Prized Possession: Lakers-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.

Thursday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers does not fix everything for the Miami HEAT. As a singular event, it guarantees nothing. If they come out Saturday afternoon against Memphis playing the same dribble-heavy offense that previously dug them a hole five-games deep, the goodness drifts away.

This is true of any contest. Looking through a game searching for those moments that allow you to proclaim, “It has been fixed”, is like grading a student’s semester based on one day’s worth of homework, and then stamping an IQ score on their forehead. What you’re looking for is progress, and even though the HEAT have played better at time this season – even in games they’ve lost – they most definitely made progress against the Lakers.

The storylines were cut-and-dry in this one, with Chris Bosh walking the walk of his talk and Miami’s role players, from Mario Chalmers to Mike Bibby and Mike Miller, keeping the floor spread throughout the game. But the HEAT also did one thing they struggled mightily with during their downturn: self-correcting.

As a 13-point third quarter slogged along, the attack was all too familiar. The HEAT were taking the first options in in what are meant to be dynamic sets, shooting off the dribble or early in the shot clock and generally only forcing one or two defenders to actually defend on a given possession.

It was something that had happened enough to become a trend, and once Miami had begun traveling down that road, they had been unable to turn around. In order to induce change, two things had to happen: someone had to space the floor, and the HEAT had to begin earning possessions like this:

This is a set the HEAT had run many times before, with either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade lurking in the corner before the initiator and a big came down to set double screens. More often than not, the result was one of the two taking a catch-and-shoot jumper off the curl – a decent look, but not the sort that will heal a lack of execution.

Before we go further, note the personnel on the floor. It’s essentially James and four floor-spacers, with Miller in the weakside corner, Bibby bringing the ball up and Bosh and Zydrunas Ilgauskas sharing the elbows. As Bibby passes off to Ilgauskas to begin the set, not a single Laker has a foot in the paint, most importantly Andrew Bynum, who is drawn out by Ilgauskas.

Neither screen for James is particularly strong, but they’re effective enough to give James a step on Matt Barnes, who gives chase over the top of each pick.

Now, because of the floor spacing – both Miller and Bibby had hit a pair of triples – when James catches the ball, Bynum is already out of position, and because he’s not particularly adept at stripping the dribble of smaller players, his only impact on the play would have been to foul. He doesn’t, leaving Lamar Odom, who had wisely sunk off Bosh as a precautionary measure to penetration, the only man in position to cut James off.

Odom has no choice. He steps up to James and seals the most direct route to the rim. This leaves Steve Blake all by his lonesome with two to guard on the weakside, with one of them being Bibby, who had just hit two threes, and the other is Bosh, who is both bigger and already rolling to the rim.

At this point, because the floor is spaced and James attacked as soon as the caught the ball, the Lakers are out of options despite having made the correct defensive plays. As long as the pass to Bosh goes un-tipped, they’re beat.

Note here that, by flashing to the rim, Bosh is helping himself more than any playcalls ever could. His 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting were aided by a few more touches in the post, but it was decisions like this to put himself closer to the basket that really made the difference.

Now, the HEAT didn’t score on four of their next five possessions, but they featured that nice, pinball-passing action that every coach loves to see. And though their final run was born of the James-Wade pick-and-rolls Erik Spoelstra was calling more than anything else, five of Miami’s last six buckets were right at the rim. Whether there is a direct correlation with the later layups and this play or not, it remained a game-deciding trend.

No, one possession didn’t win Miami a game over the defending champions any more than one game wins them the season, but it showed just as much progress as any arbitrarily-defined statistic about last-minute victories ever could.