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The Fleeting Return of Battier Ball

by Couper Moorhead

For much of this season, the Miami HEAT have been biding their time. After starting the year much like they ended the previous one, running Shane Battier out as a power forward and torturing opposing big men with spread lineups, this has been a more conservative team than most realize.

No, Erik Spoelstra didn’t stop using ‘smaller’ lineups altogether – we say smaller only as an identifier for the spread lineups – but after a late November injury caused Battier to miss a few games, Spoelstra inserted Udonis Haslem as a starter alongside Chris Bosh. And when Battier came back, Haslem remained the starter. It was likely a move made to preserve Battier for the playoffs as much as anything else, but from that point on Miami’s opponents were able to play their usual defense from the opening tip and tinker with lineups only when it became necessary.

Things have worked out just fine since then, with Miami holding on to the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but with Chris Bosh sitting out the past two games the HEAT have resumed their playoff identity with Battier in the starting lineup. As a result, Spoelstra only had two traditional big men on the floor at the same time for three minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers -- exchanging Battier and Rashard Lewis for most of the game -- and that was with the game long since out of reach.

What a reminder this game was, then, of what was and of what is to come.

While Battier was hardly lacking credit for the Championship run, it’s tough to overstate how important he was. No, Battier wasn’t running pick-and-rolls or pulling Miami back from deficits, but nothing was more important to the HEAT than spacing and because Battier could stretch the defense to its limits on one end and defend opposing power forwards on the other he became the Master of Unlocking for Spoelstra’s positionless vision.

The same dynamic was again at play Friday night in Battier’s matchup with Blake Griffin. Battier’s primary weapon against the likes of Carmelo Anthony, David West, Paul Pierce and Kevin Durant last season was to get his body in front of his mark and deny the easy entry pass. Offenses would typically stall out for a moment figuring out what to do, which was usually enough to send the offense running through another player, away from Battier, with a shorter shot clock.

But Griffin is, as Battier says, the most difficult front in the league (along with Pau Gasol). While any fronted offensive player is a risk to spin baseline and look for a lob, Griffin is the greatest threat of all. When deciding whether or not to front, Battier has to be cognizant at all times of the possibility of Griffin making a vertical play on the ball.

“Blake’s a unique guy because you can’t play on the top side of him too often because he’ll spin out and you’re done,” Battier said. “It’s the game that no one can win, trying to defend him at 11 feet. So for him, it’s a little different. Sometimes you have to concede the catch to him and just play him after the catch. You’re still taking your chances.”

Battier's concerns came to life once, and almost another time, as shown below:

In the first clip you saw one of the best ways to beat the front, which is simply to get the ball to the middle of the floor and throw a pass over the top of the defense with a good angle – somewhat incredibly, this pass was thrown off the backboard on purpose. In the second clip, Griffin senses a potential front and spins baseline just as Battier described. The lob isn’t there, but Battier concedes the catch.

Notice that in both of those clips the ball becomes a more potent threat to Battier the closer it is to the middle of the floor.
“Usually [the ball] is on the wing or below the free throw line,” Battier said of his decision-making process for fronting. “That’s not the angle where a guy can spin out. If a guy is above the free throw line at all, and it’s pretty much true for any high-flyer . . . you have to concede the catch and play him from behind.”

So as the lob gets tougher for the passer and easier for Battier’s weakside defender to key in on, Battier fights his way in front and prevents the offense from obtaining its natural rhythm.

The results weren’t perfect as Griffin shot 4-of-6 in the first quarter, but for the game he got one fewer post touch than he averages, per Synergy Sports, and with Battier sharing the floor during the third quarter, Griffin only took a single shot. Battier struggled at times because he simply lacks the length to prevent a high-low pass between Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but the defense was good enough to keep him on the floor and Miami’s spacing alive. And Battier’s offense was more than sufficient.

It’s tough for anyone to beat Miami when they’re shooting 15-of-27 from three and that’s clearly not going to happen every night. What’s more important than whether or not the shots fell were the shots themselves, and throughout the night Miami’s shooters enjoyed wide swathes of real estate.

There was no single reason for the HEAT’s shooters being so open. The Clippers appeared to be more concerned with defending the paint than monitoring activities in the corners, to the point where they would overhelp in the paint when it wasn’t even necessary, but there were also instances in transition where Battier’s existence was an afterthought or in the halfcourt when two Los Angeles players defended one stationary player.

The results for Battier were plain and simple. A shooter on the wing, a big man defender caught in the middle, five attempts and four makes.

“No one guarded me,” Battier said. “Their gameplan was to, I guess, take away dribble penetration at the expense of leaving me wide open. It is what it is. When I’m that open, I’m going to shoot every time I get it.”

“We did a good job of setting screens and getting in the paint,” Wade added. “This team, with Jordan and Griffin, they try to guard the paint, so as they’re [drawn inside] our shooters had a lot of opportunities and they knocked down a lot of shots tonight. We did a good job of doing our job of penetrating and getting into gaps and spraying out. They did their job of making shots.”

Shooters won’t always make shots, but if you give up 12 attempts to one of the best corner-three shooting teams in the league (more than double the attempts the Clippers typically surrender) then you’ll be working out of a quality-of-opportunity hole from the get-go. Especially if all Miami needs to do to clear the entire weakside of the floor is get one body, with or without the ball, in the paint. Not every team has a LeBron James or a Dwyane Wade, but Miami’s playmakers don’t hesitate to make cross-court passes.

As familiar as this look may be, don’t get too used to it. Soon, Bosh will return and the Heat may go back to a more traditional starting lineup, this two-game stretch in the heart of winter left as nothing more than a mere glimmer of what we remember and eventually expect.