Prized Possession: Clippers - HEAT

The following is part of an on-going series that features a single HEAT possession, one which may not result in points but gives the team the best chance to win. It is impossible to duplicate an individual shot, but it is possible to re-create the same opportunities, and the effort that went into earning them.

A noon start time on a Sunday, with one team on the opposite coast from home, is never a formula for crisp, precise basketball. And the Miami HEAT’s 97-79 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers was no exception. Both teams combined for seven turnovers in the first four minutes, eight in the first seven, including a sequence where they traded three turnovers in a span of nine seconds.

It’s fitting, then, that today’s possession is not an example of the pristine execution the HEAT have displayed the past six games. But of trust, and the development of instinct, it surely is.

Before we get to it, look at the screenshot of the video below. The Clippers are in a 3-2 zone with an added wrinkle: their center, DeAndre Jordan, is up top guarding Dwyane Wade. The Detroit Pistons of earlier in the decade used to put Tayshaun Prince in that position, and Al Horford currently does so for the Atlanta Hawks, but in each instance, the idea is to place a defender with long arms where the ball-handler usually is in order to disrupt passing lanes and the rhythm of the offense.

The HEAT begin the possession in a typical zone offense. They have a mobile big, Joel Anthony, flashing from side to side on the baseline, and their other big, Chris Bosh, in the high post. Wade hits Eddie House on the left wing, and the ball is quickly swung back to Wade and reversed to LeBron James.

It’s simple basketball, necessary to force defenses to react and shift, but its also where a number of teams get caught up. It’s easy to swing the ball around, as if the team were running a shell drill, and there will normally be a semi-contested three-pointer available at some point. But, only having to step a few feet in either direction to maintain the integrity of the zone, the defense expends no energy and your offense has degraded into live three or die hard.

So James puts the ball on the floor and drives into the first available seam, forcing three players to react. He’s cut off by Jordan at the top of the key, but the zone has already shrunk.

James minimizes his options by jumping in the air and looking for a pass as his momentum carries him parallel to the rim. A defender threatens the passing lane to House, and at the peak of James’ jump Baron Davis throws his hands up to cut off Wade. James has nowhere to go.

With a simple cut, Wade saves the possession, giving James an outlet. The rest is Wade being one of the best finishers in the NBA, swerving around Blake Griffin for the layup.

It seems like a relatively easy play, but it’s easy to take for granted. Earlier in the season, even during Miami’s exceptional December streak, off-ball movement like this was rare, particularly for the three players that had been so accustomed to a certain way of doing things.

“That’s something we’ve worked on,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ve spent a lot of time with those three guys in particular, that one player has the ball, that you cannot be a spectator. That was a habit that we’ve had to change because all three of them were so used to having the ball so much more and having more touches, and dominating the ball, that for us to be effective they each had to learn how to impact an offensive possession when the ball wasn’t in their hands, and the number one way you can do that is to move and cut.

“It’s also a luxury they learned that when one of them has the ball and their on the attack, usually the other team all five guys are going to be staring at the ball so we spend a lot of time working with one guy cutting behind the defense. And they have picked that up really quickly, especially with their high IQ.”

With their previous teams, Spoelstra explained, James, Wade and Chris Bosh had to shoulder so much of the offensive load that any play that had the ball out of their hands was generally a play run for someone else. Essentially, it was a needed opportunity for on-court rest.

But in Miami, they had to learn how to play differently than they had for most of their lives.

“Even with Dwyane with us,” Spoelstra said, “He made so many plays for us, when we had him off the ball, that was usually a possession were we were working something else, work some movement, and he had an opportunity to catch his breath.

“Instead of resting now that’s an opportunity to make another attack play,” he added. “And have the same mentality that when they’re with the ball and attacking you can attack when the ball is not in your hands.”

The diversification of their roles, along with the building trust among teammates, has the HEAT’s offense functioning like never before. And what’s special about this instance is that the player movement came against the zone. Before, Miami struggled in losing two games to the Dallas Mavericks, who utilize a zone almost twice as much as any other team in the league.

Now, Spoelstra says he feels more comfortable against a zone than anytime this, or any other year. Cuts like the one you just saw are a major reason why.

Comment on this story here...