76ers at Heat, Game 5: Five things to watch

LeBron JamesRob Carr/Getty Images

LeBron James has a tendency to ease into his game. The Heat might want to start the clock at the 3:00 mark of the first quarter.

Can the Big Three come out with guns blazing?

The Heat’s offense predicates itself on aggressiveness and penetration, but the Big Three tend to let the game come to them in the opening few minutes. Every possession those three players passively defer to their teammates is a victory for the opponent. It’s no coincidence that the Heat have surpassed 20 points in the first quarter only once this postseason. As a result, the Sixers have taken advantage, opening up nearly every game this series with a huge lead.

We’ve illustrated before how LeBron and Wade tend to ease into their shot as the first quarter progresses, and that needs to change now that the stakes are higher. Wade had some interesting things to say after Tuesday’s practice about the starting lineup and its ability to come out firing from the get-go.

"That lineup is not our most energetic lineup," Wade said Tuesday. "Obviously, when Joel [Anthony] comes into the game and, at times, with [Mario Chalmers] coming into the game, a lot of times that's our best defensive, lively and energetic lineup. The starting unit is not that kind of lineup and we understand that, but we do have to start off better."

Starting off better begins with the Big Three, regardless of who the Little Two might be. To assert themselves, the Heat need to attack in the pick-and-roll early with Chris Bosh as the screener, and with James or Wade looking to penetrate and drawing whistles. They need that sense of urgency from the beginning, rather than waiting for a 10-point early deficit. At Tuesday’s practice, Erik Spoelstra said he expected more aggressiveness from his trio after tipoff and so should you.

The unchanged starting lineup: stubborn or smart?

The numbers are astounding. When Joel Anthony has been on the floor this series, the Heat have outscored the Sixers by 55 points. When Zydrunas Ilgauskas has been on the floor, the Sixers have outscored the Heat by 27 points.

Care to focus just on lineups? The unit with Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony next to the Big Three has beaten the Sixers 62-35 in 28 minutes of playing time this series.

How about the Heat’s starting lineup? They’ve been destroyed by the Sixers, 102 to 131, this series over the course of 60 minutes.

So it’s obvious that a change needs to be made, right? Spoelstra doesn’t think so, and he may have a point. The starting lineup’s offensive efficiency in the playoffs has been uncharacteristically poor, scoring just 96 points per 100 possessions, which is by far their least productive lineup in the postseason. Considering that Ilgauskas and Bibby are the Heat’s most offensively inclined bookends for the Big Three, that performance probably will climb as time goes on. In all seriousness, if the lineup included LeBron, Wade, Bosh, your mailman and the local librarian, it could probably score 96 points per 100 possessions.

The starting lineup’s offensive firepower isn’t as weak as it has been this series and the defense isn’t nearly as porous, so Spoelstra is banking that things will turn around. However, even if everything reverts back to normal, the Chalmers/Anthony duo may be better suited to play the big minutes in this series.

The Sixers love to get out in transition and play up-and-down basketball. Anthony and Chalmers may be the only players to match that speed and quickness from baseline to baseline. Keep in mind that Ilgauskas barely played 10 minutes in the previous game, despite starting out each half in the game. As long as Chalmers and Anthony play most of the minutes in Game 5, it shouldn’t matter who starts the game. Plus, it allows the Heat to play Anthony when supersub Thaddeus Young comes off Philly’s bench.

Will the starting lineup’s ineffectiveness continue in Game 5? So long as the Big Three play, probably not. But Spoelstra won’t hesitate to keep the best lineup on the floor the longest, and that ultimately matters most.

Can the Heat work Chris Bosh back into the flow?

Spoelstra has said frequently that Bosh is the Heat's most important player. When the Heat are in the half court, they can facilitate the offense through Bosh in the high post, deploy him as their primary screener and use him as their primary screener.

The four games against Philadelphia have provided a bellwether to that effect. The Heat have played their most efficient offensive basketball when Bosh has been fully engaged. In Games 1 and 2, Bosh was arguably the team's MVP. He worked those angle pick-and-rolls with Wade and James beautifully, rolling hard to the rim off the action, catching the ball in motion, then finishing. When he was off the ball, he either flashed to the middle for a catch-and-shoot midrange jumper or ducked in along the baseline when Elton Brand left to help on the strong side.

