Film Session: Fourth Quarter Offense

DALLAS – The Miami HEAT lost a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead in Game 2 for a litany of reasons, but high on the list was the dissolution of team offense when the Dallas Mavericks switched their defensive scheme. When the Mavericks made the same adjustments in the final 12 minutes of Game 3, however, the HEAT were ready, scoring 13 points over their first 10 possessions of the final period.

Most of Miami’s problems in that second game arose from Dallas electing to send hard double teams at LeBron James off screens with the intent of cutting off the forward dribble, and the result was half-court sets starting deep into the shot clock, dribble handoffs occurring near the mid-court line and a lack of general operating comfort.

Game 3 was much of the same on Dallas’ part, but the increase in fourth-quarter offensive variety and pacing on Miami’s part was to the same effect of introducing someone to the catalogue of Steven Spielberg. An occasional The Terminal aside.

And as you might imagine you can give Spielberg the shred of an idea for a script and let him run with it, the HEAT made sure James knew what to expect, and let him direct.

The quarter begins with Dwyane Wade on the bench and Ian Mahinmi still in the game, which meant one thing: get the ball to Chris Bosh. So, on the HEAT’s second possession of the quarter – the first being a James steal that led to a breakaway dunk – James brings the ball up and swings the ball to Bosh’s side for the post-up, and Bosh draws a foul. Simple. Smart.

Then the double teams really begin to flow as they did in Game 2 when Wade subs in for Mike Miller.

Miami begins the set with James up top and Bosh and Udonis Haslem in their usual early spots. With Dallas anticipating the screen for James eagerly, Bosh and Haslem exchange places, and Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler are more than happy to allow the switch to happen.

Now, instead of just having one big clearly planning on setting a screen for James, Erik Spoelstra has both his four and five shading closer to James, thus drawing a total of three defenders into James’ space. Not only does this create a gaping hole in the middle of the floor, but leaves Jose Juan Barea and Jason Terry as the only defenders in position to help should James split the defense on the hard double.

The mistake here, of course, is that Nowitzki also attempts to cut off the passing lane to Bosh as he waits for a screen to be set. So James waits, and Bosh does this:

It has to be said that the action above isn’t any more sustainable than an off-dribble three from James or Wade. Playoff teams don’t often make the same mistake twice, not to mention the doozy of a pass. But the sequence showed patience, comfort, and above all, the right read.

In fact, by the next possession, the Mavericks have self-corrected. As James brings the ball up in the same set, Chandler stays between Bosh and the rim the entire time, even shading into the middle of the lane as Nowitzki hedges on James off Haslem’s screen.

This time, James waits until Dallas has committed both defenders to him, not particularly by making a strong move to the basket but by allowing the defense to set itself up, James thinking a move or two ahead.

As Marion recovers off the screen, James has a number of options. Nowitzki is still rotating, so at least one teammate will be open. That could be Haslem, cutting to the hoop, but Chandler picks him up in the paint. That could be Chalmers in the near corner had Barea helped onto Haslem, but Barea stays home. That leaves Bosh one pass away on the left elbow.

James makes the right read and hits Bosh. Slight hesitation aside, he knocks down a somewhat contested jumper. And had Nowitzki not trusted Chandler to recover to Bosh quickly enough, Bosh would be left with two defenders and only Barea in the paint to account for Haslem.

Things look pretty familiar the next time down the floor.

As James brings the ball up, Bosh again takes advantage of the defense’s anticipation for a screen and casually walks over to Nowitzki as Dallas concedes the switch. The immediate read becoming to put Nowitzki in a pick-and-roll situation, which Miami does by having Bosh screen for James.

Again, Dallas puts two bodies on James, Bosh shuffle-rolls down the middle of the paint to draw Chandler, and Haslem is now left open on the elbow with a man out of position.

Fortunately for Dallas, Nowitzki recovers to Haslem. Unfortunately for Dallas, Miami reads this as another chance to put Nowitzki in a pick-and-roll, so Haslem sets another screen for James after resetting the ball up top. As this is happening, Wade shuffles up to the wing from the right corner, and Terry is caught denying the pass for a split-second.

Shawn Marion makes a smart play here as he follows James’ hands and eyes, putting his hand up when it looks like James is about to make a pass. Many NBA defenders won’t do this, content to let James survey the court from 25-feet away. But Marion’s slight movement adds a degree of difficulty to James’ pass, which is slightly off target, forcing Wade into a tough miss.

But it could have been an easy make – relatively speaking, for Wade – all because the HEAT let Dallas’ aggressiveness late in the game be its own undoing, Miami biding its time until one player is out of position.

After this there is a shift in Miami’s offensive paradigm.

In their next half-court set, the HEAT don’t run their bigs to the elbows, instead sending Bosh and Haslem toward the right wing to create space for a Wade post-up on Terry. Eventually, the bigs split the right side of the floor, with Chalmers on the far wing, and everything is spread, neat and tidy for Wade.

As Dallas has been wont to do in this series, the immediate double came to Wade in the form of Chandler. And Wade, albeit with the dreaded jump pass, finds the open man in Chalmers, who swings the ball to Haslem for a jumper.

Next possession, the HEAT spread the floor from the weakside with Chalmers and Haslem, James brings the ball up with Bosh on the right wing, ready to enter a pass in for Wade, posting Terry on the right side. The double comes, Wade moves the ball, and eventually Chalmers gets a look for three. The possession after that? Flip the play, post Wade on the left block, this time on Kidd. Dallas fakes the double this time, and Wade scores one-on-one.

Rinse and repeat a fourth time after that, this time Haslem missing a decent look along the left baseline after a Wade post drew the hard double from Chandler.

Notice the trend? It’s not just James directing the offense or Wade getting the ball in the post, it’s Miami forcing Dallas to make the tough decisions. Do you send doubles at James and Wade over and over, hoping they don’t have patience and their teammates don’t make the correct reads to take advantage of out-of-position defenders, or do you play straight up against two of the league’s premier scorers?

The answer, as always, is in the between. Double a couple of plays in a row, fake it once or twice, and just as soon as Miami seems to know what to expect, switch the coverage. And the HEAT, during this six-minute stretch, had the fast-twitch answers, scoring with an efficiency that, extrapolated over an entire night, would be far and away the best in the league.

What this shows is that while there will always be adjustments over the course of a seven-game series, what wins one game is not necessarily enough to win another. Teams learn and adapt. Dallas threw Miami off balance in Game 2 with hard doubles, but in Game 3 Miami knew what to expect, had a plan at the ready and executed. It might not have been the difference between a win and a loss, but the fix was a difference, and the fewer surprise coverages you can leave your opponent with, the better off you are.

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