HEAT-Nets Series Preview: Inverted Offense

LeBron James
Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann

Three years ago, Chris Bosh rose up for a dunk against the Indiana Pacers in the Second Round of the NBA Playoffs, straining his abdominal muscle and in the process forever changing the identity of the Miami HEAT. The team may have inevitably been headed down a similar path, but Bosh’s absence for the remainder of that series and most of the next against the Boston Celtics eventually pushed Shane Battier into the starting lineup as Erik Spoelstra committed further to floor spacing and smaller lineups. The team absorbed misfortune in stride, as did Bosh, who took a few steps back and began working on his three-point range during rehab.

As a reward for their evolution, the HEAT earned an NBA Championship.

First-year head coach Jason Kidd had a similar choice to make this season. When center Brook Lopez was ruled out for the year with a foot injury, Kidd could have maintained the status quo and plugged in another big body next to Kevin Garnett. Instead, he chose a different path, turning Paul Pierce into a regular starter in the frontcourt and removed a positional designation from just about every ballhandler on the team. No more point guards and shooting guards and small forwards. The team that was supposed to be all about size became all about size in a different, more flexible way.

“Certainly they have some of the positionless elements that we have to our offense,” Spoelstra said. “Guys are in different parts of the floor. Different guys handling and different guys making plays. They do have shooting so there are a lot of similarities from that standpoint.”

Brooklyn’s reward, for now, is a chance at the two-time defending champions – with a style that few teams in the league can replicate.

THE INVERTED OFFENSE

The inverted offense is Spoelstra’s term for the HEAT’s approach. Their ballhandlers post-up. Their big men shoot threes. Up is down. Left is right. Small is big. Most teams attempt to counter with size, knowing that if you aren’t pre-constructed to play small then you’ll be playing right into Miami’s hands. But the Nets can match scheme-for-scheme, if not in efficiency.

Where the Charlotte Bobcats previously dedicated consistent effort to freeing up Al Jefferson for post-ups, the Nets can create post-ups for a former shooting guard with a cross-screen from a former point guard all while a center holds the ball on the three-point line.

Just about every player the Nets put on the floor can post up in one form or another – they rank third as a team in points-per-post-up according to Synergy Sports – turning every size mismatch derived from Miami’s aggressive defense into a dangerous combination. If the Nets aren’t posting up every which-way but at halfcourt, it will be quite the upset.

But for a team that relies so heavily on post-ups and, as we’ll get to later, isolations, the Nets are capable of moving the ball surprisingly well. Rather than using pick-and-rolls as a point of attack like most professional teams, the Nets’ ballhandlers attack off screens less than anyone, choosing instead to use those triggers as points of creation. Once an extra defender commits to stopping the ball, as the HEAT are well known for doing, the Nets are often just a few swing-swing-swing passes away from an open look – even if the ball eventually finds the one guy on the floor that doesn’t take many threes.

“All their triggers are really created with their perimeter guys and they have shot makers,” Shane Battier said. “That is why they are able to do that on the perimeter. Every guy out there can make a shot.”

While the majority of Brooklyn’s threes come from above the break in the three-point arc, where teams tend to shoot a lower percentage, they’re still a high-volume shooting threat capable of quick scoring runs. There are other weapons, such as spread and side pick-and-rolls with Kevin Garnett, Mason Plumlee and Andray Blatche and just about every guard-guard pick-and-roll combination you could imagine – a Deron Williams-Joe Johnson combination was featured heavily down the stretch in one Miami game – but all the spacing that comes with unconventional lineups is still geared towards generating threes.

That’s where these teams differ. Where the HEAT use their spacing to create driving lanes, the Nets rarely get to the rim. Only the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks have attempted fewer shots at the rim since January 1st (post-Lopez injury), and according to SportVU data the Nets have the smallest percentage of their touches within twelve-feet of the rim actually result in a shot. Since the Nets are not a very efficient team shooting off the dribble, there would seem to be an opportunity for the HEAT to run them off the three-point line if the secondary help can seal off the rim.

If the HEAT can’t run their shooters off the arc, then ideally they can stop the catch-and-shoot attempts entirely. Brooklyn uses isolation possessions more than just three teams in the league – sandwiched between the Warriors and Rockets in isolation-usage rate – and despite their stable of veteran scorers the isolation remains a less-than-optimal process for attacking Miami’s defense.

