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Rebuilding the Playoff Repertoire

The postseason is coming. We got a taste of it early with the Miami HEAT’s thrilling 98-93 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday night, but that was but a morsel of the great playoff feast of early summer.

We know its coming because of the flagrant fouls. Because establishing post position took far more than just walking down to the block. Because there was contact on every shot in and around the paint, and because there was the sense of more. More at risk and more required to succeed.

“We got to playing basketball,” Erik Spoelstra said. “Tough, physical, playoff basketball and that’s what it’s all about.”

But if that wasn’t enough, at the end of their victory the HEAT showed that they know the playoffs are coming, too. Which means its time for Act 3.

Every fictional hero has to, at some point, lose his mojo. There has to be something incomplete about him, something missing, whether it’s his powers, his will to fight crime, his physical ability or even just his hat. Otherwise, we’re left without conflict. The hero always wins, and there is never any doubt he will do so. There would be no narrative arc, only narrative line-drives.

That’s why The Hulk has to revert to David Banner. That’s why Kryptonite exists, The Man With No Name never jumps into a shootout and Indiana Jones becomes a servant to Kali. That’s why Seabiscuit ruptures a ligament and there’s always a damsel in distress. We know these characters have the potential to do great things, but something has to hold them back. Otherwise, they’re always the same.

Otherwise, Indy doesn’t get his hat back. He just has his hat. He’s cool, not cool again. It’s expected, and something you’ve seen before.

Against the Thunder, the HEAT ran something we’ve all seen before, but it’s been a good while since it’s been used in a late-game situation. Not to create a narrative conflict, but to keep teams from getting used to the sight of them in a fedora.

We’re talking about the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll.

As last season wore on, the James-Wade action became a fixture of Miami’s late-game offense. It was always an option, but it was reserved for key situations when both James and Wade absolutely had to be involved. The pick-and-roll drew mismatches, it creates open shots, it won some games and had a hand in many other victories. But never too often. Never so that opponents knew what to expect.

“We’re putting in our playoff repertoire,” Shane Battier said. “You have to add things that people can’t scout, or haven’t scouted. You build your repertoire and your playbook as you get closer to the playoffs. And it’s that time.”

Early in this season, it looked like the pick-and-roll between the two elite scorers would be making more regular appearances. In a loss against the Clippers, with Los Angeles running a two-point lineup of Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, the action was used over and over to get James a mismatch. Sometimes it worked.

Sometimes it didn’t. But it consistently got James a size advantage on the elbow after a defensive switch, or it created space for Wade to attack. Miami lost because of a number of missed free throws, but the offensive process was there.

From then on, perhaps spurred by a Wade injury, Wade-James pick-and-rolls were few and far between, if they were seen at all.

Against Oklahoma City, it was back, and it probably won Miami the game. And in a bit of irony, for a play so seldom seen, it created an open shot because the Thunder did too much to try and stop it.

“I saw that Perkins was on the other side of the defense,” Bosh said. “I went to the open spot, Dwyane didn’t even hesitate [to pass the ball]. Since he didn’t hesitate, I said, ‘I know I’m open.’ I just went ahead and shot the basketball.”

But why was Kendrick Perkins on the other side of the paint from Bosh? Because when the ball was inbounded, he saw three HEAT players in the right corner and Wade and James ready to play with a ton of space -- ready to run the same action they had moments before when James drew the mismatch and the foul to give -- and nobody in the paint to stop them.

Perkins might not make that same mistake again, but that was the threat of the pick-and-roll between those two players. A threat that might have caught Oklahoma City off guard.

On the next possession, up three with less than a minute to play, Wade and James wouldn’t be playing the decoys.

As in the Clippers game, nothing too complicated here. Just three players overloading once side of the floor – with Battier running baseline to clear the paint, a common action in Miami’s late-game sets – and James creating the switch by screening Russell Westbrook, guarding Wade due in part to the lack of a traditional point guard in this lineup, and quickly posting up.

The result is a miss. But again, in a situation where you need to control the clock, a simple action to put a good scorer in position to score is usually all that is called for.

“You can put people in different positions, have them run different cuts. At the end of the day its always going to boil down to an iso, or a pick-and-roll,” Battier said. “Call it what you will, but it boils down to the same thing.”

Of course it’s not always the same thing. As Battier said, there are always variations, and this is a variation you’ll see in the coming months, because it gets James the ball near the basket with a shorter player defending him. And even before that, it puts two of the best scorers in the league in space with options.

“To me, it’s pretty simple,” Wade said. “We just read the defense, see what they do. Most of the time, if they switch you’ve got a smaller guy on him. So if they switch it it’s easy to go back and give him the ball. But sometimes they’ve got to make a decision and we play well off of it.”

Well enough that this is part of Miami’s playoff arsenal, which will only expand further over the next month, as the HEAT begin to maximize their potential while giving their potential playoff opponents as little to expect as possible.