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Film Session: Defending Two Places at Once

Plain and simple, the Miami HEAT are up 3-0 on the New York Knicks because of how they are defending Carmelo Anthony. It would be a different story were the Knicks more fortunate in the health department at the moment, but as it stands right now, New York simply can’t afford the level of efficiency from Anthony with how the HEAT are playing him.

A close second on the “Reasons Why” list would be how Miami has been preventing the Knicks from getting consistent open looks from three-point land. During the regular season, 86.5 percent of New York’s threes were assisted shots, and that number is down to 56.3 percent in the playoffs. New York’s deadliest shooter, Steve Novak, has attempted just seven shots in the series, the team is shooting 28.6 percent from downtown and has only taken 12 corner threes.

In short, Miami has completely taken away that which accounted for 24 percent of New York’s offense during the regular season, and one of the team’s few remaining options for generating points outside of isolation possessions.

But though those numbers might conjure up images of Miami designating a defender to shadow Novak – in a 1 o’clock in the afternoon sort of way – wherever he may roam, it’s hardly that simple. You may be able to boil three-point defense down to some easy numbers, but in the HEAT’s context those numbers have a symbiotic relationship with pick-and-roll defense.

Against the Knicks, it all starts with Tyson Chandler.

The concept of New York’s spread pick-and-roll is simple. Open up the paint with shooters, run a pick-and-roll with a big man capable of cutting, catching and finishing, have the big man dive to the rim, and see how the defense reacts. If the defense holds too closely to the shooters, reward the screen-setter. If the defense sucks in too much to slow the progress of the cutter by bumping him off his line – Miami’s terminology for this is chucking – then find the open man in the corner.

“It’s tough,” Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s why we drill probably pick-and-roll defense more than anything since the first day of training camp, and they test you as much as anybody because of the attackers with Anthony with the ball or when he’s off the ball, the three-point shooters that they have and Chandler, [who] is one of the best roll players to the rim, being able to catch and finish, in this league.

“It takes everybody being on a string, and trusting months, and for us now years of habits. Two years of habits, knowing that if you do your job, your teammate will do his job.”

The concept of the defense playing on a string is a common coaching refrain, but the idea is simple. If one member of your defense is forced by the offense to react and shift, then that should cause an appropriate reaction from the rest of the defense.

In a pick-and-roll situation against the Knicks, Miami’s system typically calls for the big man to hedge out on the ballhandler and prevent him from turning the corner and going to the rim. So, the defense has to shift. The big man is no longer in a standard position, so someone has to cover the big man that is about to cut to the rim while the HEAT big recovers into the paint after the hedge.

If a spread pick-and-roll is run to perfection, however, that help defender is stuck momentarily in a 2-on-1 situation. His job is to stop both the big man from getting the ball going to the rim and the shooter from getting an open look. That’s where schematic decisions have to be made, and that’s where Spoelstra makes a number of tweaks depending on the opponent.

“It’s a more concerted effort to really cover ground, to be disruptive on their passes,” Spoelstra said of limiting New York’s threes. “We haven’t changed what we do, but that’s probably why you see us giving up more possible rolls to the rim than normal, there’s been a greater emphasis on trying to get to the three-point line knowing that that’s a big part of their success. We don’t want to give up one thing more than the other. We would ideally like to be able to defend it all.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Miami’s coverage in four spread pick-and-roll situations from Game 3, starting with this one from the first quarter:

New York spends a sizeable chunk of the shot clock before getting to Chandler’s screen for Baron Davis, but the paint is nevertheless cleared for the action with Novak and JR Smith in either corner. As Chandler sets, and slips the screen, Mike Miller stays with the ballhandler – as he should – and Chris Bosh hedges out – as he should.

That leaves one of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James or Udonis Haslem to cover ground and stop Chandler. Wade is the furthest away from the play, so he’s out, meaning it’s up to either the man defending Novak or the one defending Anthony to shift.

