A solution to Heat's starting five problem

Bibby/IlgauskasAP Photo/Charles Krupa

In what has become a common sight recently, Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas have been defenseless in the playoffs.

The Heat’s starting lineup finally dug a hole the team couldn’t climb out of. For the sixth straight game, the starting unit of Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas next to the Big Three was outscored by the opponent, this time by a whopping 19 points in just 10 minutes of action.

Nineteen points in 10 minutes. That drops the unit's playoff plus-minus to an NBA-low minus-69, meaning the starting lineup has been outscored by 69 points while on the floor.

When asked about the starting five after Saturday’s loss, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “We’ll evaluate everything, A to Z.”

As in, Anthony to Zydrunas.

Spoelstra has been loyal to his starting lineup to the point of stubbornness. Entering the game, Spoelstra has noted that the Heat were 6-1 in the playoffs with the current starting lineup. The Heat have been able to successfully stop the bleeding in the postseason because of outstanding production from the reserve unit. The team has become dependent on heroic efforts, but Saturday, even a career-night from Joel Anthony, who recorded a double-double for just the second time in his career, couldn’t rescue them. Even 17 points and three steals from Mario Chalmers off the bench couldn’t save them.

The Celtics came out firing, and by the time Ilgauskas left the game with 6:33 remaining in the first quarter, the Heat were already down 16-7. The 7-foot-3 center was benched for the rest of the first half, a pattern here in the playoffs. When Ilgauskas started the second half, the Heat watched their two-point lead turn into an eight-point deficit within four minutes.

The shooting proficiencies of Bibby and Ilgauskas -- which have been completely absent in the playoffs – were supposed to space the floor and open up the driving lanes for the Heat’s Big Three to penetrate and go to work. But that hasn’t been the case. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. Bibby has shot 7-for-28 (25 percent) from beyond the arc in the playoffs, while Ilgauskas has shot 3-for-8 on long 2s. Combined, the two are a horrific 12-for-48 (25 percent) beyond 15 feet in the playoffs.

When Bibby and Ilgauskas aren’t hitting their shots, they serve very little purpose on the offensive end because they can't, at this stage in their careers, create their own shots. The inaccuracies are particularly damaging because Ilgauskas and Bibby are toxic as defenders on the other end of the floor. Yes, the Heat understood they’d have to hide the two veterans on defense, but the truth is that the offense has been just as disastrous.

So what can the Heat do about it?

Plugging Anthony into the starting five would be a good first step. We’ve written about this topic ad nauseum, but it’s worth repeating again: The Heat are a machine when Anthony complements the Big Three. Handcuffing Bibby to Anthony offers the Heat the best of both worlds: a shooter and a defender. Amazingly, the backup center was plus-5 in a game in which the Heat lost by 16 points -- meaning the Heat outscored the Celtics by five points with Anthony out there.

The Heat have been giving Anthony starter's minutes every game, so the issue isn’t playing time. It’s a matter of timing.

Simply put, when the Celtics have sent out their best five, the Heat have not sent out their best five. And on Saturday, it caught up to them.

After Friday’s practice in Miami, Spoelstra indicated that he was reluctant to tinker with the starting unit because of the potential butterfly effect on the rest of the rotation. If he starts Anthony, he cannot play him 48 minutes, no matter how tireless he seems. If Anthony were to receive 10 minutes of rest, Spoelstra would have to decide who to play at the 5 against Boston’s second unit.

Would Spoelstra assign Ilgauskas on Glen Davis? A better question would be whether he plays Ilgauskas at all, now that Nenad Krstic has been displaced from the Boston rotation. If Rivers continues to work Shaquille O’Neal into the rotation, that may present an opportunity to give Ilgauskas some minutes to run pick-and-pops with LeBron James and make Shaq work away from the rim. But Erick Dampier, a larger body to push Shaq out of the paint, may be the stronger battery off the bench in that situation. Whatever the case is, the Heat can hide Ilgauskas or Dampier during 10 minutes against the Celtics' second unit rather than against Boston's best.

Ultimately, the reality is that the Heat are not 6-2 in the playoffs because of the starting lineup. They are 6-2 in the playoffs despite the starting lineup.