Posted May 14 2011 11:38AM
Keeping LeBron James and Dwyane Wade away from the basket and off the free throw line may be the biggest key to defeating the Miami Heat. But it's much easier said than done.
The Boston Celtics knew it was critical and their defense is made to keep primary scorers out of the paint. But they were able to do it only once in five games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and that obviously wasn't enough.
In the Heat's four wins in the series, James and Wade combined to average 36 points via free throws (16) or scores within five feet of the basket (10). That was an increase from the regular season, when the two averaged just 28 points via free throws (12) or scores near the rim (eight) against the Celtics.
near the rim or at the line
|Includes only games both played OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions|
The Heat's next opponent is the Chicago Bulls, the league's No. 1 defensive team. Tom Thibodeau brought his defensive system from Boston to Chicago, and relative to the rest of the league, the Bulls have done a good job of protecting the paint and keeping their opponents off the free throw line.
James missed the first of the Heat's three meetings (all losses) with the Bulls. In a Feb. 24 meeting in which both James and Wade played, they combined for 37 points near the rim or at the line. But with Chris Bosh shooting 1-for-18, the Bulls still won. And in a March 6 meeting, the Bulls did a much better job on the Heat's two stars, holding them to just 26 points near the rim or at the line.
The Heat are a great defensive team, so they can still win games when their stars aren't getting to the basket. But if you can keep them under 30 points near the rim or at the line, you're clearly doing a pretty good job defensively, and you're giving yourself a better chance to win.
In addition to getting to the rim, James and Wade also shot a lot better from beyond five feet in the conference semifinals (40 percent) than they did against the Celtics in the regular season (31 percent). And that's one thing they did much better against the Bulls, hitting 45 percent of their shots outside of five feet in the two games they played together.
|* Includes only games both played|
That's obviously a small sample size. If that number comes down to their standard 40 percent in the conference finals and the Bulls continue to do a good job of keeping the Heat's stars off the line, Chicago will be in pretty good shape.
One reason the Celtics had a tough time keeping James and Wade away from the basket is that there were usually two of them on the floor. And when one of them had the ball, the other wasn't standing around and waiting.
When James and Wade decided to play together last summer, they each had to find ways to be effective when the ball wasn't in their hands, or else the Miami offense would risk getting stagnant. And one way they've been able to make an impact is by cutting to the rim from the weak side, which they both did effectively in the conference semifinals, as you can see in the adjacent video.
It's a part of their games that has evolved as the season has gone on. In four regular season games against the Celtics, just four of James' and Wade's 32 combined field goals near the rim were assisted. But in the conference semifinals, 20 of their 47 field goals near the rim were assisted. They were getting a lot of those buckets via ball and player movement, rather than strictly on individual drives to the basket.
"Frankly, a lot of teams would love for them just to stand out at the 3-point line," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said earlier this week. "And if you drive and kick to each other, so what? It's a 3-point shot. But you can be just as aggressive and have that attack mentality when the ball's not in your hands.
"It's important against the better defenses, because they'll protect the paint. They do a great job of forcing you to kick it to the weak side, and they would like our guys to be out there and settling for 3-point shots. But we know how important it is to get those opportunities at the rim, and some of those will be on cuts."
Two of those "better defenses" are the Celtics and Bulls, who both like to load up on the strong side of the floor. As you see in the video, when the Celtics help defenders focused too much on the ball, James or Wade made them pay with off-ball dashes to the rim. And if the Bulls want to do a better job of keeping James and Wade away from the basket, they've got to do a better job than the Celtics of denying those weak-side cuts.
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