Finals Game 2: The Double Dip Offense

When Erik Spoelstra sees something he likes late in a close game, that thing tends to happen again. It doesn’t matter if the play call actually worked or not. If there was even a hint of a set being effective, something the defense wasn’t entirely responsible for stopping, Spoelstra will double dip.

Early in the season, up two on the road in Charlotte with a shot clock to play, Dwyane Wade saw Corey Maggette playing too close to LeBron James in the left corner, leaving Wade a driving lane open on Gerald Henderson. Wade got into the heart of the defense, drew the help and dished to Haslem. The pass bounced off his hands and out of bounds.

Seeing all the space Wade had to operate, and the ease with which Wade took Henderson off the dribble, Spoelstra called the exact same a possession later after Charlotte had taken the lead with a three. Maggette played James tight in the left corner, Wade isolated on Henderson and attacked the left side of the paint. Two points. Game over.

On that same road trip, down three with a minute to play in Minnesota, the HEAT had the ball on the sideline. Spoelstra called for an initial action for Wade to curl around a high screen and dart to the rim, looking for a lob – a play he later admitted to borrowing from Doc Rivers after the Celtics had beaten Miami with the same lob set a year earlier.

Wade came off the high screen cleanly. Nothing stood in his path to the basket as he sliced down the paint. The pass never came.

What did they run 60 seconds later, with the game tied and six seconds on the clock?

Same set.

This time, James threw the pass. This time, Wade caught the lob. Two points. Game over.

Months later, against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Spoelstra again saw something he liked in a busted play. Again, he called the exact same set a possession later. And again, two points. A basket that, this time, didn’t mean a simple road victory during the season’s infancy. This time, going with what amounted to an educated hunch got Miami to a 1-1 series tie in the NBA Finals.

To set the table for a moment, after gaining a double digit lead in the first half, the HEAT’s fourth-quarter offense was grinding to a halt. The Thunder were stacking the upper regions of the paint, nullifying all the pick-and-rolls James was attempting to run. The ball wasn’t moving forward and the shot clock was draining. The team was still scraping together enough points – such as with a Shane Battier banked-in three from the top of the key – to hold a lead, but the offense was unsustainable. Oklahoma City was making its move, and if they kept grinding like this, there would be no salt left to grind.

What Spoelstra dialed up for the fix was something the team had been running all season. With a twist.

If death and taxes are the only two constants in life, then the only constants through the few three months of Miami’s season were defense and the same play being called if the team had the ball with one possession left in the first half.

Battier would begin in the left corner and then run baseline to the opposite side – a staple of many Spoelstra sets designed to help clear the paint. Wade would get the ball from Mario Chalmers to the left of the top of the key. Bosh would be on the left block. James would sit in the right corner.

After Chalmers passed off, he would run to the right corner and set a screen for James. James would then sprint to Wade, threatening the deadly James-Wade pick-and-roll. But James would always slip the pick, and as he did so, Bosh would come up the middle of the floor and set a screen for Wade.

Sometimes, James would slip into space on the left wing and get an open three (as he did in Game 4 against New York). Sometimes, Bosh would slip his pick and dive into space where he could catch the ball. Sometimes, Wade would come off Bosh’s pick and hit the paint, either scoring, dishing to a cutting James or finding an open shooter on the wing.

It didn’t always work, but it was always called. And why not, when you can get Miami’s three best scorers in motion with shooters spacing the weak side of the floor?

With so many repetitions during the season, this play became a staple of the team’s late –game offense. All playoffs, Spoelstra would facilitate late-game movement when the team desperately needed a basket. But without Bosh, Battier took the spot of the second screener, and things weren’t the same.

“That’s something we’ve been doing throughout the playoffs,” Spoelstra said. “We didn’t have the component of Chris Bosh before, so that’s probably why it looked a little bit different.”

Up three with just over 90 seconds to play in Game 2, Bosh was back. But instead of running the same thing they had all season, Spoelstra mutated his creation.

Now, Bosh would be on the right block. James would set the screen on the right side of the floor. Bosh would fake the pick and James would initiate the true pick-and-roll.

Only, again, the first call didn’t work.

Technically, the play resulted in a score, but only after the set broke and James scored an incredible isolation basket, dropping in a jumper off the glass. Other than getting Thabo Sefolosha on James, the play call had little to do with him scoring. Spoelstra, however, saw something he liked.

This:

It may not seem like much as first, but look at the left side of the floor. The Thunder opted to trap Wade even though James has slipped the pick, which meant that with two defenders being pulled to shooters on the right side, James and Bosh were left with a single defender between them. Had Wade hit the window to pass to James, the HEAT would have had a precious 2-for-1 in the paint.

A possession later, with Miami up five and a minute to play, same call, same set.

Before James even gets to Bosh, this is what Spoelstra is seeing with the right side of the floor overloaded with shooters. Space, and lots of it.

Everything develops as expected. James frees Bosh, Bosh runs a wide curl with Wade handling up top. James runs to Wade.

This time, James doesn’t slip the pick. He gets a body on Sefolosha and Wade – who habitually goes away from picks – used the space afforded him by James. And since nobody in the league splits the defense more often on pick-and-rolls, it’s no surprise that Wade does just that, getting a step on Harden and two feet in the lane.

Remember that one defender, the one in the image above, that was stuck defending both James and Bosh? This time, he’s stuck between Wade and Bosh. Ibaka helps, Wade drops off an incredible pass to a suddenly open Bosh. And dunk.

While this seems a good opportunity to point out the HEAT answering the critics about their half-court offense, that would be doing the rest of their season an injustice. In the half-court alone, Miami scored more points per possession (0.909) than all but three teams in the league. Spoelstra has a play book, he uses it and the team has long been executing it.

Things just don’t always go as planned. Defenses make plays, timing gets disrupted and offense stagnates. A perfect play-call can result in a relatively awful shot. The result doesn’t always reflect the goal or the intent. The first time Spoelstra called this play in Game 2, James scored on an isolation.

But the next time, the team got a dunk. And because Spoelstra went with what he saw working and not the actual result, the HEAT are going home with a 1-1 tie in the NBA Finals.