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Film Session: Defending the Middle

MIAMI – Momentum is with the Miami HEAT after their 96-85 victory in Game 3 over the Chicago Bulls. Miami took a 2-1 series lead, pulling away in the fourth quarter of each win in decisive fashion. And in hindsight, Chicago’s only win has been given a little less respect. Their 19 offensive rebounds were unsustainable, and the offense wasn’t any better than it was in either loss, as the Bulls shot 37 percent on first attempts from the field.

It’s a fair way to look at things, but if the team leading the Eastern Conference Finals deserves the benefit of perspective, so too does the team about to fight for survival Tuesday night.

And if there’s one area that perspective is needed, it’s in the paint, where, inside nine feet, the HEAT are holding the Bulls to 42.9 percent shooting.

“It can change,” Erik Spoelstra said. “What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to be consistent with the habits and to our defense that we’ve had all season long. Great players will require for you to be at your best, defensively.”

So far, the HEAT have been at their best. They’re attacking Derrick Rose in the pick-and-roll, forcing playmakers to become scorers, scorers to become playmakers and role players to become scorers. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have been able to create chaos in the passing lanes, but Miami’s help has been so fluid that there is rarely a player too far out of position, since whenever a player is, they simply sprint to the next open man.

In the middle, this has translated to ballhandlers being met with as many as three defenders at the rim, where the HEAT have forced at least 15 misses in each game this series, and help has been so ferocious that Chicago’s interior passing has taken a hit. In Game 3, the Bulls had just four assists within nine feet of the rim.

This all works because of the habits Spoelstra mentioned. The most important of which is trust, trust that allows the HEAT to contest shots at the rim as aggressively as they did in the video below:

“That’s a big part of our team defense, trust,” Joel Anthony said. “If you don’t have that, we’re not going to be able to succeed. I can’t be worried about, ‘Oh, I can’t go because I don’t know if someone is going to have my back.’ I know my teammates are going to be there to have my back and they know I have there. It’s the synergy that we have.”

The HEAT are doing their best to make the Bulls uncomfortable, defending both the air space around the rim and below the chest. If the ball is brought down low, whether in a post-up or dribble-drive possession, perimeter players are digging on the ball, not fully committing to help but doing just enough to hinder a shot, perhaps delaying the process a half second, or throwing the offensive player just a few degrees off balance.

It works because of the bigs, though. Because Anthony can pick up Rose on a switch, stick with him laterally and challenge him at the rim. Because between Anthony and Udonis Haslem, attackers must always recognize who is in position to help, as it will either be a shot-blocker or a charge-taker, each situation calling for a unique stategy.

It works because Chris Bosh can rotate to any spot on the floor and defend without fouling, picking up just six personals in three games despite challenging Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer as he did towards the end of the above video. And it works because James can guard any Chicago player.

It’s also working because the HEAT are enjoying a little bit of luck, as the following numbers from NBA StatsCube help show. Note: We focused on Chicago's expected interior scorers, and the totals for FGM, FGA and FG% reflect only those players listed.

A 3-of-12 within five feet in Game 1 from Joakim Noah, regardless of offensive boards. A 2-of-9 in the same range in Game 2 from Derrick Rose and a 3-of-10 from Carlos Boozer at the rim in Game 3 despite his 26 points.

Even with the HEAT swarming, those numbers aren’t sustainable. Boozer and Noah are better than a combined 29-of-55 within nine feet and Rose has proven throughout the regular season that he can hit swooping, contested layups at rates better than his current sub-40 percent rates, if even for a game or two.

This is especially true given the sheer number of paint attempts the Bulls are earning, consistently beating the HEAT when they cut backdoor or send the extra pass from the high-post. Odds are that Chicago is going to regress to the norm – their own 63 percent at-rim shooting for the season – whether or not the HEAT led the league in defending the restricted area. Whether or not it happens over the course of such a short, with regard to how many games we would need to prove a narrative, series, is an unknown.

Miami can only worry about itself.

“I just know that we give ourselves a best chance defensively as long as we continue to work on contesting shots,” Anthony said. “In terms of numbers, I don’t know, but as long as we consistently – that’s the biggest thing – as long as we consistently do what we’re supposed to do, the numbers are going to stay low enough.”

That’s where the interior defense ties right back in with Spoelstra’s season-long discussion of process vs. results. Anthony said he didn’t even know how poorly Chicago was shooting within nine feet because Spoelstra didn’t tell him. They aren’t the process, they aren’t the efforts that gave the HEAT a win, just the tools to help us analyze why they won.

“The numbers are a result of what you do,” Anthony said.

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