If there’s one thing the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs learned from the Conference Finals this year, it’s that you can never have a deep enough bench.
In Game 6 against the Thunder, the Spurs limited the Oklahoma City bench to exactly five points (all from Derek Fisher), while the Spurs’ reserves combined for 51 and were essential in helping them move on to the Finals. The Heat, too, got huge contributions from their subs throughout their six game tilt against Indiana, and the Pacers floundered as their bench struggled to produce much of anything.
And so we now enter a Finals rematch that may well be decided by the guys who aren’t named Duncan, Parker, James, Bosh, or Wade. Remember what happened in the dying moments of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals? A San Antonio reserve (Boris Diaw) failed to get a big rebound, allowing a Miami reserve (Ray Allen) to hit a game-tying shot that saved his team’s season and ultimately decided the championship.
Both teams have the benefit of being exceptionally deep, having used the regular season as a training ground for their reserves so that they are ready for the big moments in the playoffs. While rotations typically shorten to nine or even eight guys in a series, both the Heat and Spurs go 10 or even 11 deep on their respective benches, freeing the coaches to mix and match with different matchups.
In their relative order of importance to the series as a whole, here’s a look at the reserves we’ll see playing key roles in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Ginobili will be the most important bench player in the series, for obvious reasons. While he is ostensibly the Spurs’ sixth man, he plays just as many minutes per game as the starters and finishes every game on the floor. Left for dead after last year’s debacle in the Finals, he came back with a strong regular season and has looked really good in the playoffs so far, averaging over 14 points per game and getting to the hoop with his signature burst.
The reality, though, is that Ginobili is also a 36 years old. He can’t be guarding Dwyane Wade for long stretches and expect to remain effective. Like many of the guys on the Spurs, his minutes have to be budgeted so that he can be the Ginobili we have come to know when San Antonio most needs it.2 of 12
Allen is the Heat’s main option off the bench. He’s got championship experience and a track record of success in the playoffs, which means that Miami is comfortable throwing him out on the floor in any situation. Remember Game 6 last year?
His primary asset to the team is as a three-point shooter, where he has shot a .381 percentage in the playoffs. But make no mistake, Ray can still get to the rim when he needs to. He’s deceptively quick off the dribble, and can still roast a flat-footed defender once or twice a game.
However, Allen is a liability on defense at this stage of his career, and if Manu Ginobili is fresh, that’s a matchup the Spurs will be looking to exploit throughout the series. Fortunately, Allen plays a lot of his minutes with LeBron James on the court, which can help cover up a lot of his mistakes on the defensive end.3 of 12
Diaw plays a huge role for the Spurs, serving as a stretch four and likely spending extended periods guarding LeBron James. He has averaged just under 24 minutes per game in the playoffs, scoring 10 points a game and attempting at least two threes a night. He does a nice job fitting into the Spurs’ offense, allowing there to be little-to-no dropoff when he is on the floor.
His limitations, though, are that he does not do a whole lot for them as a power forward. Despite his ample girth, Diaw gets bullied on the glass by similarly-sized players, and is not much of a leaper either. One of the reasons San Antonio did not win the title last season was that with Diaw on the floor as their main big, they allowed two offensive rebounds on the Heat’s final two possessions that both led to big threes.
Quite simply, he is a big who can’t rebound, which limits his effectiveness.4 of 12
The largely unheralded Cole has blossomed into a huge part of the Miami offense. He averaged a career high in minutes per game during the regular season (24.6), and that has carried over into the playoffs (21.3). Splitting time with starter Mario Chalmers, Cole is in the game to use his speed to cause havoc on both ends of the court.
If he is having a better game than Chalmers, Cole often finds himself on the floor during crunch time too. The challenge with him is turnovers, as Cole also has a knack for making a bone-headed play at the worst possible time. He also has a tendency to barrel to the rim with complete abandon, which can occasionally be useful but is often a significant problem against a defensively disciplined team like San Antonio.5 of 12
The Bird Man has provided the Heat with a huge spark in the playoffs. Used as an energy guy off the bench, Andersen is shooting .667 from the field and has blocked 1.2 shots in just 17.5 minutes per game. His high field goal percentage can be attributed directly to the fact that the majority of his shots are either put-backs or dunks, but to his credit he finishes almost all of these chances.
