LeBron James vs. The Westbrook Scheme
As entertaining as Thursday night’s Miami HEAT vs. Oklahoma City Thunder game was in stretches – in large part thanks to LeBron James furthering his quest to make comic books appear, by comparison, quite realistic – it’s tough to glean much in the way of new information when the HEAT were playin with a double-digit lead for most of the night, there seemed to be a whistle on every other possession and the Thunder were generally out of sorts.
Miami had everything to do with the muddled nature of the Thunder’s offense, of course, again reminding everyone why they sacrifice consistent interior containment for an aggressive, high-risk mode of defense. The HEAT were in passing lanes all night, rotating to spots before passes were reaching their destination and before the clock rung in the second quarter, Miami was playing with a 15-point lead. From then on, the Thunder rushed on offense, doing that thing you’ll often hear coaches talk about when they tried to ‘get everything back at once’.
The defense wasn’t much better. Thunder big men continue to not be up to the task of tracking Miami’s shooters when the HEAT use spread formations and while Miami’s ball movement took advantage of every misguided rotation, the HEAT earned all those bonus-point open looks in the corners and on the wings that you remember from last June.
But the fourth quarter, when Scott Brooks took a page out of Portland coach Terry Stotts’ notebook, was different.
We have to start and end with a disclaimer here. By the time the final period rolled around the HEAT had visibly taken their foot off the pedal and were looking more disjointed on offense and slower on defense than they had in a couple of weeks. Some of that may have been simple exhaustion, and the game slowed to a crawl with 16 personal fouls being called in the quarter, but Brooks also made a change that is almost certainly going to come up again should these two teams meet in the NBA Finals.
Where does Portland come into this? Well, about one month ago the HEAT visited the Blazers and Stotts pulled the ol’ switcheroo with his defensive assignments. Instead of sticking with tradition and matching one small forward (Nic Batum) with another (LeBron James), Stotts put the shorter, stockier (and likely stronger) Wes Matthews on James and draped Batum’s long arms over Dwyane Wade.
“He’s a very good, physical defender that can get underneath of you,” Spoelstra said of Matthews before Tuesday’s game. “I think the idea was to put a little more length and size on Dwyane and deal with LeBron in the post with a smaller guy who can combat him.”
The result was James’ worst offensive game of the season as his jumper failed him. James finished 6-of-16 from the field and 2-of-8 outside of the paint while Wade fared even worse, shooting 6-of-18. This came in the middle of a long road trip for Miami, but Batum was too long for Wade to post-up and Matthews muscled James, using a low center of gravity, out of his preferred spots. Miami was still up double-digits for most of that game before losing the lead in the final period, but Stotts’ gambit had worked.
We can only speculate about what game film Brooks reviewed in advance of Thursday night, but it’s tough to imagine a scenario where two of the league’s best scorers each had an awful shooting night and the coach of a championship contender didn’t have someone pull the tape to see what worked. Whether it was by coincidence or inspiration, Brooks made the same tactical decision as Stotts.
Let’s go possession by possession and see how well it worked (keeping in mind that Brooks is doing this with Kevin Martin on the floor for Thabo Sefolosha, so he doesn't have a ton of options to give Kevin Durant an on-ball reprieve).
One of the simple disadvantages to having a smaller defender on James is that James, who already has a size advantage over most everyone, has no real disruptions to his field of vision. If he gets the ball on the elbow – Westbrook does well to push James out a few feet on the catch – then James can just turn and survey the field as he pleases. Were it not for Nick Collison making a heads-up play in the passing lane, this possession turns into a layup for Norris Cole.
Brooks knows he is making this concession when he puts Westbrook on James, but it’s no small issue – especially when you consider, as you’ll see, that the Thunder’s perimeter coverage left a little to be desired.
This possession has less to do with Westbrook being on James than Kevin Durant being the power forward in this Thunder lineup. With Wade resting, Durant is assigned to one of Miami’s spread-fours – either Shane Battier or, in this case, Rashard Lewis – which effectively makes him the primary help defender whenever Chris Bosh pulls Nick Collison (or Ibaka) out of the paint.
