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HEAT-Knicks Preview: Fighting the Tiger

On Saturday begins another chapter in the storied history of HEAT-Knicks. The start to this First Round playoff series will raise fond memories of the late 90’s for many of you, others will be reminded of parents or older siblings recounting those memories to them, but this will be the last we mention those years.

Those were different players. Different teams. A different age. It mattered, and matters still, to many, but to today’s basketball, history doesn’t.

Strangely enough, that same sentiment applies to all meetings between Miami and New York during this regular season as well. Just as there always appeared to be a crucial absence during matchups between Miami and Chicago prior to their meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals of last year, the three instances in which the HEAT met the Knicks featured wildly different New York rosters.

In late January, New York’s starting point guard was Toney Douglas. Steve Novak played nine minutes. And Carmelo Anthony didn’t play at all.

In late February, the NBA was in the midst of the Jeremy Lin revolution. And Mike D’Antoni was still head coach.

In the middle of April, with Baron Davis starting at point and Mike Woodson coaching, New York was without Amar’e Stoudemire.

All three of those games wound up being victories for the HEAT, but if the rosters in those games aren’t reflective of what they will be in the playoffs, how could those results be indicative of anything? They couldn’t be under normal circumstances in a normal season, but this year we have to toss most of the general data from those games out the window and start from fresh as we assess the identity of Miami’s opponent.

You can only forge an identity out of consistency and for New York, consistency came only the in forms of one-on-one offense and Tyson Chandler.

LIFEBOAT OFFENSE, WITH A TIGER

You’ve probably heard of the concept of playing defense on an island. If the other team is attacking you off the dribble, you send your best defender out there and ask them to get a stop. It’s simple, and for the defense it is an apt term.

But all else being equal, an island seems to indicate some sort of level playing field. Considering that no team shoots better than 43 percent in isolation possessions – and no Knick topped that mark this season – those situations are more than a slight uphill battle for the offense. A battle that, over time, the offense tends to lose.

In the Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi, the protagonist, Pi, finds himself shipwrecked after his family’s boat, full of the animals kept by that family, goes down. Though a handful of the animals survive, eventually Pi finds himself stranded on a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. For seven months.

Though Pi survives for some time feeding the tiger with the fish he catches with his bare hands, he decides that he must establish himself as the dominant creature on the vessel. To do so, Pi fashions shields out of turtle shells, using a whistle to goad the jungle cat into approaching. After a number of attempts, Pi succeeds in getting the tiger to retreat and later, when fresh food presents itself in the middle of the boat, Pi stares down the tiger and earns his meal.

Like Pi with his turtle shield, one-on-one attackers can assert their dominance over defenses for long stretches, keeping their teams alive with pullup jumpers, dribble drives and drawn fouls. But eventually those shots stop falling, driving lanes seal up and whistles stop coming, while inefficiency rears its ugly head. The isolator goes cold or wears down, and the tiger wins.

And no team has been fighting the tiger more than the Knicks.

Since Woodson took the helm in the middle of March, New York has used 25 isolation possessions per game – with numbers from Thursday’s season finale excluded – as logged by Synergy Sports. No other team has used more than 16.8 such possessions per game this season.

In other words, 26.6 percent of the Knicks’ offensive plays have been isolations, a usage rate that not only tops any in the league in the last eight years, but New York used those isolations more often than any team used any other type of possession.

Now, it’s important to note that with Stoudemire missing a number of games over that stretch, Anthony was New York’s starting power forward. That meant frequent mismatches at that position for Anthony, and mismatches often lead to one-one-one basketball.

But against the HEAT, who can throw out lineups featuring five mobile players of at least 6-foot-8, those mismatches tend not to exist. Despite this, Anthony still went on an offensive barrage for three quarters in his last game against Miami, only to have that isolation offense stagnate New York to a loss in the fourth quarter.

Isolation simply plays right into Miami’s hands. The HEAT’s defense can be beat when it overextends itself on excellent ball movement, but no team defended the one-one-one game better than Miami this season, with the team surrendering barely seven points per 10 possessions and four of the HEAT’s current starters -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem -- ranking among the Top-10 isolation defenders in the league.

There is certainly a prominent spot in the playoffs for isolations in the playoffs, and it’s certainly possible to win games on the backs of incredible one-on-one performances. But deployed as a primary form of sustenance in a seven-game series, against an aware defense ready to cut off driving lanes, the tiger is likely to win. And it’s very possible that this series swings on how well, and often, either team moves the ball.

THE POINT OF ATTACK

It has taken some time to settle in as fact, but by any metric the Knicks have been one of the best five or six defenses in the league all season. With apologies to the perimeter stylings of Iman Shumpert, there has been no greater reason for this than Tyson Chandler, likely choice for Defensive Player of the Year.

Though interceptions are the flashy statistic for NFL cornerbacks, but to accrue those numbers said cornerback has to be challenged by the other team. Instead, it is a greater sign of respect from the offense if they don’t throw to your side of the field at all, regardless of the quality of wide receiver you are covering. If team’s never challenge a cornerback covering the best players, he must be doing something right.

And so must be Chandler, who was challenged less than two times per game in isolation plays all season – which includes when he could be mismatches with a guard on a switch. Players shot 27.4 percent against Chandler in those instances.

That is only the beginning of what Chandler does for New York. He covers for every defensive mistake on the floor, tracking ballhandlers off screens as far as is necessary and challenging shots at the rim even when he was technically two help rotations away from the play.

Put simply, Chandler is the defensive player Miami’s offense has to affect.

The HEAT can do that with Chris Bosh without altering the offense much at all. By running their usual sets that begin with Bosh above either elbow, Miami can clear the paint for Wade or James to cut through. By running corner sets, Miami can get Chandler moving away from the ball and covering a cutter while the ballhandler runs a separate action on the strong side.

Or, by attacking Chandler in the pick-and-roll, the HEAT can simply hope to get Chandler into foul trouble.

Miami has the options, lineups and shooters to force Chandler to move around and create space in the middle of the floor. And nothing is more important to Miami than offensive space.

DECIDING THE SERIES

New York is going to be a frustrating opponent for many Miami fans, if only because the talents of Anthony, Stoudemire and J.R. Smith can make a defense at times look helpless no matter how stagnant the offense may appear to be. If the Knicks move the ball well enough, Steve Novak can, and will, hit shots no matter how well Miami’s defenders close out on him. No matter how physical Miami’s bigs are playing or how tight the interior help rotations are, Chandler will get free for a dumpoff, or putback dunk.

What matters in the end is what Erik Spoelstra has referred to all season: the HEAT’s identity. With James, Wade and Bosh, Miami has the talent to win a back-and-forth battle of isolation offense, but if they space the floor, attack with the ball, move the ball, move without the ball and above all, play their defense, the HEAT will give itself the greatest possible chance to win.

That doesn’t guarantee wins, of games or of series. Nothing does. You can simply give yourself the best percentages you’re able to. And nothing has been more important to Miami’s percentages this season than their own play.

Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports.

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