With Davis moving away from the strong side, the choice becomes Haslem. He’s already in position to step up, for one, but there is also no chance of the ball getting to Novak in one pass. Haslem steps up to contest the shot, and it goes in, but this is an improvement from Game 2, when Chandler was getting right to the rim with little resistance, much to Spoelstra’s chagrin. In Game 1, however, Miami was able to draw the charge a number of times on Chandler, while Haslem is just inside the circle here.

Even though it didn’t play out like this, note that James is now responsible for the two shooters on the perimeter. If Chandler passed to either Novak or Anthony, it is James’ duty to contest the shot. And should the ball find Novak, James close out on him and the ball then reach Anthony, it would be up to Bosh to recover to the middle in time to defend.

In the second quarter, we saw what happens if the pick-and-roll goes to the side of the single shooter (where Wade was in the above possession):

New York gets into the action much quicker here, and the HEAT defend the first pick-and-roll with textbook perfection. Bosh slides out on the screen, James stays with the ballhandler, Mario Chalmers helps off Davis to chuck Chandler and then recovers onto Davis as Bosh gets back to the paint.

Then Miami has to do it all over again.

Bosh hedges again, but Davis makes a quick read this time and quickly finds Chandler. With Chalmers caught in between, the help responsibility falls to the man with the toughest job on the floor. Just because Shane Battier has to play aggressive ball denial on Anthony, that doesn’t mean he gets to skirt his other defensive duties.

Just as with Haslem’s earlier help on Chandler, Battier might not have necessarily stopped Chandler from scoring, but he at least forces him to change direction. That means Chandler has to put the ball on the floor, and Chalmers takes advantage.

In the third quarter, on a nearly identical possession, Miami wasn’t so lucky.

Again, Miami defends the first pick-and-roll to perfection. Bosh not only prevents JR Smith from attacking, but he also plugs the possible passing lane from Smith to Chandler.

“It’s a game of errors, if you can make the ballhandler miss the moment for a second, you can cover up for some of those errors,” Battier said.

“We took away a lot of those moments [in Game 3] that make a difference in a possession.”

Chalmers is on Davis after helping on Chandler again, and then we get into the second action. Davis gets the ball to Chandler this time, but notice how in each of the last two possessions, Bosh has forced a softer, over-the-top pass from Davis, and each time Chalmers almost tips the pass.

And just as with Battier the possession before, James might be defending Anthony, but it’s still his job to help in the middle. He gets there with plenty of time to draw the charge, but Chandler again changes direction, and James gets whistled going after the ball.

On this last possession, Haslem takes on the role earlier filled by Chalmers, getting to Chandler on the screen and then making an excellent closeout on Novak to chase him off the three-point line and make him do something uncomfortable: dribble.

“It’s a point of emphasis, closeouts, when we watch film,” said Wade, who had excellent closeouts of his own. “When someone had a good closeout coach makes sure he points it out, because he wants to make sure we’re covering from the paint to the 3-pt line and beyond when you’re sticking someone like Steve Novak. When you’re covering that much ground, and we’re moving, we’re doing a good job.

“[He wants us to] be disruptive; be in two places at once," Wade said of Spoelstra. "Sometimes you look at him like he’s crazy. When we do it, he says ‘See, it can be done.’”

But even with Haslem earning himself a film-session mention, the defense maintains cohesion. Bosh had been covering the pick-and-roll, but he gets back to help Haslem, and Battier, defending Anthony, slides into the middle to get a body on Chandler.

Miami hasn’t been perfect in these situations all series – New York is scoring over a point per possession hitting the rolling big man – in Game 2 sacrificing too many looks at the rim while three-point watching. When Spoelstra makes tweaks, he isn’t telling his team to defend one thing or another, he’s simply moving very specific sliders slightly to the right: instead of always chucking hard on the roller and giving the shooter too much of a window, be in position to slip the chuck and cover the perimeter.

It’s no magic act. These are simply hard-earned habits being put to the test, and teammates that trust not only a system, but one another.