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Film Session: Late in New York

There is a lingering misconception that the Miami HEAT don’t run set plays, and that they particularly don’t run them late in games. While the idea itself, a professional basketball team not running plays, borders on absurdity, it also misses the point about offensive execution. Plays are run in order to attack an area in which you believe you hold some sort of advantage, and while Miami certainly has its packages involving more complicated screen placement, every possession boils down to manufacturing situations in which there is a high probability of scoring.

Fortunately for analytical purposes, the end of Miami’s Game 4 loss to the New York Knicks featured examples of both very specific sets and simpler, matchup geared offense. The first of those examples happened twice.

This is a set Miami has used often in last-possession situations for much of the season. In fact, if you took a look at every play the HEAT ran when holding the ball for the last shot in the first half – at least until early March – 90 percent of them would be variations on the above set.

The design is relatively simple. LeBron James always begins in the right corner while Dwyane Wade holds the ball up top. A shooter, typically Mario Chalmers, runs to James and sets a screen while another floor-spacer, Mike Miller or in this case Shane Battier, runs baseline and fills in behind James, clearing the paint for at least a few moment. The shooters set up on the right side, and from there a plethora of options are available.

James is always going to run off the corner screen to set a screen for Wade, but he’ll usually slip, or fake, the pick and flare out to the left wing. On the first possession, with the Knicks switching on screens – something we’ll get to later – New York’s defenders hesitate as to whether it was actually a screen deserving of a switch. Carmelo Anthony calls for JR Smith to switch onto James, but with no pick actually set, Smith stays where he was in front of Wade. The first trigger is open, and James hits the open, assisted three.

The second possession shows what happens when the defense plays the first action well. The play immediately develops into a Chris Bosh screen for Wade and each player get a choice. Bosh can set a hard pick and try to create space for Wade, and if the defense overplays he slips the pick and cuts down the middle of the floor. If Wade likes the matchup he gets from James’ initial defender switching, he can attack right away, or he can wait and see how Bosh plays the screen.

Both players choose the second option on Miami’s next possession, and Bosh gets the ball headed to the rim. For whatever reason, Bosh had trouble holding onto the ball on a number of similar occasions in this game, but this is historically a type of possession Bosh has success with.

This is also a variation on a set Boston runs for Ray Allen, with Allen in place of James, Rajon Rondo in for Wade and Kevin Garnett slotting in for Bosh. And when they run it, it’s definitely labeled a “play call”.

Two possessions later, with Miami down two with 13.2 seconds on the clock, the HEAT run what appears to be a much simpler pick-and-roll.

First, consider what we know from the previous two possessions alone.

“I knew that, for the most part, that Melo was going to try to deny me, so we came out of the timeout going pick-and-roll with D-Wade and CB knowing they were going to make a switch,” James said.

The setup isn’t all that different from the prior two possessions (excluding James’ finish in transition). Chalmers runs to the corner after inbounding the ball and he and Battier space the right side of the floor well enough that there isn’t a defensive foot in the paint. Wade gets the ball up top and Bosh waits to set a screen.

All that’s missing is James slipping the high screen. Instead, he’s standing in the corner, with Anthony playing very tightly. There’s certainly an argument to be made for putting the ball in James’ hands, but that’s also a lot of space James is creating just by standing there due to Anthony playing fairly aggressive ball denial. Put Wade in the same place – or any of Miami’s shooters, for that matter – and the defender plays another foot or two off to help on the drive. Even when Wade makes his initial dribble off the Bosh screen, Anthony doesn’t move an inch. He’s giving up the driving lane.

But Miami is also playing off the knowledge of how New York is playing the pick-and-roll. By taking James, and thus Anthony, out of the equation, Erik Spoelstra is banking on Wade drawing a big defender with the paint open.

“Sometimes you draw it up for the mismatch,” Wade said. “I got a step on Amar’e, which I wanted and I just lost the ball a little bit. I had the shot I wanted, I had the step I wanted at that time. I’d do it all over again.”

This wasn’t just a one-time thing. Miami has routinely attacked mismatches – often created by playing James at power forward – in late game situations. Some called for a pick-and-roll between Wade and James to be run here, but the idea is still to draw a beneficial matchup, and James has found himself backing down the likes of Chauncey Billups and Russell Westbrook as a result.

Here, with Chalmers on the floor, New York’s point guard, Mike Bibby, is defending a shooter, so the possible choice could have either been to get Stoudemire on Wade, or possibly Landry Fields on James with the knowledge that New York would likely send a double on a back-down due to slightly worse spacing. Again, you can craft a good argument for either decision, but the philosophy remains the same. Find an advantage and attack it.

Perhaps the better question is then why are teams so willing to allow Miami to earn that advantage? Why do the switch on screens so easily?

“It depends,” Spoelstra said. “At the end of the game, you can see it both ways. [By switching] you protect yourself from getting caught on a misdirection trigger, maybe a surprise, which we run some of those type of actions, but the flipside of that coin, we’re not the easiest team to switch against based on matchups.”

“I guess [they switch] not wanting to pull certain triggers to give up, maybe easier baskets,” Wade said. “Sometimes, when you have a bigger guy who you feel can switch on to make a shot tough. At the end of games you’re just trying to make shots tough. Sometimes if you got to pull triggers, it might lead to easier opportunities, I don’t know. For us, if we do it, it’s because we feel that every guy on the court can guard every guy on the court for them.”

“It’s tough, when you create triggers,” Bosh added. “A guy can guard somebody if it’s just a set defense behind him, and not having to move with switches makes it a little bit easier. Those are adjustments guys have made, and we’re going to have to make sure we make the necessary adjustments and assume that they are going to be switching late in the game.”

Essentially, by conceding the mismatch on the perimeter with the switch, an opponent is preventing itself from having to play out what could very well be a set play. If Fields fights through the screen, maybe Wade turns the corner and drives left into space, forcing Anthony to either drop off James or continue to leave the lane open.

Or maybe – and this is complete speculation – the next trigger here, without a switch, is for James to run at Wade, take a handoff and dive into the lane with Wade curling to the baseline. It’s something we, and therefore the Knicks, have seen before, and by switching on the screen, they don’t have to see it through.

“It’s easier not to get caught on confusion,” Spoelstra said.

And so with the clock winding down – and no guarantee that anything else would offer a similarly positive result to a switch – Miami, as they say, takes what the defense gives them. Wade may have fumbled the ball, but that’s a result, and not something that plays into one’s decision making in real time.

“If you get Dwyane Wade, going down the lane with an open lane, and you’re down by two, I think you take that,” Spoelstra said.