Working Together Without the Ball

Early during Dwyane Wade’s difficult Game 3 against the Indiana Pacers, he and LeBron James were on a 2-on-1 fast break. James was on the left, Wade was running down the right and the defender was stuck in the middle. As it has happened dozens of times this season, everything seemed set up for a lob.

But instead of sending the ball over the top of the defender, James tried to thread the needle and zip a straight-line pass. The pass was tipped, the Pacers regained possession and Wade was left empty handed.

“I was very upset at myself,” James said two days later.

It’s likely that a dunk on that fast break wouldn’t have changed a thing that night. Wade could have struggled through a turnover-prone, poor shooting night all the same. That would make logical sense, at least. But basketball doesn’t always have to be scientific. Sometimes, as most players will attest, it just helps to have a recent visual of success to work with. Sometimes, a dunk or a layup can go a long ways.

So, late in the second quarter of Game 4, with Wade shooting 1-of-8 and the Miami HEAT trailing the Indiana Pacers by 11 through the first 22 minutes, James went out of his way to help Wade out.

“The best thing for a scorer is try to get him an easy bucket,” James said. “Get him an easy layup, get him a fast-break point or something so he could just see the ball go through the rim. I called a set where I thought I could get a good one for him.”

Wade went 12-of-15 for 28 more points, including a number of smooth jumpers, the rest of the way and Miami won, 101-93, to tie the series at 2-2.

“I think that’s what got him going,” James said. “I’m not taking all the credit for his performance tonight, but as a teammate you always want to get your guys an easy one when they’re struggling.”

“I told him that I needed that,” Wade said. “It was good seeing the ball go through.”

Miami needed it, too. Not just a dunk. Not just for Wade to be Wade. But for the return of an offensive dynamic that has rarely presented itself during the playoffs. The return of James and Wade working to get one another scoring opportunities. Not just the man with the ball creating a shot for his counterpart, but for the man without the ball to create as well.

That backdoor cut wasn’t just James passing to Wade. It was Wade setting up his man on the perimeter and slicing into space to give James a place to pass to, making the defense suffer for watching the ball by simply not watching the ball himself.

Whether that possession was a catalyst for what came afterwards is tough to say, but just as a player can get into rhythm with a dunk, it makes sense that an offense finding just a morsel of success with a specific combination could open the floodgates for future actions. Because whether or not there was a catalyst for it, the third quarter of Game 4 was possibly the best example of James and Wade working with one another in the half-court offense of the past two years.

It was also a quarter that should finally put to rest the somehow-still-existing question of whether or not Wade and James can function together. They can. They don’t always. But they just did.

“Me and [LeBron] both had it going and we played off each other very well,” Wade said. “We both were aggressive at the same time. That’s beautiful basketball for the Miami HEAT when we’re playing that way.”

Of the 15 assists James and Wade combined for, seven were the result of a James pass to Wade or vice versa, the third-highest total of assists to and from those two this season. In Miami’s eight other playoff games, there had been just 12 field-goals from one assisted by the other. Even when they weren’t passing to one another, they both moved without the ball – aided by the improved offensive spacing provided by Miami’s smaller lineups.

“Yes, you can try to get the ball out of their hands and try to make other guys make plays,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “But when you get the ball out of one of their guys’ hands, it finds its way to the other guy. It’s not just one superhero and a bunch of role players. You got to worry about the other guy.

“They really hurt us, not just with what they were doing initiating the offense with the basketball but once they give the ball up, their back cuts, their movement, when they’re off the ball they hurt us every bit as much.”

Between the pair of them, James and Wade had eight possessions where they made a cut and received the ball, and the team had 12 in all. To give you an idea of how important those possessions are to Miami, they use 10.11 cuts in wins this season, including playoffs, and 8.91 in losses. When using at least 12 cuts in a game, the team is 19-5.

And with Wade and James moving and passing like that, they combined for 28 points as Miami outscored Indiana 30-16.

“There are always opportunities for you to present yourself offensively when you don’t have the ball,” James said. “When I have the ball I usually have two or three guys looking at me so there’s opportunities for us to ball cut. The same with D-Wade when he’s penetrating. He’s usually getting around [his defender] and the guy that’s guarding the pick-and-roll and you have a big that steps up in front of him so there’s the opportunity to cut behind the defense or cut in front of the defense and make yourself available.

“We’re two unselfish guys where if we see guys cutting, either to each other or some of the role guys, we’re confident that they can make the plays. We just tried to be conscious of that tonight where even when you don’t have the ball, don’t just stand and observe other guys.”

The question you’re undoubtedly asking by now is why we don’t see possessions like these more often, and it’s fair to ask. The team started off the season remarkably well with regards to cutting, but off-ball movement has come and gone over the course of the season.

For starters, cutting requires space, and space has been an issue all year long as Miami’s shooters have appeared to slump and streak as a group, going from one extreme to another. Without space, it’s tough for the ball to penetrate the defense. When that isn’t happening, the defense tends to know where all offensive players are on the floor. And when the defense knows where you are, it’s tougher to cut. You might break away from your own defender, but there will be someone waiting in the paint just as there is help waiting for the roll man in the pick-and-roll.

Against New York and Indiana, the men watching the potential cutters have been Tyson Chandler and Roy Hibbert. It’s not mistake that the two games of this series that Hibbert has been in foul trouble, Games 1 and 4, have seen the most movement in Miami’s offense.

Also, without Miami’s Chris Bosh, the HEAT’s playbook has been cut by – guessing here – about 40 percent. One of the best ways to facilitate movement is to have Bosh hold the ball at the elbow or the top of the key and let guys make reads. Erik Spoelstra tried to re-create some of these sets on Sunday, putting the ball on the wing and running Wade and James off screens on the far side of the paint to either get them moving or create a window for an entry pass. But without the ball in the middle of the floor, its easier for a defense to stop a cut they know is going from General Zone A to General Zone B.

More than anything, cutting has been a new way of life for James and Wade, a change each has had to adopt and learn.

“Obviously we’ve come a long way with that,” Spoelstra said. “We used to be a stand and watch each other team last year at times. We’ve really worked on those guys playing off each other and not standing and watching. That’s been a long process to get to that point. Both of those guys knew that they would actively have to get involved whether they had the ball or not.”

In Game 4, they did what they knew they had to, but the key is and always will be sustaining the same level of activity, and not falling back on the comfort of dribbling and watching. The lane won’t always be so open and Hibbert won’t always be in foul trouble, but the HEAT’s offense is never the same as it is when it’s two best players are putting pressure on the defense whether they have the ball or not.

Without Bosh, pick-and-rolls will always pace Miami’s offense, but cuts add the unpredictable dynamic that just played a major role in winning the (current) most important game of the season.