So, if that defense is functioning properly then those spot-ups the pick-and-rolls are supposed to trigger might just end up being one-on-one possessions. Down the stretch in Miami’s one-point loss to the Nets in April, Brooklyn ran three-straight side pick-and-rolls with Williams and Plumlee as Marcus Thornton – a helpful midseason addition and burst-scorer – ran baseline. And every trip became a Joe Johnson isolation.

Johnson may have scored on that possession with a contested floater, but it’s a result the HEAT will live with as long as the offense is working as intended on the other end of the court.

KEEP IT SECRET, KEEP IT SAFE

“Turnovers were our biggest problem throughout the whole season, including when we played Brooklyn,” LeBron James said. “We just turned the ball over too much in the regular season and it frustrated all of us.”

The HEAT made some progress with regards to protecting the ball in the First Round, but it was against an opponent in Charlotte that employed an exceptionally conservative defensive scheme. The Nets are a different beast.

While Miami led the league in forcing turnovers, the Nets weren’t far behind them sitting in the top-five for opponent turnover percentage. And like Miami, the Nets also struggled with their own giveaways this season. The recipe for some defense-to-offense scoring runs exists for both teams, but Kidd’s team goes about things in a slightly different manner.

We don’t need to rehash for the umpteenth time how aggressive the HEAT are on defense as they swarm ballhandlers off screens, pressure the passing lanes and rotate help defenders all over the floor. That much is well documented in this space, and it makes sense how that aggression translates into opponent turnovers. The Nets, however, are more conservative in the pick-and-roll, often holding their big men well behind the initial screen in the same manner as Charlotte or Indiana. Instead, they work in the margins, stealthily attacking the passing lanes with, and we don’t use the term lightly, veteran guile.

Watch Pierce get ready to poke an entry pass away from James here as the defense tilts towards the threat, for example:

“What you have are clever veteran players that know how to pick their spots and bait you into mistakes,” Spoelstra said. “They know when to pick their spots with their pressure; they have speed, quickness and length at all the perimeter positions. It can be deceptive when you think you have a passing lane, you might not and it’s very similar to what you see against us.

“Our [style] is a little bit more obvious to the average fan’s eye.”

It makes sense, of course, when you play a smaller lineup. The Nets are a bottom-five team in terms of blocks per 100 possessions but just behind the league-leading HEAT in steals because Brooklyn just doesn’t have many shotblockers on the floor at the same time. So, block opportunities turn into steals or, as the Nets were prone to committing, fouls. Because when the HEAT spread the floor around a Chris Bosh pick-and-roll, the primary help defender might be Paul Pierce instead of Kevin Garnett.

“We have to protect the ball, turnovers are going to be a huge part of this series,” Bosh said. “If we do catch it where we want to, especially in the paint, we’re going to have to protect it. They have those tricky vets down there, they know pretty much everything there is about stripping, drawing fouls, getting charges and just being a nuisance to you if you’re trying to score.”

A WORD ABOUT RECORD

Much will be made of Brooklyn beating Miami four times during the regular season, and many will ask whether or not that matters or not. The answer is that it only matters if the things that happened in those games end up mattering – and that’s before considering that neither team played any of the same lineups, due to health and rest, from game to game.

The HEAT lost those close games largely because they kept turning the ball over, made threes at a below league-average rate and because the Nets scored more. Sure, that sounds a bit silly, but the Nets were scoring more off isolations, off step-back threes on the wing and heavily-contested threes in the corner. There was little that Brooklyn did in those games that we could consider a true issue, unless you believe the HEAT will again bite on every pump fake and struggle to stop simple dribble drives. The defense wasn’t good, but it was hardly broken.

If there’s an important element of those games that could carry over it would be Brooklyn’s effect on Miami’s offense down the stretch. Because the Nets field so many players with size, strength and length, they can easily opt to switch every screen in order to keep the ball in front of them and slow things down.

“Well in general when teams switch, it flattens the offense out and makes them less aggressive,” Battier said. “What we have to do is not allow the switching to make us passive and I think that’s been a hallmark of our floor game this year. When you play with high energy and a high motor, switching, showing, hedging, downing, that all goes out the door. That’s when good offense beats good defense.”

Whatever the results, the HEAT will remain dedicated to their process. They’ll just be facing a team with possibly the most similar process around. All because when two young coaches were faced with heavy choices following injuries to featured players, they chose adaptation over stagnation.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com, Synergy Sports and STATS LLC