During the two games in Philadelphia, Bosh was marginalized. Elton Brand pushed him off the low block out, and when Bosh did put the ball on the floor, his isolation drives were pretty ineffective. Bosh likes to drive middle, then go up with his left. Between Brand's steady defense and a little help from the weak side, the Sixers were able to render those running hooks and flip shots awkward.

On the boards, Bosh disappeared in Philadelphia. After recording games of 12 and 11 rebounds respectively in Games 1 and 2, Bosh collected only 11 boards combined in two games at the Wells Fargo Center. He's still been a solid pick-and-roll defender, but the Heat need him to play bigger inside Wednesday night. His ownership of the post and the paint were no small part of why the Heat held serve in Miami -- and the Heat simply play their best ball when Bosh asserts himself as the versatile presence he is.

How do the Heat approach Game 5 defensively?

The Heat deserve a heap of praise for their overall defensive execution in the series. They've been burned now and again by the Sixers' secondary break and quick-hitters, but Miami leads all 16 playoff teams in defensive efficiency, yielding only 95.9 points per 100 possessions to Philadelphia.

Watching the Heat pick and choose their defensive strategy from possession to possession has been one of the more interesting sidebars of the series. For instance, after falling behind early in Game 1, Spoelstra grudgingly opted for the zone, a decision that vaulted the Heat back into the game. Over the first couple of games, the Heat elected to trap Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams off screens, while playing their traditional hard show on Jrue Holiday.

In Game 4, the Heat upped the ante even more with their trapping, something they generally do on a limited basis. Not only did they blitz the ball handler on the pick-and-roll, but they actually ran traps at perimeter shooters at 25 feet and at Holiday before any the Sixers initiated any action. The Heat looked like a scrappy college defense, smothering the Sixers anytime the ball worked its way to the sideline.

The Sixers ultimately adjusted, and roared back in the fourth quarter when the series looked over. The Sixers' final four possessions, when they racked up 10 points to surge past the Heat, attracted most of the attention but, as Wade pointed out at Tuesday practice, there was a stretch of four possessions earlier in the quarter when the Heat's defensive "slippage" was apparent.

With the Sixers down seven points inside of 9:00, Holiday (once) and Williams (twice) turned the corner on three pick-and-roll possessions, getting all the way to the rim, and Williams hit a 3-pointer against an inattentive, scrambled Heat defense.

Will the Heat play it straight and return to their solid base defense to prevent the sort of 3-point stunts that beat them down the stretch? Will they pull out the zone and trap on an as-needed basis? Can they count on their best defenders to make the correct reads?

Can the Heat get back to basics?

Back when the Sixers were demoralized, Doug Collins articulated the essence of this series lucidly: The Heat, when playing well, are the better basketball team. And aside from a sluggish first-quarter start in Game 1, that script played out over the first two games in Miami.

The Sixers have played valiantly, intelligently and with discipline over the past 10 days. But as the Heat demonstrated in Games 1 and 2, Miami's mastery of three simple objectives can win them a game against Philadelphia: (1) combat the Sixers' early offense, (2) work their way to the line and (3) control the glass.

In these three areas, the Heat have intrinsic advantages over the Sixers. The Heat have the athletes and instincts to get back against in transition against the Sixers' early offense. They were second in the league in free throw rate (free throws attempted to field goals attempted). The Heat's 51.8 rebounding rate (percentages of available rebounds collected) was third in the league, whereas the Sixers sit below the league average.

Much has been made about the struggles of the Bibby-Ilgauskas combo, but the plain truth is that the Heat should be able to absorb the shortcomings of any of the Little 12, whether it's the slow lateral movement of that tandem, Anthony's profoundly limited offensive game or Chalmers' occasionally bizarre judgment.

The Heat don't have to get cute with their shot selection or gamble defensively. They just need to sprint back after misses, pressure the Sixers off the dribble and crash the defensive glass. Do that, and their next team flight should land at Logan Airport.