One thing to watch, though, is his health. He was held out of Games 4 and 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a thigh bruise, although he recovered to post nine points and 10 rebounds in Game 6. Obviously, when your effectiveness is predicated entirely on your having healthy, springy legs, a thigh bruise is going to be a concern. As long as he is healthy and patrolling the paint, though, Bird Man is a huge asset for Miami.6 of 12
As weird as it may seem, Mills may actually end up being the most important player on the Spurs’ bench during the Finals. It’s not because of what he brings (although he’s certainly a talented player in spurts), but what he may potentially be asked to do that makes him such a key piece. At a moment’s notice, Tony Parker may go down with yet another injury and San Antonio will have to hand the offense over the Mills, which would obviously change the complexion of the entire series.
Mills has been a good player this year in a part-time role, playing 19 minutes a game in the regular season and averaging 10 points and almost two assists per game. He’s an excellent three-point shooter as well, putting up a .425 percentage from beyond the arc during the regular season. With his minutes and averages down in the playoffs, though, it’s clear that Mills would be a steep downgrade from Parker.7 of 12
Belinelli is yet another in a long line of San Antonio foreign players who seems to always knock down big shots, and that’s exactly what the Spurs will need from him in this series. Danny Green will be occupying much of Miami’s attention on the perimeter, and with San Antonio’s ability to move the ball Belinelli is going to end up with a lot of clean looks from the corner. He’ll need to knock those down if he wants to stay on the floor.
He has been effective from deep in the playoffs, hitting 12 of 29 threes for a .412 percentage. The problem, though, is that he does not do a whole heck of a lot on the defensive end. As a result, his minutes have really gotten squeezed of late; after averaging over 25 minutes per game in the regular season, he’s down to 16 in the playoffs as the Spurs have given more court time to their main players.8 of 12
Battier has seen his minutes dwindle over the course of the playoffs. After playing only two minutes in the four game sweep over Charlotte, he started all five games against Brooklyn and averaged 18.6 minutes per contest. His minutes varied wildly against Indiana, and as he enters the final series of his career Battier’s role in the Miami offense is rather murky.
The problem with Battier is that he lacks the size to put up much of a fight on the block against Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, or even Kawhi Leonard, but he’s also too slow to guard the Spurs’ swing men on the perimeter. So what does Miami do with him in this series? Probably not much. He might be of some use if the Spurs run out a small ball lineup or if Rashard Lewis gets in foul trouble, but beyond that don’t expect much out of Battier.9 of 12
Haslem logged three DNPs against Brooklyn, and was used rather sparingly in Miami’s final two games against the Pacers. It’s been a bit of a lost season in general for the big man, who was limited to 46 regular season games and averaged career lows in every major statistical category.
As a result, Haslem is not seeing the kind of crunch time minutes he is accustomed to. He does have championship experience, however, having been a part of the Heat’s title run in 2006 along with finals trips in 2011-2013. He might have some use yet, especially matching up with a rangier forward like Boris Diaw. Haslem won’t play much and won’t be asked to do anything on the offensive end, but he can grab some tough rebounds and give a few fouls when needed.10 of 12
The “Red Rifle” has somehow managed to carve out a significant NBA career for himself, despite the fact that his unconventional three point shot is pretty much the only thing he has going for him right now. He is not much of a defender, and he rarely ventures inside the arc; of his 20 shot attempts in the playoffs, 12 have been threes. Expect Bonner to log a couple DNPs in the Finals as the rotations shorten and minutes become harder to come by. He is a big body, though, so especially if Boris Diaw finds himself in foul trouble, Bonner may be summoned for some late game magic.11 of 12
Jones completely vanished when Mike Miller came into the picture, but now that Miller is back in Memphis, Jones (along with Ray Allen) serves as the Heat’s primary three-point shooting weapon off the bench. The only problem is, with LeBron James, Mario Chalmers/Norris Cole, Allen, and even Chris Bosh all shooting capably from long distance, there isn’t much need for Jones at any point of the game. When Miami looks to spell those guys, they do it with players who better fit against San Antonio’s personnel; Jones attempting to guard Kawhi Leonard would be a complete nightmare.
Even though Jones has hit 12 of 26 threes during the playoffs, Jones is probably not going to play in most of these games. That is not to say, however, that he will not have a moment in this series. Indeed, three point snipers are always ready, and Jones could find himself with the ball in his hands, the clock winding down, and a clean look at the hoop in front of him. Given his career.403 three point percentage, he’s a prime candidate to hit a huge shot in a key situation.12 of 12