Pick-and-Spacing the Indiana Pacers

For a long while, the sight of a Miami HEAT pick-and-roll cast a shroud over the team’s offense. Regardless of whether they were winning or losing, whether they were scoring or missing, whether they came away with a dunk or a turnover, the pick-and-roll was the symbol of what wasn’t. Of what had yet to be. It was a formula that worked, but it was expected and predictable, and Erik Spoelstra wanted a team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to be something more.

Eventually, the team became something more. Something capable of getting all three of the primary scorers a touch in the same possession, capable of variety and complexity. The pick-and-roll was always there as a fallback plan, as a safety valve, something to turn to whenever a play broke or to force the action at a particular mismatch. It was a big part of the foundation, not the foundation. A tool, not the toolbox. While the team endured some growing pains over the course of two seasons, it was better for it.

Then the playoffs started and Bosh was sidelined with a strained lower abdomen in the first game against the Indiana Pacers. Significant parts of the playbook were changed or cut out of necessity. The offense was still capable of warp speed, but the flux capacitor was missing.

So, Spoelstra adjusted and went back to old reliable.

“Coach Spo from Game 3 on made some unbelievable adjustments,” James said. “It allowed us to do the things that we did on the floor. Every single game, he made adjustments. He put us in position offensively and defensively so we could make plays to help our team win. Just as much as he said we played spectacular, he coached a spectacular series.”

According to Synergy Sports, Miami ran 31.6 pick-and-rolls, either through the ballhandler or the screener, during the regular season. Without Bosh for all of Game 2, the team ran 56 – Miami’s pick-and-roll usage was inevitably going to jump as defenses improved in the playoffs – eventually losing by a small margin. The possessions were effective, but the spacing was cramped. Indiana was staying home on shooters and funneling Wade and James around the edges of the paint while Roy Hibbert waited patiently. Too often, the result was a mid-range jumper off the dribble.

Spacing became the order of the day, and by Game 3, Spoelstra was starting a lineup with James and Shane Battier at forward, at times clearing the strongside corners of shooters to give the talent room to operate. They ran screens high, they kept shooters on the floor at all times, they created space. In five games without Bosh, Miami ran 47.8 pick-and-rolls a game, and Indiana never had a true answer.

Even during Wade’s 2-for-13 Game 3, the pick-and-roll was working. It was just Mario Chalmers, with 25 points, taking advantage.

The problems those high screens posed for Indiana remained the same throughout. If Roy Hibbert was in the game, defending either Ronny Turiaf or Joel Anthony, then Miami sent its centers to screen. Either Hibbert had to attempt a hedge on the ballhander, which he rarely did, or he sat back in the paint and waited.

If Hibbert had to be taken out of the game, either due to foul trouble or ineffectiveness on defense, then Indiana’s greatest advantage was sitting on the bench. Wade and James would go right to the post and work the mismatches with the Pacers’ smaller lineups.

As much as was possible, Frank Vogel kept Hibbert in games. And Wade, James or Chalmers would have at least ten feet of space coming off (excellent) screens to make a decision. More often than not, the shots were floaters over the top of Hibbert, but they were still shots in the paint. In Game 6, when Wade scored on seven of the nine pick-and-rolls he used, it looked like this:

We should stress the effect this type of coverage can have on an offensive player. Hibbert defending 70 pick-and-rolls over the course of the series, and with him forced to sit back in the paint, the HEAT’s scorers had opportunity after opportunity to get into space and get comfortable. With repetition comes confidence, and in the final two games of the series, it was clear that Wade and James knew exactly the looks they could get.

There’s a reason the HEAT play pick-and-rolls so aggressively.

With jumpers, elite players often keep taking them in the face of failure because they are shots they know can be earned on command. Imagine how a player feels when they know the paint is going to be open. A string of missed floaters and contested layups aren’t going to convince them to retreat.

“All I did was continue to play basketball the way that I always have. Sometimes you struggle, sometimes the ball is not going in,” Wade said. “I understand that when it comes to offense, it doesn’t always go in. Every shot is a 50-50. But I got back to what I felt the basics.

“I felt good, I felt strong. And my teammates continue to get me open and continue to look for me, and my confidence just stayed at that level that it was in the second half of Game 4.”

In Game 4, Wade and James combined for 21 field-goals in the paint. They followed that up with 14 buckets in the paint in Game 5. In Game 6, they added another 15.

“The whole game, he made jump hooks in the post, made pull up jumpers, got into the lane and made floaters over the bigs,” James said of Wade.

Coverage remained the same because Vogel didn’t have another choice. Because when Hibbert tried to put pressure on the ballhandler, as he did late in the fourth quarter of Game 6, Wade – who splits the defense in pick-and-rolls more than any player in the league – did this:

Hibbert’s goal is to push Wade back, or at least cause some sort of delay to his attack, but he jumps out too far. When bigger player don’t have great lateral foot speed, they’ll take those giant steps instead of sliding out, in essence sacrificing the ability to change direction for a split second. That’s all the time and daylight Wade needed, and once he splits, he’s got Battier and Chalmers in opposite corners clearing the paint. The defense collapses, but like the Clashing Rocks attempting to crush the Argonauts, the defenders close from the sides too slow. Wade has already found his lane. Miami goes up double digits with three minutes left in Indiana’s season.

Two possessions later, Hibbert was out of the game and Spoelstra went to the Wade-James pick-and-roll, knowing they would either get a mismatch out of it or, in this case, the deadliest of all proposition when defending Miami: space.

While Paul George and Danny Granger were likely meant to switch here, because Spoelstra kept this look in his pocket until late in the game, they are caught off guard and the miscommunication allows James to pop out into space.

West gets pulled out of the paint, and just as with the attacks on Hibbert when he waited in the paint, the probabilities favored Miami at this juncture. Consider this the pick-and-dagger.

Moving forward, things won’t be this (relatively speaking) simple for Miami. Both possible opponents in the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston and Philadelphia, will attack the ballhandler much more aggressively. Wade and James will be forced to give up the ball more often, and the HEAT might not be able to rely on 50 pick-and-rolls a game to afford them enough offense. But that’s a bridge to cross this weekend. Against the Pacers, running pick-and-rolls at Hibbert was a deep well of opportunity, and Miami is advancing because they took advantage of it.