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Making the First Move: Fronting Melo

“That’s the chess match that is the playoffs.” – Shane Battier

There are times when we overestimate how much control an NBA coach has. We hear so much about them adjusting this, tinkering with that or making a tweak over there that at times are cries for changes that don’t make any sense.

‘He should make some adjustments,’ one person might say, when what they really mean is, ‘Why isn’t the guy in the suit making those wide-open three pointers from the corner go in the basket?’

This effect is accentuated even further in the postseason, when coaches are sometimes expected to come up with miraculous ideas that defy traditional logic. Down 3-1 in a seven-game series? Worry not, there’s still Deus Ex Coach.

Of course things rarely work out that way. Both major and minor changes are made, some you notice and some you don’t, but things tend to come down to how the players on the court perform. Even the most brilliant change to the starting lineup before Game 4 has it’s perceived success teeter on the shots that go in and the shots that don’t.

But we still place a great deal of blame, and therefore the expectation that they can alter the outcome on a game, on coaches. In part because when that adjustment does work in the playoffs, it becomes a huge part of the storyline. You remember the tweak almost as much as you remember the shot that capped off a big run in the clinching game. And in Game 1 against the New York Knicks, Erik Spoelstra made one of those changes you remember, electing to front Carmelo Anthony on defense – which Miami hadn’t consistently done to any perimeter player all season – in a move that could set off a chain reaction through the rest of the series.

“We were just trying to make him catch it in an area that’s a little bit awkward,” Battier said. “They’re going to make adjustments in Game 2. We’re not going to have an easy time in Game 2 playing the same defense. That’s what playoffs are about. But at least we gave them a different look. And we’ll try to come up with a counter to their counter.”

Having Battier and LeBron James front Anthony isn’t the most complicated coverage taken at face value. Post players get fronted all the time, especially if they’ve been scoring with ease on the blocks. But the HEAT didn’t start off the game fronting Anthony. It wasn’t until halfway through the first period – with Anthony still scoreless – that James started the aggressive ball denial, and for a while it wasn’t that effective.

First, Anthony got a quick catch and made a clean move. Then the Knicks saw Miami’s help defenders overplaying and Tyson Chandler got a free look at the rim. Early in the second quarter, Anthony caught another lob over the top of the defender and fed Landry Fields for a cutting dunk.

It didn’t appear as though the decision to play aggressive ball denial was going to have that great of an effect. That is, until it caused New York’s offense to stagnate.

After Fields’ dunk with eight minutes to play in the second period, the HEAT didn’t stray from the plan. For Anthony’s entire second shift, James and Battier fought for inside position as far out as the three-point line, forcing New York guards to lob the ball over the top.

And that’s a pass many guards just don’t want to make.

The result was Anthony using just three possessions in his nine second-quarter minutes – he averages 0.7 used per minute – taking two shots and making just 3-of-15 all evening. The Knicks scored 13 points, and neither James or Battier picked up a foul while denying Anthony the ball.

“He’s too good of a player to let him catch where he wants to catch and operate,” Battier said. “He’s just too good. When you’re playing defense on him, you just want to make him work. Move his catches out a little bit further and take your chances. In New York, the last game we played, he caught the ball wherever he wanted. That was not a very good defensive plan by us.”

There are reasons why Miami didn’t use this strategy in the regular season. Those games don’t matter as much, and you don’t want to show your hand until you need it. It’s also an exhausting style of defense. Just as it is easier for offensive players to take one dribble and rise up for a jumper, it’s easier for the defense to let the player catch the ball and take the shot.

“It’s not easy, but that’s playoff basketball,” Battier said. “You do a lot of things you don’t do in the regular season.”

Fronting so far out on the wing can also be a high-risk maneuver, as seen with Anthony’s smart feed to Fields. Even though part of the idea is to force the guard to make a tough pass and make Anthony make a tough catch – possibly losing track of where he is on the court for a split-second – there is another aspect geared toward generating turnovers.

That’s where the big men come into play. As well as Battier and James did in constantly fighting for position with Anthony, they can’t be nearly as aggressive with big men that can cover a lot of ground and play the ball on the lob, either going for the steal or trapping the offensive player on the catch.

“When they’re doing that they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage sometimes,” Chris Bosh said. “They really have to trust what’s going on in front of them and behind them. That’s where we come in. We have to be where we’re supposed to be. We can’t have many mistakes because we don’t want to give him any open looks. So when he stretched that out there, we have to do our job because they’re doing their job so well.”

As good as the execution was from all involved parties, the Knicks won’t continue to try to get Anthony the ball in the same spot. There will clearly be adjustments on Mike Woodson’s part in Game 2, and in some cases it will simply be doing more of what New York already does.

“He’s too good of a player and shot maker,” Spoelstra said. “He’ll find ways to get open.”

One choice could be to have Anthony bring the ball up the court as the point guard on more possessions. It’s a little tougher to keep a player from catching the ball in the defensive back court, after all, and this would let Anthony initiate the offense with time on the shot clock. Of course, that also puts increased pressure on Anthony, and it could have diminishing returns as the game goes on.

Another, very likely, option is to get Anthony in motion. You can front in the post and on the wing, but it’s impossible to play ball denial when you’re running into and around screens. On New York’s first possession of the game, a simple cross-screen got Anthony an easy catch and decent post position. Of course, timing-based screen sets can be disrupted by good defenses – and disrupted sets mean short shot clocks – and even with post position Anthony is still left with an isolation possession, something New York already has plenty of.

But that’s the playoffs. Spoelstra moved his knights out, and now Woodson gets to counter. Just remember that even if Woodson comes up with the best possible strategy, and Spoelstra responds in turn, that even the best moves don’t guarantee victory. Saturday afternoon, one move helped a ton, but the players made it work.

Statistical support for this article provided by and Synergy Sports