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Dwyane Wade: Mr. Don't Blink

by Couper Moorhead

The key to unlocking the Miami HEAT's offense has always been figuring out what to do without the ball. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have always been able to run pick-and-rolls and attack off isolations, but the simple, obvious glitch in the HEAT's system two years ago was that only one player could be pick-and-rolling or isolating at once. When James had the ball at the top of the key, on the elbow or in the post, what was Wade supposed to be doing?

The answer to this problem has manifested itself in a variety of different ways. The players that didn't have the ball had to spread the floor better and give the ball more space to infiltrate. The players that were going to post up had to get better at gaining deeper position before the catch. Shooters had to get better at getting open. Screeners had to time their screens and set better ones, too. Guys had to think about the pass they were going to make before even receiving the ball. Anything to keep the defensive players from setting up, getting comfortable and keeping five pairs of eyes safely on the ball.

In some cases, this was as easy as acquiring Shane Battier and Ray Allen, telling them to set up shop in the corners and reaping the benefits. In others, it was more of a process, figuring out what Chris Bosh should be doing after setting a pick – does he roll, does he pop or does he shuffle somewhere in between? With Wade, the issue gave the appearance of complexity because he is not a natural spot-up shooter, but the solution was clear from the early going:

Realize that Wade might be the best cutter in the game today, and put him to work.

After the first few months of the HEAT toiling away in the City of Isolationa two years ago, Wade began cutting more often. He began to recognize where the defensive seams would be when James had the ball on the other side of the floor, and combined with his own natural instincts, the team enjoyed rapid and fruitful dividends.

Wade used 1.6 cuts per game that year – possessions where he shot, drew a foul or turned the ball over – and there was a positive correlation between the number of shots he would get off the cut and HEAT wins. Simple math, but cuts and catches equaled more shots at the rim and fewer mid-range jumpers. The following year Wade used 1.9 cuts per game, and this year he's been at 2.4 a night.

It seems it was something Wade kept track of, too:

"I think all year I was one of the[ best] in the league on cuts and finishing in the paint from that standpoint," he said.

Sure, he was among the best if you put Wade in the same category as every big man in the league (Synergy Sports records many catches around the rim from big men as cuts, even though the player only shifted a short distance). In 167 possessions, Wade shot 73 percent, the fourth highest mark among all players – topped only by Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Chris Bosh – but among guards nobody was even close. Tony Allen is one of the best cutters in the league, and he only made half his shots in an equivalent number of possessions.

Having LeBron as passer helped, but that was sort of the point – figure out how to work together. And now that work is making an impact on the playoffs, again.

Earlier in the season, when Ray Allen was seemingly hitting a game-winning three twice a week, it was less a surprise that he kept making the shots than that he kept getting open. Wade described the sensation of guarding Allen in the past, remarking at how quickly Allen subtly shifts up or down the three-point line to create a passing lane. Simple stuff, really. Allen's defender turns his head to look at the ball and . . .

"He's gone," Wade said of Allen. "You can't take your eye off of him."

The same principle applies to Wade's cutting. It's a game of patience, not constant motion. He'll sit in the corner, sometimes for most of the shot clock, just waiting for an opportunity to pounce. All it takes is a turn of the head.

On the first possession in Miami's Game 2 victory against the Bucks, Wade took advantage of Monta Ellis taking a quick glance at the ball. The entire action unravels over the course of a few seconds. Wade waits, Monta looks, Wade cuts as Bosh sets an exceptionally-timed screen.

Here's the progression:

Wade Cut Progression

All it took was timing, instinct, and a little guile. If Wade sprints at the rim when he first gets space, Ersan Ilyasova bumps him harder and Wade doesn't get open under the rim. Instead, Wade maintains an easy pace, slipping by Ilyasova as if he were just sliding behind him in the aisle of the grocery store to grab some toaster strudels.

Against some defenses, you can just write this off as an opening-possession mishap. But it would happen again.

On this possession, for example, where Wade beats Ellis baseline twice in the span of a few seconds (retreating to the corner after not getting a pass on the first cut). Keep in mind the ball movement, which you'll see in the video, keeps drawing Ellis' attention as his head turns back and forth. An isolated, stagnant ball is much easier to track.

Wade Cut Progression

Before you click play on the video below, note the layout of the floor in the screenshot. Ellis is playing as tight on Wade in the corner as defenders usually will on Battier or Allen, but Wade isn't nearly the corner-three shooter that those two are. So why does Wade's presence pull a defender out of the paint and create such spacing? Because he's a threat. Ellis may have misplayed his positioning here, but you can understand the natural instinct to want to get close to an object that is always trying to escape your grasp.

But the closer you are, the greater your margin for error. Lose track of your target for one blink, and you're already playing catch up.

"Just waiting for my opportunity to be aggressive and cut," Wade said. "At times I'm able to get back there."

For his part, Wade sympathized with Ellis after the game:

"I've been doing that all year," Wade said. "I know because I'm a defender, too, and I understand when the play is on the strong side, sometimes guys cut backdoor on you. I know it's tough, especially with the attention with LeBron and Chris are getting on the other side."

Ellis wasn't the only victim of Wade's crafty movement, though. Wade got Brandon Jennings with a rim dive at the top of the key when Jennings trusted his peripherals a little too much, and later on in the second quarter Wade found himself in the corner with Marquis Daniels on him and James about to post-up.

That sequence went about as you would expect:

Wade Cut Progression

In all, Wade scored off cuts four times in the first half and the followed that up with a putback dunk over an unsuspecting Ellis in the third – the final tally coming in at 10 points off simple movement without the ball. We call it simple because half the league does the exact same thing. Players wait, players cut and players try to get easy shots at the rim.

But even if everyone is doing it, someone has to be the best. And Wade's ability to continue to get open near the rim even when every opponent – of all variety of defensive talents – expects him to do it both makes him the best and, more importantly, gets the HEAT's offense a little bit closer to reaching its potential.

Right now it's a problem for the Bucks, but Wade's instincts aren't going anywhere in the weeks, months and years to come. So, next time you see Wade in the corner doing nothing at all, take a look at his defender and see where he's looking. And when you look back at Wade, see if he's still there.