The HEAT vs. Larry Sanders

Chris Bosh
Photo Credit: Gary Dineen

If you think the Miami HEAT are about to enter a playoff series against a plodding, hard-nosed defensive team in the Milwaukee Bucks, one that has had more success than the majority of the league against the HEAT in recent years, then it’s time to forget what you know about the Milwaukee Bucks.

These Bucks are not the Bucks you’re looking for.

Two years ago, Milwaukee was one of the five best defensive teams in the league. That also happened to be the last time Andrew Bogut played more than 60 games in a Bucks uniform. A year later, Bogut was first sidelined then traded and the Bucks’ defensive rating began to slip below average. Now, with Monta Ellis – who came to Milwaukee in return for Bogut – joining Brandon Jennings in one of the league’s smallest backcourts, the Bucks are one of the fastest teams in the league.

They’re also an above-average defensive team again, but pulling back the curtain on that defensive efficiency just a little reveals the potential weakness that will likely decide the series.

Most of you are probably familiar with the legend of the nameless Dutch boy. Much of the Netherlands is actually below sea-level, necessitating the construction of dykes to hold back the waters of the ocean and pumps to keep the land dry. In the fictional tale, a young boy is walking to school and as he passes a dyke he notices a leak. With nobody else around, the boy sticks his finger in the dyke to stop the water, holding back the Atlantic Ocean with just his thumb. The boy stays there all day and throughout the night, almost freezing to death, until eventually help arrives. The boy’s country will not become the inspiration for a post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner movie.

The Bucks are not a great defensive team, but they do have a great defensive player. And if you think of Milwaukee as the Netherlands, then Larry Sanders is the little Dutch boy. Even after accounting for their torrid pace of play, no team allows more shots in the restricted area around the rim than the Bucks. Opponents get to the rim off the dribble, off picks, without the ball and in transition. The next three teams on the list that give up the most efficient shots in basketball at almost the same rate as Milwaukee are three of the five worst defensive teams in the league.

The difference is Sanders. When he’s on the floor, opponents shoot just over 43 percent from the floor and the Bucks have a defensive rating that would be among the three best in the league. Those numbers aren’t the result of the Bucks forcing teams to take shots that are harder to make. Opponents keep getting to the rim, but then there’s Sanders, affecting shots at the rim and plugging the dam.

What that means for the HEAT is that – while this is simplifying matters – with their ability to get to the rim and the shots that should be available, Sanders becomes the most important Buck on the floor. And if they can consistently manipulate the spacing on the floor to move Sanders away from the rim, they will likely win.

The best way to do this? Give Sanders a good reason to leave the paint.

“The main thing is you have to keep him in a legal guarded position at all times,” Shane Battier said. “What I mean by that is we can’t allow our big guys to be too close to the paint where Sanders can cleanse himself of three second calls and still be able to contest shots at the rim. He’s long and he’s athletic and he’s a great shot blocker. He’s a game-changer in that regard.

“We have to be very mindful of our spacing, especially UD and Birdman and CB when he’s at the five to make him cleanse himself and then make him make an athletic play coming from the true weakside instead of just camping out in the paint. Make him use his 2.9 [seconds].”

What Battier is saying is that the HEAT can’t let Sanders just rest with a foot in the paint, where he can easily take a quick step out, reset his three-second clock with the officials and be within two steps of most attacks around the rim. There will be a direct relationship between Sanders’ positioning and who Erik Spoelstra starts at the power forward spot – if Battier enters the starting lineup, as would be our best guess, then there would be nobody for Sanders to legally guard in the vicinity of the paint with Battier camping out in either corner.

But regardless of who starts, and Spoelstra has used both Battier and Udonis Haslem against the Bucks this year, Sanders will likely defend Chris Bosh (this is Battier’s guess as well). Fortunately, Bosh might be the best weapon in the league this year for combating big men that want to defend the rim.

With Sanders on Bosh, the HEAT will want Sanders playing one of two extremes: at the rim or outside of the paint on Bosh. When he’s in those spots, Sanders is committed to either the ball or a single man, but if he can straddle the space in between Bosh and the rim, he can cover for the rest of Milwaukee.

On one end of the spectrum, Bosh has the ball in his usual spot on the perimeter, and Sanders is playing him honest (ruling out any hard closeouts that Bosh can and will attack off the dribble). The problem for Milwaukee is immediately evident: there’s nobody else on the floor to defend the rim.

Screen capture: HEAT @ Bucks

With Sanders on Bosh, the only player in position to help are Monta Ellis and Luc Mbah a Moute. In some cases Marquis Daniels will be down there, or Ersan Ilyaosova if he starts as expected. In any case, it’s doubtful that there will be a second big man to help as LeBron James can when the HEAT go small.

So, with Bosh holding the ball up top, James and Dwyane Wade are free to play off the ball. And it works here:

And here:

“Spacing must be terrific,” Spoelstra said. “[As does our] discipline to keep that paint open, to keep [Sanders] honest and all five players have to know where he is at all times. And that ball has to move to make them pay when he comes to help. He’s a dynamic defensive player. He dramatically changes their defense when he’s in there.”

The other extreme with Sanders is when he is drawn into the paint, either by dribble penetration or by a cutter (a big man like Haslem or Chris Andersen rolling down the lane, for example). This might seem a little counter-intuitive since having Sanders near the rim is ideal, this is just as much of a concern for Milwaukee as when Sanders is drawn out to the perimeter. On film, Sanders has a tendency to overhelp into the paint – entirely appropriate given the burden he shoulders in the defense – even when he isn’t in position to do so (or a teammate isn’t in position to cover for him).

It’s not always overhelp. Sanders can simply linger for a moment to long after a rotation, or the HEAT can force the issue and make him provide help off the ball. Whatever the impetus is for Sanders’ help, the situation remains the same for Bosh here just as it does with Roy Hibbert.

He’s open.

Sanders In, Bosh Out collage

“He’s one of the candidates for Defensive Player of the Year and that’s for a reason,” Bosh said. When he’s in the game they’re a much better defensive team. His strength is blocking and altering shots. We’re going to have to make him uncomfortable, put him in some unfamiliar situations and we’re going to have to knock down some wide open outside shots.

“I think that’s really going to make him think. Pull him away from the basket just a little bit. He’s always going to be there, that’s his natural thing to do. But if we get him to hesitate just for a split second I think that will give us an advantage.”

Sanders won’t always be so conveniently at one extreme or another for Miami, but there’s a gap between Sanders being in good help position and consistently being in the same help position. The HEAT have a ton of read-and-react options in their offensive packages, and they’ll use every single one to force Sanders to adapt and reaction again and again.

“You have to account for him. You have to know where he is. You can do that through playcalling,” Battier said. “Sometimes you want him in the pick-and-roll so you can see him right in front of you. Or sometimes you have a specific playcall where you know where he’s going to be; [where he’s the help] in an area so the ball handler can see him. Every guy is different. But you have to account for him. You can’t just play random and expect to have a clear lane.”

There’s more to this series than just Sanders. Jennings and Ellis will run approximately five thousand pick-and-rolls over the next two weeks, and the Bucks can still win the same way they have always won against the HEAT – by hitting tough shots off the dribble. But Milwaukee has also been able to take advantage of defensive mistakes on Miami’s end, and those are regular-season mistakes that we seldom see from this franchise in the playoffs. Shooting percentages can spike and slump from game to game, but in order to win four games series you need constants on both ends of the floor that you can rely on.

The Bucks can bank on Sanders being a consistent defender, but against the HEAT they might not be able to count as strongly on the space that he’ll be defending.