Lineup twister, Shane Battier calls it.
His teammates have different names for it — this cold-hearted business Heat coach Erik Spoelstra deals in this time of year — and most of those names are unfit to print. In the lineup on a Monday, and relegated to the end of the bench by next Tuesday. The toast of the ball today and nowhere near the bouncing ball the next. If the name on the back of the jersey is something other than James, Wade or Bosh, then playing time during the playoffs is subject to change and probably will.
“We make jokes about it, but I can’t really share those jokes in public,” Battier said on Wednesday, an off day for the Heat after its 107-86 victory against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Spoelstra calls his team “different,” and says that not every collection of players could be so selfless in pursuit of championships. Then again, the Heat’s coach also recognizes that it’s not easy. Spoelstra joked after Tuesday’s game that Battier probably wouldn’t be opposed to pulling his coach into a dark alley for benching him back in March.
“You can’t have a roster of guys under 25 in this spot,” Battier said. “They would see it as indictments of their careers and self importance.”
Heat forward Udonis Haslem, a team co-captain, is the latest millionaire athlete to go from playoff starter to playoff cheerleader from one game to the next in the name of team. Haslem started every game of the Heat’s first-round series against the Charlotte Bobcats. The Heat swept the series and Haslem had one of the most important roles. It was his job to defend the Bobcats’ best player, center Al Jefferson.
Haslem performed that task brilliantly, and as a reward he was unceremoniously replaced in the starting lineup by Battier. Haslem played on Tuesday in the Heat’s 21-point blowout, sure, but only so Chris Bosh could be subbed out for the final two minutes of the game. Of course, Haslem can’t openly complain about his benching. After all, the roles were reversed back in April. In the run up to the playoffs, it was Battier clapping courtside and Haslem enjoying starter minutes.
“We can play any kind of way we need to play,” Haslem said Monday, the day before this latest playoff series and the day he learned he was heading back to the bench. “That’s why we got guys who stay ready for when your number is called. You step out there and you take care of business, so we’ll adjust accordingly and whoever’s number is called to go in there and get the job done, they’ll be ready.”
Of course, the Heat’s big lineup shift for the Nets wasn’t made official until 45 minutes before tip-off Tuesday. The strategic move — Spoelstra wanted Battier to defend Nets forward Joe Johnson — had a ripple effect throughout the Heat’s entire rotation. Rashard Lewis took minutes away from James Jones, who was the surprise reserve du jour against the Bobcats.
Jones went from playing 22 minutes in Game 4 against Charlotte to playing turnstile minutes at the end of Game 1 against the Nets. (Turnstile minutes, of course, happen in the fourth quarters of blowouts when all the fans are pouring out of the arena). All Jones did to earn his benching was shoot nearly 44 percent from three-point range in the first round.
Jones is on the outs now, but chances are good his time will come around again. Or not. It doesn’t really matter to Jones, or so he says. He has built an invaluable niche for himself on the roster of the back-to-back defending NBA champions. Amazingly, he can go an entire season or more without steady minutes, and then impact a playoff game.
“I’m a huge fan of J.J. and what he’s had to put up with the last few years,” Haslem said. “I had to put up with it this year, so I don’t know how he put up with it for so many years. He’s the ultimate professional. He’s very mentally tough, and we know we can depend on him when we need him.”
From Pat Riley on down the Heat’s front office and coaching staff have been preaching “sacrifice” for four seasons now. Monetary sacrifices have been made and the sacrificing of playing time, too, has been significant. And then there’s this. LeBron James suggested on Tuesday that the Heat’s overall indifference to the regular season forced him to sacrifice the MVP Award to the Kevin Durant.
“I think I played well enough to win it, but I don’t think our team played well enough to win it,” James said. “We had too many up and down stretches throughout the season, and if my team’s not winning, then I shouldn’t be the MVP.”
His teammates might have cost him one trophy, but it would all be worth it if they deliver another.