MIAMI -- Over the past several years, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has often secretly enjoyed playing the long game against opponents he expects to see in the postseason.
It’s not exactly unheard of. But Spoelstra's plotting is often more extreme than the garden-variety chess match. He has changed his starting lineup, for example, twice in the middle of the NBA Finals.
He’ll hold back certain lineup combinations, plays sets, and this season he's even kept a certain 7-foot, former No. 1 overall pick under wraps until he feels the time is right.
That is one of the luxuries of having a team expected to make a deep playoff run, and when perhaps only one serious contender stands between you and a fourth straight Finals appearance.
That makes it hard to predict exactly what will be seen Wednesday night, when the Heat and the Indiana Pacers face off for the second time in eight days (ESPN, 7 p.m.). After last week’s Heat game plan in Indianapolis led to a 90-84 defeat, it would seem that Spoesltra would want to take this chance to test out a few more strategies.
But that may be tough, considering that the personnel for this matchup is somewhat of a mystery. LeBron James suffered a mild ankle sprain Monday night and, though he would usually play through it for a big game like this, he purposely didn't commit to anything after missing Tuesday’s practice. His history of ankle sprains is varied -- sometimes he’s been able to play through them and sometimes he’s needed to sit for a game or two.
Meanwhile, the Pacers are openly waiting for Greg Oden to be used against them, but the Heat have given no indication that Wednesday will be that moment. And Michael Beasley (hamstring) has not practiced or played in 10 days.
“The key for us against this team is to get to our identity,” Spoelstra said, leaning on one of his favorite phrases. “We have to play our game.”
That means playing fast and small and to force defenses to cover more ground than they prefer at a quicker pace than they prefer. The Pacers have an unwavering method as well, which is to slow the game down and to play with big lineups that favor an interior game and not to bend to the opposing teams’ style by changing their lineup.
Chris Bosh said there are holes to exploit in the Pacers' strategy, but the Heat certainly failed to do that in their first meeting of the regular season. What it did show, however, was Miami's willingness to use some creative wrinkles that didn't much resemble how the Heat operated against Indiana in last season's playoffs, an indication that Spoelstra might indeed be in the mood to do some experimenting with these matchups.
In that game, Spoelstra decided to deploy James to defend Paul George from the outset instead of saving that move until the fourth quarter, as was his standard. James held George scoreless early and the Heat built a lead, but James became gassed and didn't seem to have the energy for the duties later. George ended up having a big second half, scoring 15 of his 17 points while working mostly against Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen.
Spoelstra also tried using what Pacers center Roy Hibbert called a "big-big" lineup, playing Chris Andersen and Chris Bosh together in the second half instead of using smaller shooters like Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem around Bosh. That enabled Hibbert to roam less and stay in the middle, which plays right into the Pacers' wheelhouse. The Heat managed just 37 points in the second half.
The expectation is that the Heat would take a different approach this time around. They can preserve James' energy for later, especially if he’s less than 100 percent. They can commit to give Battier -- who has been in a shooting slump and hasn't even attempted a 3-pointer in the past two games -- longer minutes. Perhaps they can even go to Haslem, who hasn't played much since suffering a back injury last month but was a key contributor against the Pacers last postseason.
Either way, tiebreaker scenarios leading into the playoffs are in play here. If the Pacers score a victory Wednesday they will take a commanding two-game lead in the race for the No. 1 seed with only two regular-season matchups left (March 26, April 11). The repercussions of that may seem far away but this will be crucial eventually, especially with these two teams so far ahead of the pack in the Eastern Conference.
Spoelstra, though, may have to weigh just how much he will want to dip into the bag for it. Especially when it comes to deciding whether to risk playing James or to make lineup changes that could have more value down the line.
“As the season goes on, we’re always going to be looking at what they’re doing; they’re going to be looking at what we’re doing,” Bosh said. “These games are important because who knows what it’s going to come down to. So we want to come out and win this game. It’s going to be an interesting thing.”