.

Furthermore, Rondo wreaks havoc in the open court, so his speed demands as many defenders who can run the floor as possible to stop the ball, or at least slow it down. Rondo will inevitably blow by his defender, but the real question is who will step up and wall him away from the paint?

The only big man qualified for that job is Anthony. At this stage in his career, Ilgauskas is an 87-inch traffic cone with limited mobility, making him the least equipped player to neutralize Rondo’s attack. Anthony, however, is an eraser who makes a living by patrolling the basket.

And here’s the thing: Anthony isn’t just a Sixers stopper -- he has cast his spell on the Celtics too. There’s a reason Kevin Garnett said, “Anthony killed us today by himself” after the April 10 matchup. What we’ve learned this season is that Anthony can handle the Celtics -- just as long as Shaq isn’t on the floor.

According to basketballvalue.com, the Celtics scored 91.2 points per 100 possessions against the Heat when Anthony manned the floor. That’s 15 points below their normal rate. When Shaq’s not out there? The Celtics' offensive efficiency drops to 82.8 points per 100 possessions, over 20 points below their season-long standard.

Of course, Anthony’s defensive exploits mean nothing if he paralyzes the Heat’s offense. But here’s a little secret: the Heat’s offense has scored 110 points per 100 possessions with Ilgauskas next to the Big Three and 110 points per 100 possessions with Anthony next to the Big Three. The effectiveness is essentially unchanged.

Why is this the case? Often times, the Heat fall in love with the pick-and-pop with Ilgauskas. While Ilgauskas is a skilled midrange shooter, it’s still not a particularly high-percentage shot. And the Heat have a tendency to hit Ilgauskas with that 17-footer all too often. With Anthony on the floor, those possessions get split up among the Big Three.

The rationale for keeping Anthony on the bench in the first-round series against the 76ers revolved around Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia’s athletic supersub. By keeping Anthony out of the starting rotation, Spoelstra could save Anthony for Young when he came in with Lou Williams as part of the second unit.

But Boston doesn’t have a Young, so what would they be saving him for? As crafty as he is under the rim, Glen Davis isn’t worthy of that treatment.

At the end of the day, Anthony could still get starters' minutes even if he doesn’t start. This happened in the Sixers series, where Ilgauskas started all five games but averaged just 13.4 minutes per game compared to Anthony’s 31 minutes per game. But the Heat should have their most effective lineup on the court against Boston’s most effective lineup, especially since there’s no reason to save Anthony for a specific assignment off Boston’s bench.

And Bibby? I’m just not sold that Chalmers’ hot play recently is sustainable. Inevitably, the other shoe will drop, and Chalmers won’t shoot 6-for-12 from downtown anymore. It’s foolish to assume that Chalmers will hit 43 percent of his 3-pointers like he has in his past two games and equally unwise to think that Bibby is a 25 percent shooter like he has been in the playoffs. They will revert back to their norms eventually, and with Rondo hounding the ball, Chalmers, who isn’t a polished ballhandler, becomes even more of a liability.

In this Eastern Conference semifinals matchup, every possession counts and it's time for Anthony to be on the floor when it matters most. Considering his body of work this season, he deserves it -- not because of his effort, but because he's effective.