The Lineups of HEAT-Hawks

MIAMI, January 19 – Last week, we took a look at the small lineup the Miami HEAT used in the final minutes to throw the Portland Trail Blazers off balance, create floor spacing and mount a late comeback to steal a win. But last week, the toy box was full for Erik Spoelstra.

In a strange, discombobulated loss to the Atlanta Hawks last night, the HEAT were without Chris Bosh, and even though the team had been struggling with inconsistent lineups and performances for the past weeks, the absence was the wrench of all wrenches to Spoelstra’s system.

Without Bosh against Atlanta’s athletic frontcourt of Josh Smith and Al Horford, the HEAT prioritized speed and mobility for their defensive purposes, starting backup center Joel Anthony alongside Zydrunas Ilgauskas for the first time this season. When Horford left the game for good in the third quarter with an ankle injury, both Spoelstra and Larry Drew threw convention to the wind, with the Hawks using Josh Smith at center alongside Jamal Crawford, Joe Johnson, Maurice Evans and Mike Bibby.

Here’s the bevy of lineups the HEAT used, accompanied by the total minutes those units have been on the court together this year, not including some only used for a possession or two, according to basketballvalue.com. Remember, the minutes include last night’s game:

LINEUP 1: Arroyo-Wade-James-Anthony-Ilgauskas (8.17 minutes)
LINEUP 2: Chalmers-Jones-Miller-James-Anthony (2.77 minutes)
LINEUP 3: Wade-Chalmers-Miller-Howard-Dampier (5.17 minutes)
LINEUP 4: Chalmers-Jones-Wade-James-Anthony (8.22 minutes)
LINEUP 5: House-Jones-James-Wade-Anthony (2.88 minutes)
LINEUP 6: Chalmers-House-Howard-Wade-Z (1.67 minutes)
LINEUP 7: Chalmers-House-James-Wade-Anthony (15.77 minutes)
LINEUP 8: Chalmers-House-Jones-Wade-James (1.45 minutes)

That’s one group out of eight that has seen more than ten minutes of game time, with the majority of them coming last night. Three groups that saw more than six minutes, or anything regarding a regular rotation shift, with the same, new, personnel. With the clear point about how teams rely on repetition, on court and in practice, to perfect their execution, it’s hardly a surprise that Miami only scored 92.7 points per 100 possessions, 14 below the league average and nearly 18 below the team’s average.

Though some of the offensive stagnation can be hung on poor shooting and the team having suffered through some January mucky muck in as they lost four games in a row, much of it was because the team has no replacement for Bosh.

Occupying every forward role from screener, roller, popper, shooter, presence to decoy, Bosh is what Dwyane Wade called the relief for the perimeter players. As similar as Wade and LeBron James’ games are, the team can afford to have one of them on the bench and still run their offense – which they do every single game. But that’s a luxury unique to the HEAT, and they aren’t lucky enough to have a duplicate of Bosh’s unique skillset.

So, without him, the playbook gets cut up and the HEAT have to return to attacking outside-in. Add some new lineups and all the little quirks with spacing and timing they bring, and the team is effectively learning how to play together again. They did so in November, and it turned out fine in December, but in the middle of the season, things appear for drastic, and to the casual observer the problems appear more dire than they really are.

Were the answers there last night? No. But the data was, and here it is.

This is a fairly simple illustration of how well the Hawks were executing the oft-attempted “Protect the Paint” method, previously used to good effect by the Dallas Mavericks. When James has the ball in the high post, all four other Hawks defenders are within half a step of the paint.

With a hat tip to Josh Smith’s defense, exceptional throughout the night, the space available did not provide many options other than a pullup jumper or a kick-out, the latter being used by James. Most teams try to dissuade the HEAT from entering the lane by clogging the middle in this way, but where the Hawks stood out was their patience to wait for the ball to hit the floor to react and their ability to recover to the perimeter to contest jumpers. Miami scored 30 points in the paint while only putting up 0.6 points per spot-up opportunity.

Jumping ahead to the second quarter now, the HEAT are now using the Chalmers-House-Wade-James-Anthony lineup they used for much of the fourth quarter and overtime. James again has the ball in the high post – a position that tended to create more success than attacking off the dribble from the wing or top of the key – but with a shooter on the floor in lieu of a big, he has slightly more space.

Not a ton of space, yet, but Bibby is drawn to House and James is afforded just enough daylight to take advantage. The result of the play in itself doesn’t matter. Mismatched with Zaza Pachulia because of the odd lineup, James penetrates the defensive shell and gives himself multiple options, only one of which was to shoot.

Note here that James, playing the four for Bosh, is not only at the power forward spot for defensive labeling purposes. The HEAT put Bosh at the high post regularly, where he can choose to catch-and-shoot, drive off a fake or look for a cutter. James is functioning just the same here.

For another example of LeBron producing out of the high post with space, click here.

With Jones in for House, James is now playing the point-four, attacking from the top of the key. Almost the entire painted area is visible with the Hawks spreading out to perimeter threats – look how far out Bibby is now, relegated to swiping at the ballhandler – and relative to the crowded middle of the first possession we showed, James can do just about anything he wants.

And even with Smith sagging off Anthony as Anthony sets a pick on James’ defender, Smith is stationary, forced to wait for James to commit to a move. More often than not, that is a losing proposition.

But before we move on, watch this play one more time and look for Wade, who has taken his defender completely out of the play just by standing on the wing. That’s Decoy 101.

The idea here is similar to the previous possession. More shooters on the floor means more space to operate, but if they are standing and watching the ballhandler, the defense is able to plan a reaction to a number of scenarios. House, Wade and Jones all make soft cuts, forcing the defense to shift, and James attacks while the defense is forced to multitask, however minimal the actions may seem.

Also notice how, with Smith playing center for Atlanta, the Hawks have no other players on the floor used to defending oncoming traffic at the rim. Instead, those players play how they are acustomed, on the shooters and ballhandlers, and at one point there isn't a single defender below the free-throw line.

There is, however, a downside to not only a small lineup, but a green one. Defense. The reason the HEAT were down by three in the previous possession.

Joe Johnson recognizes that the HEAT are taking too long to set up their defense, and with nobody stepping into his lane, he drives, forcing more defenders to react than would normally be necessary.

In the confusion, Jamal Crawford is left open in the corner for a three, giving Atlanta the lead for good. But that’s what happens in January. That what injuries do to a roster, to a rotation and to a system a team had grown comfortable with. Were it an issue that had persisted since Thanksgiving, it would be a problem. For now, it is just another adjustment to make, just as the HEAT had to adjust to a tough game without Bosh or their comfort zone.

The changes may not have given them the win, but not every risk, however necessary, pays off. Experiments, like Chalmers-James or House-Wade pick-and-pops, run in these Atlanta possessions, don’t always have to work. But the principles for success -- the spacing, the movement, the creativity -- was present in many of these possessions. It may only be a foundation now, as all those flashes of excellence were in November, but it shows the HEAT adapting to circumstance rather than shoehorn something that may not be the best option. And the teams that have learned how to adapt will always have an advantage in April and beyond.

With that, we’ll leave you what may have been Miami’s best possession of the evening. A drive, a simple cut, a simple pass and a score.

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