Prized Possession: HEAT-Celtics

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.

The story of the Miami HEAT’s former eight-game winning streak was that their offense had achieved a higher level of being. The buzzword of that stretch was trust, but it was everything from precision to timing to understanding and willingness that equated to not just the team’s best execution of the season, but greatest variety.

Miami was simply a different team than it was even during their December winning streak, and that led many to think the results would be different in the HEAT’s third crack at the Boston Celtics. But the NBA doesn’t work like that. When so many plays boil down to chance, progress doesn’t guarantee results. But the absence of results hardly indicates a lack of progress.

The HEAT’s first two contests against the Celtics, both before mid-November, were confused efforts weighed down by more hero-offense than Erik Spoelstra wanted to see. The various offensive lineups had no identity, and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh effectively took turns running the same offenses as their former teams.

On paper, Sunday was similar. The 14.3 percent of offense that came from isolation possessions (according to Synergy Sports) was the highest number from any of the three games, and the 18.4 percent of offense created by the ballhandler in pick-and-rolls was on par with the earlier games. But the intent was there to do more.

Rather than going directly into stagnant sets, the HEAT make concerted efforts to run through their options. They tried to work through Bosh in the high post, moved Wade, Mike Miller and James off picks without the ball to pressure the defense and had players cutting and filling empty spots as they had for weeks. But, and this is where you tip your hat, the Celtics were so physical, playing bump-and-run on all of Miami’s actions, that the timing of those sets were disrupted and positioning thrown off.

With a pass being tipped or a beat late or the ball being 20 feet away when it was meant to be 15, plays broke or turnovers were created off forced passes. And by the time that happened, the shot clock was down and quick freelancing was the only way to ensure a shot.

That was the result, not the intent. The HEAT intended to earn easy looks, as with 9:30 left in the first quarter, when Mario Chalmers penetrated and found a cutting Wade for a baseline dunk. Or with 3:30 left in the first, when Wade took a handoff along the baseline, and two swing passes found Chalmers for a three. Or later, with 2:01 in the second, when a long outlet pass found Wade, the ball crossed court to Miller and then bounced to Bosh in the corner and Zydrunas Ilgauskas under the rim.

You can see in the intent when 14.2 percent of Miami’s possessions came off handoffs or cuts, up from 6.8 percent in Game 1 and 5.7 in Game 2, with countless other off-ball actions disrupted by Boston’s fantastic defense.

Those broken plays did eventually push Miami into a rut, but it wasn’t during Boston’s 20-3 third-quarter run. The offense actually maintained during that period – they missed on some open spot-up opportunities – but during four minutes in the middle of the fourth quarter, the HEAT wound up with two Wade threes off the dribble, two James floaters off dribble penetration and a James jumper with the shot clock winding down, his dribble dead and all other options expired.

The HEAT scored seven points off those possessions – nine with a Bosh jumper mixed in – but it was talent superceding execution. And with five minutes to play after James’ long two, against a defense built to defend predictable, isolation offense, it was a dangerous downward trend.

Instead of following, the HEAT responded with this possession.

With the defense just getting set, James and Bosh run a pick-and-roll on the right side, James likely looking to exploit the floor spacing off the moment. But when Garnett hedges on the screen and James sees Wade on his right, he reverses the ball to Bosh.

To this point, the possession could have resulted in either a James drive down the right or a Bosh jumper at the top of the key. Both can earn fine looks, but neither truly forces the defense out of position.

Instead, Bosh swings the ball to Eddie House on the left wing, and runs to set another pick. When Bosh sees Garnett again jumping out on the ballhandler, he slips the screen and gets to an open spot, where House gets him the ball. Glen Davis then closes out on Bosh, and with his momentum carrying him away from the bucket, Bosh puts the ball on the floor.

Again, this is where you credit Boston, with both Davis and Garnett recovering onto Bosh. But with so much activity in the possession, the only Celtic player who has been able to watch it all develop, Ray Allen, is caught with his head turned as he shifts into the paint to watch Joel Anthony. Wade recognizes this, cuts baseline, receives the ball from Bosh and draws a pair of free throws.

Of course, none of this was perfect, but the ball moved quickly, players got to their spots and every member of the defense had to react. And so, under five minutes in the fourth quarter, when offense typically bogs down, we have a play that illustrates both intent and results. If you look beyond a three-point loss, that’s the November-to-February progress that turned a playoff-caliber game into a roll of the dice.

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