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Prized Possession: Celtics vs. HEAT

The major storyline of this barely post-natal season has been speed. The speed of rookie point guard Norris Cole, yes, but mostly the dramatic uptick in the Miami HEAT’s pace. Whether they are pushing the ball after makes or simply leaking out ahead of the pack whenever a defender sniffs at the offensive glass, through two games – yes, I know, two – the HEAT are leading the league with 101.1 possessions per game, more than 10 possessions faster than last season.

They’re slightly less efficient offensively as well, but aside from that being a direct result of garbage time against Dallas and Boston using zone for a long stretch, it’s almost beside the point to bring efficiency into the conversation less than a week into the season. The HEAT are simply more dynamic offensively this season, and most everything looks organic.

That the offense is working, for now, is enough. How the entire package evolves is a question for a few weeks and months from now.

But it’s also important not to lose sight of what made Miami so successful down the stretch last season. They played stifling defense throughout the year, but the longer the year went on, the crisper the HEAT’s half-court execution became. And that was a credit to Erik Spoelstra.

One of the simplest measures of a coach’s technical coaching ability is his team’s effectiveness after a time out, that break in action where players hunker down around a clipboard and hammer out a detailed plan. Spoelstra’s HEAT were third in the league in point per possession after a timeout (0.929), and got points out of such situations more than any team other than Oklahoma City.

Miami is slightly behind that rate in 17 ATO’s this season, but there’s no reason to believe that won’t change, especially given the existence of plays like this:

What starts out as a simple 1-2-2 set becomes one of the more interesting looks the HEAT have run this season. With Dwyane Wade handling up top, LeBron James comes from the right elbow to seemingly set a pick. Except the play is designed for him to immediately bypass the screen, slipping by Rajon Rondo to get to the left wing.

While Rondo causes a little confusion by switching on Wade without giving James’ actions any mind – a strange action for Boston, but perhaps this is something they are more willing to do when playing Rondo and Keyon Dooling together – it’s clear that Bosh is meant to come from the left elbow to screen whatever player tries to chase James through his action.

In this case, Bosh bumps Dooling, the man initially defending the ballhandler, which forces Brandon Bass to hedge out onto James – typical of how the Celtics play pick-and-rolls. But Dooling fights through Bosh as he is meant to, giving Bosh a split-second to shoot down the middle of the lane.

Here’s where Miami’s so-far-excellent spacing has been so important. As the play began, James Jones and Mario Chalmers were spreading the floor from opposite corners, dragging Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen out of the lane. That gives Bosh the daylight for his cut. What lets him get right to the rim, however, is Jones’ cut right as James received the ball off his feigned screen.

The cut drags Garnett under the rim in this situation – and Garnett probably doesn’t want to risk a foul here at the end of the half – but basically this set gives Miami a 3-on-2 with two bodies in motion towards the rim. If Garnett steps up, Bosh can feed Jones for an open layup. If Allen cheats over too early, Chalmers is open for three. And if Boston collapses on all three options well enough, Miami will have two elite scorers ready up top with plenty of space to operate on a scrambling defense. All because Spoelstra is playing off the defense’s expectation of Miami to break out the Wade-James pick-and-roll in important spots.

This play is, at its core, based on misdirection, so the more Miami runs it, the easier it is for opponents to scout it and thus stop being fooled. So don’t clamor to see this play after every crucial timeout. Don’t even expect to see it, or an iteration of the set, more than once or twice a week. For now, just know that the team has lots of plays like this ready to go – remember the pick-and-roll-to-handoff set that won them a game against Houston last season – and that when games get close, execution like this will be just as, if not more, important than possession volume.