SAN ANTONIO -- For the second time in three years, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra changed his starting lineup during the middle of an NBA Finals.
Spoelstra’s insertion of Mike Miller, and removal of Udonis Haslem, did not deliver a boost to start the game, and Miller ended up having his worst night of the series statistically (no points, 0-for-1 shooting in 21 minutes).
But the lineup decision certainly did not hurt the Heat, and everything ultimately worked out, largely because the Heat’s Big 3 played its best game collectively of the series; Tim Duncan was defended well even without Haslem on the floor to guard him to open the game; Miami’s defense was much more active; and because the Heat thrived playing small ball, forcing 19 turnovers and generating 14 fast-break points.
The Heat played with only one natural power rotation player on the court for the entire game, and that helped Miami’s spacing.
The lineup of Miller, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers — the one that started Thursday — outscored teams by 21 points in 53 minutes during the regular season and by nine points in 22 playoff minutes entering Game 4.
But by the time the Heat made its first substitution in Game 4 — Norris Cole replacing Chalmers — the Heat was already down 15-5.
Spoelstra went back to his starting lineup twice more — briefly in the second quarter (the Heat was outscored by one) and for the first five-plus minutes of the third quarter (both teams scored nine points during that stretch).
Though Miller went scoreless, the Heat’s ball movement was generally crisp with Miller in the game, and he had a terrific block on a Kawhi Leonard shot that led to a James’ dunk early in the third.
The lineup change also had a ripple effect. Spoelstra used Haslem off the bench, reinserted Shane Battier back into the rotation, and did not use Chris Andersen for the first time this postseason.
Haslem committed five fouls in 10 minutes, but he had five rebounds and Miami was plus-10 with Haslem on the floor, plus-13 with Battier (who had two points), and plus-20 with Ray Allen, who scored 14.
Miller starting led to an interesting early chess match between Spoelstra and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Oddly enough, 6-11 center Tiago Splitter began the game defending 6-4 Wade. But after Splitter fouled Wade 47 seconds into the game, Popovich replaced him with 6-4 Gary Neal.
And Popovich started the second half with 6-8 forward Boris Diaw in place of Splitter.
Haslem had been the Heat’s best defender against Duncan in this series, but Duncan did not capitalize on his absence to start the game. Guarded by Bosh, Duncan missed his only shot in a scoreless first quarter. He scored seven in the third.
The Heat entered 16-2 with Miller starting, including a first-round series-clinching Game 4 win at Milwaukee, when Wade sat out with a knee injury.
Miller spent most of the season out of the Heat’s rotation. And transitioning from a spare part to a starter in the Finals “is not the normal path,” Miller said before the game. “But sometimes you take different paths.”
Both James and Wade endorsed the lineup change an hour before the game.
“Whenever Mike is on the floor, it always helps us,” Wade said. “It makes the defense have to think about something different than just protecting the paint when we’ve got a shooter out there. We loved when they’re out there, and we’ve got to get them more shots.”
Said James: “It opens up the floor. It gives me more driving lanes and it gives D-Wade more driving lanes.”
In the 2011 Finals, Spoelstra replaced a struggling Mike Bibby with Chalmers in Game 6, but the Mavericks won that game to close out the series.