Prized Possession: Rockets-HEAT

The following is part of an ongoing 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.

It’s rare, when selecting the best possession from an individual game, to choose one from a game’s final minutes. This is not just the case with the Miami HEAT. It’s not that teams can’t execute well with the game on the line – many do, particularly out of timeouts – but the circumstances are such that our standards for what an ideal possessions is are lowered because of the results we’re looking for.

You aren’t trying to establish sustainable offense, hit a three to spread the floor or get a particular player in foul trouble. You don’t even have the luxury of working for the best shot, no matter the value. In essence, if a team gets a decent shot up, it goes in, and the team in good position to win, it’s perfect.

That is, if the clock is where it needs to be. Sure, defenses tighten up in the fourth quarter and most teams have thoroughly scouted their opponent’s late-game tendencies in advance, but nothing affects last-minute possessions on a more consistent basis than the clock. Score too quick with the lead, and you leave the window open for the opponent, no matter how improbable of a comeback they would need – remember Utah? Take too long, and earning even a wide-open look can paint you into a corner.

The clock can butcher a playbook. It affects timing of plays that require precision, it can shrink a five-option set to three or two or one, and it can generally make you do things you just don’t want to do.

So why the lengthy preamble? Because with all those considerations, the HEAT came up with a beautiful possession, up three with 45 seconds to play against the Houston Rockets.

First, the situation. Miami is operating with a full shot-clock here, out of a timeout. But they’re leading. Were they behind, Erik Spoelstra would have drawn up a quick-hitting play, likely a pick-and-roll where either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade can drive, get to the line or kick-out for an open look. Leading, they have to wait out the clock, biding their time until the most efficient time to strike.

That time is with 14 seconds left.

With LeBron James up top and the other four players spreading the floor, Dwyane Wade slide down from the right wing to set a screen for Chris Bosh. Wade and Luis Scola get wrapped up, and Bosh is able to move freely and pick James’ man.

Note here that James Jones and Mike Bibby – 4-of-5 from deep – are spreading the floor from the weakside. And they wait until the moment Bosh goes to set the pick before exchanging positions, Jones to low, Bibby to high.

Why do this when they are already in position to catch-and-shoot? Because for that split-second, the defense has to react, Kevin Martin illustrating this by turning his head to follow Jones and communicate the switch with Kyle Lowry.

With the weakside help momentarily occupied, Bosh is able to roll off the second screen and cut, unhindered to the rim, where he’s open because Scola over-hedges on James. Then Wade, having popped out off the initial screen he set, curls, shifts his momentum downhill and takes the handoff from James.

At this time, the Rockets are trying to manage three of the NBA’s most talented offensive players, all on the move, all within one pass of one another, complete with two dangerous spot-up shooters waiting in the wings. That they, quite literally, trip over themselves trying to recover as Wade slices to the rim is understandable.

Of course, the defense won't always play it the same way. If Bosh's man follows him into the paint, there can be a defender, with his feet set, waiting for Wade. And no matter how good Wade is at side-stepping, it can become a judgement call, as it did a few weeks ago in Atlanta, when Miami ran this same set to get the final shot of the first half:

But in both instances, before the shot even goes up, Miami has a plethora of options. They have Wade going full-bore to the rim, Bosh is perfect rebounding position, James with open space on the wing and two shooters with defenders caught in indecision.

Even in a game where defense was hardly at a premium, this is a winning possession. Not a guarantee – the HEAT fell short on similar possessions during that apocalyptic five-game losing streak in March – but if you believe in percentages, this is the situation you want. And for it to take 17 of a possible 24 seconds off the timer while extending the lead to two possessions, with such perfect timing, it’s every bit as noteworthy, though not as historically significant, as three teammates putting up a 30-and-10 in the same game.

Comment on this story here...