All James and Bosh have done here is run a simple pick-and-roll. Collison hedges out on James, since you can’t just let James turn the corner unless you’re playing an Indiana brand of defense, and with the corners spaced by Cole and Ray Allen, Durant is the lone defender in place to chuck Bosh off his dive to the rim. The issue is that Durant is in position to do so far too early, leaving James with the simple read -- and no doubt of where the open man in – of swinging the ball to Lewis for an open three.
It’s a testament to Durant’s speed and length that he still gets to Lewis and contests the shot, but while he clearly knows his role on defense, James is going to take advantage of any defender that overcommits to help. All James needs to see is where you are to know where you aren’t, and before you know it the pass is in the hands of an open shooter.
With Wade still out on the next possession and Battier in for Lewis, James does what you might expect and takes Westbrook down into the post. Miami’s spacing is a little muddled here, but Westbrook establishes that he is going to try to front James in the post – as Miami does in just about any perceived mismatch situation – and the HEAT get to show off some smarts.
First, Battier has the ball on the wing and Westbrook sits in front of James. When Miami has done this in the past they’ve had opponents simply stare at this type of defense in fascination, left searching for the passing lane that will never open because, naturally, nobody is actually moving. So, the HEAT use this defense to set Westbrook up.
Instead of fighting with Westbrook to get back in front, James holds his baseline position and lets Battier do the work for him. Battier swing the ball to Allen in the corner and with James holding Westbrook off, the opportunity for a lob is there. Westbrook can leap, but he’s also fighting against possibly the best wide-receiver in the league, and when James receives the pass the defense collapses and the HEAT are left a couple of diagonal passes away from a corner three.
James doesn’t get the pass in this next clip, but the HEAT are using the same process to seek out passing angles, using Westbrook’s front against him with ball movement.
James being able to put Westbrook at odds with himself will come in handy in a few possession, but first we have another example of Durant getting caught in the paint on that James-Bosh pick-and-roll, this time leaving Battier open for a three, which he makes.
Soon after this Wade fouls out of the game diving for a ball going out of bounds, but Durant is clearly matched up with Wade – confirming Brooks’ scheme. Before that happens, and before Wade has even returned to the game with his at-the-time five fouls, James catches Westbrook sleeping on the perimeter and dives to the rim for a lob from Chalmers.
Westbrook was likely playing on James’ side, and not between James and the rim, because he wants to be in the passing lane to play ball denial, but note that Miami has only shooters on the floor at this point. Ibaka is playing up on Bosh, Durant isn’t going to concede a walk-up three to Battier and Kevin Martin, who also happens to be the primary help in this case, isn’t leaving Allen in the corner. The paint is entirely clear, and James meets little resistance.
A few minutes later, James does almost the exact same thing to Westbrook to put Miami up 12 with less than 90 seconds to play. Westbrook is focused on ball denial and with a swim-move James, well, displaces him.
(I’m definitely reading too much into things, but Wade appears to know what is coming before it happens.)
Again, with Bosh at the top of the key drawing Ibaka closer to the free-throw line, it’s Durant’s responsibility to help on that lob. Durant has improved his off-ball defense this season, but this point is too often ignored when Brooks is pushed by observers to play Durant at power forward. It’s probably the smart play, but it puts a massive defensive burden on Durant against a team that knows whenever you’ve made a mistake. Durant can surely improve on this over the next few months and years, but this is a major consideration for Brooks when he’s putting his lineups together.
Wade’s absence also makes it difficult to take much more from this sampling of possessions, but there’s one more thing to note: as well as Stotts’ defensive tinkering worked in that first game in Portland, James and Wade shot 19-of-33 when the Blazers came to Miami. Whether Matthews had dissuaded James from posting up in the first game or not, James pummeled Matthews on the blocks in the second matchup as Miami helped free him for position with cross-screens.
So while Brooks likely used the Thunder’s double-digit deficit as an opportunity to experiment with his defense -- he did use James Harden on James in the NBA Finals, but that was with Derek Fisher on the floor -- the possibility exists that he played his hand too early and Erik Spoelstra now knows what to expect in the event of a rematch. Or this could be a one-time event and it won’t have any lingering effects down the road at all.
What we do know is that Oklahoma City is still searching for the best combinations to use against Miami and Spoelstra’s scouting reports just became a little more intricate.