MIAMI — Once the jump ball goes up, something will appear just as striking as a LeBron James dunk.
When the Los Angeles Lakers (16-26) face the Miami Heat (30-12), the contrasts between the Lakers' injury-riddled lineup and the Heat's championship roster fighting off complacency won't just stick out. The elements that drive how most NBA teams play the game these days will become glaringly obvious, too.
Both teams will space the floor. They'll look for open 3-point shots. They'll push the pace in hopes to maximize results.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni will stand there patrolling the sidelines, wishing the quick-strike offense he constructed nearly a decade ago with the Phoenix Suns didn't become a system the Heat emulated.
“I was hoping they wouldn't do it,” D'Antoni said, chuckling. “But Miami took it to another level.”
So much that Miami could become only the sixth team in NBA history ever to three-peat. D'Antoni joked that “If you have LeBron, you can probably play any way you want.” But after the Heat lost in the 2011 NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks in their first season involving James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh playing together, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra faulted himself for how he used his personnel.
Since then, Spoelstra adopted what he called a “hybrid” of D'Antoni's system, while still featuring James and Bosh at times in the post.
“That was our kryptonite and it was puzzling to figure it out,” Spoelstra said. “It took a loss and humbling summer to figure out something more unconventional.”
Golden State, San Antonio and Houston have adopted similar philosophies, but not everyone seems enthusiastic with the trend.
Kobe Bryant recently argued that the hand-check rule adopted a decade ago during the 2004-05 season made it easier for less talented players to thrive. Bryant also conceded D'Antoni played a part of that movement after his Suns teams earned the nickname “Seven seconds or less” by averaging 110-112 possessions per game from the 2003-08 seasons.
“It's more of a finesse game,” said Bryant, who won five of his NBA titles under Phil Jackson's triangle offense. “It's more small ball, which, personally, I don't really care much for. I like kind of smash-mouth, old-school basketball because that's what I grew up watching.”
Yet, Miami has fully bought in to the “hybrid” version of D'Antoni's system.
After seeing Steve Nash win two MVP's by running an offense that Spoelstra said “took us all by storm,” he's convinced his players to follow suit.
“He maximizes the talent that he has,” James said of D'Antoni. “He has guys out there playing positions they're not accustomed to, but they're comfortable because D'Antoni puts you in a position to succeed.”
The success stories appear wide-ranging.
Shawn Marion, a 6-foot-7, forward became a four-time All-Star and thrived as an undersized power forward.
“He always believed in pushing the tempo of the game,” said Marion, who plays in Dallas. “If you got an open shot, let it fly. I think there's nothing wrong with that. He turned some guys that weren't very good guys in the NBA into some very good players in his system.”
The most notable one involved Jeremy Lin, who enthralled New York tabloids after toiling in obscurity.
“He lets guards play through their mistakes,” said Lin, who plays for Houston. “He gives them a lot of freedom and creativity. He does a great job and he makes you feel like he empowers you.”
Meanwhile, Lakers point guard Kendall Marshall has averaged 11.8 assists as a starting point guard after being called up from the Development League.
Last season, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol mostly argued the system didn't fit them since it didn't feature them enough in the post. D'Antoni eventually relented and paired Howard and Gasol together. Through seven games last April, the Lakers' output from both Howard (21.6 points) and Gasol (17.6 points) represents their highest all season when they played together in the starting lineup.
“I've always been more of a fan of having two bigs dominate the paint and pound teams and take advantage of their skill and size if you do have it,” said Gasol, who has averaged 22 points on 53-percent shooting and 12.4 rebounds in the last five games. “As long as I'm the center, I'm OK with it. If I have to play power forward and adjust to that position and be outside the paint and spacing out a lot, then it takes me out of my best game.”
The Heat say such ideas, coupled with more defensive consistency, have brought the best out of them.
“There's always philosophical differences with every team,” Miami forward Shane Battier said. “But we've bought in and understand what works for us. It helps when you see results.”
Mark Medina covers the Lakers and the NBA for Digital First Media at the Los Angeles Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @MarkG_Medina.