The Key Removal

21 06 2012

Even though the Finals are player-heavy led by none other than LeBron James, the two head coaches have played a significant role in leading their respective team this far into the postseason. The coach that is one win away from becoming the fourth active coach with a ring (Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle) made one particular change late in the Eastern Conference Finals that carried over into the NBA Finals. A bold change.

For anybody that watched the Dallas Mavericks during their pre-championship years… remember Erick Dampier? Remember the man that did “so much more” than the “stats” could show by setting solid picks and tipping the ball out but ultimately failed to live up to expectations? Well, the Heat have had their own “Erick Dampier” for almost as long.

Joel Anthony.

The UNLV undrafted center came into league with little anticipation since his only notable statistic was his 2.9 blocks per game compared to his measly 5.2 points and 4.1 rebounds during his last year in college. He was brought into to do one thing – protect the rim. However, after a rookie year in which he would average a career-high 3.5 points and 3.9 rebounds, the starting center position seemed to slowly but surely open up for the Canadian.

This current season has provided Anthony with the most starts of his career as – just like Dampier – he has a defensive presence (I guess?) on the floor that can’t be captured by some numbers. But let’s do something wild with him and actually look at his numbers. This season, he has averaged 3.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. That’s bad. This shouldn’t be a surprise, though, because he is one of the most undersized centers in the league standing one inch taller and five pounds less than LeBron James. Yeah, he is only 6-9 and 245 pounds. And because they just signed him to a 5-year, $18 million contract, they are stuck with No. 50.

So how has coach Erik Spoelstra utilized Anthony on the biggest stage in the game?

He has played 2 minutes so far. In the NBA Finals. That’s it.

As teams get deeper into the playoffs, rotations become thinner; every player that steps on the court is expected to produce in some way for their team. The Heat’s 4-year little big man had only been averaging 3.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in the playoffs and failed to do the one thing his team expected of him (blocking shots), making him a liability on the court. If he played meaningful minutes against the Thunder, they would be feeding right into Scott Brook’s system, allowing Serge Ibaka to sag off his offensively handicap opponent and roam the floor as he so badly wants to do.

So, Spoelstra made the smart but tough decision. Cutting off all minutes for a player that he has backed up all four years the center has been with the organization had to be difficult for the 41-year-old coach. But he did it for the well-being of the team.

By going small with Shane Battier in the starting lineup, who has found a magical touch from behind the 3-point line, as a second small forward and keeping Anthony on the bench for 99 percent of the games’ minutes so far, the NBA’s league-leading blocker can no longer be the force he has been all year long. Ibaka’s regular season average of 3.7 blocks is down to 2.0 in the Finals, including only one in Game 4.

Miami has had role players find a way to perform at a level they never reached during the entire season. This is a key reason to their success against Oklahoma City – the ability to have Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole play unlike themselves. Can Joel Anthony play unlike himself? No. This man has scored double digits three times this season and only eight times in his entire career. That is someone that knows his designated role and couldn’t imagine himself doing anything more than just that. The Heat need players that can forget their role and produce like James Harden, the man formerly known as Sixth Man of the Year. Without the capability to explode onto the scene like many non-Big 3 Heat players have done in the Finals, Anthony shouldn’t be on the floor, and Spoelstra has made that happen.

Since this is a change of removing someone from the rotation rather than implementing someone, most won’t realize it has even happened. But just as the emergence of Battier has been unquestionably crucial during the Heat’s success early in the first quarter and throughout the series, it couldn’t have happened without with Joel Anthony.

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