Linebacker Spies and the High-Low Game

Joakim Noah Boxes Out LeBron James
Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel

There were a lot of theories bandied about after the Miami HEAT’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. Armchair psychologists – most of whom were trained in journalism – around the country attempted to pinpoint the exact, scientific reason for LeBron James averaging just 15.3 points and 4.7 turnovers per game over the final three contests of that series. As was the case for most of that season, there wasn’t much room for nuance when it came to the national narratives.

But when a question is raised in the context of a basketball game, there is usually a very reasonable basketball answer to be found. And the rationale for that Mavericks series was pretty simple: Dallas had an exceptionally smart, disciplined defense and Miami, as a team, wasn’t yet properly equipped to handle it.

When James is holding the ball just above the elbow or three-point line, think of the defense as one of those old-timey shooting galleries. You stand, holding an air rifle in a stationary position as clearly marked targets rotate through your field of vision. When a target moves here, you shoot there. When James sees a defender move to one place – a big man, for instance, sucking into the paint too far off a corner shooter – he passes to this other place. The shooting gallery has its pattern and so does a typical NBA defense. Schemes will vary, but most defenses follow Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. Every offensive action has an equal and opposite reaction. For someone with James’ skillset and size, that makes many defenses predictable.

Dallas’ defense changed the rules of the game. Instead of adhering to a set of man-to-man principles, Rick Carlisle had his team morphing between man and zone, often with multiple defenders appearing to operate under different guidelines than their teammates on the court. It was still a wonderfully cohesive defensive unit, of course, but in offering James so many different looks – they’re playing me in man here but those two guys are playing zone back there – it created an air of unpredictability. Carlisle wanted to make James and the rest of the HEAT think. Instead of targets moving through a shooting gallery, James was looking at a giant, green gelatinous blob and he had to try to find its weak point.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s a very simple thing,” assistant coach David Fizdale said. “We tried to fit LeBron into a system instead of building a system around LeBron. We got burned doing it. We got all the way to the Finals with it. We could have won that Finals if certain things go certain ways, but are we trying to make sure that we have the best player on the court every night? And if we’re trying to have the best player on the court every night in LeBron, then we’ve got to build our system around him. So we had to go back to the drawing board and really reevaluate the way we attack teams.”

It’s true that the HEAT had beaten Chicago – and a defense that was at least a blood relative to Dallas’ system – in the round before, but Miami’s shot selection wasn’t all that different between the two series’. Those same threes that saved the HEAT in their series-clinching Game 5 stopped falling two weeks later (even Miami’s Game 3 win in Dallas was built on a heavy dose of isolation ball). Even if those shots had kept going in and the HEAT had won the title, the offense would have to evolve.

Two years later, the Bulls, like Dallas, are still trying to confuse James and the HEAT with hybrid zone principles. While there were clear signs that Miami was acclimating to the defense in Game 1, the shots they generated in the first half of that game alone were leagues better than anything they got in 2011.

“The shots against Dallas were more contested shots where we weren’t getting into the paint,” Fizdale said. “Now we’re getting our feet into the paint, drawing defenses and then getting the ball moving and we’re getting more uncontested shots than we’ve gotten before. Game 1 was probably the most uncontested open jumpers I’ve seen us get against Chicago. It’s a little different from that standpoint in that Dallas kept us pushed out on the perimeter where they were switching a lot, zoning a lot and we weren’t forcing them to commit two to the ball ever. Now, because of our attack and how we thought about things, we’re getting our guys closer to the paint, into the paint and drawing more defense so that’s opening up better shooting opportunities for us.”

Erik Spoelstra’s system is efficient and dynamic these days – and while nothing will ever be perfect against a Tom Thibodeau scheme, the HEAT are making the right plays.

The Quarterback Spy

While the main tenets of Chicago’s defense involve pushing the ball away from the middle of the floor, keeping defenders tight on corner shooters and having big men drop back into the paint on pick-and-rolls, what makes it all so unique is Joakim Noah’s ability to not only pick up the ballhandler before they enter the paint but before that to dance around the three-seconds call in the key, zone the ball on the strongside of the floor and still keep track of big men waiting on the weakside.

In short, Noah and Taj Gibson are middle linebackers playing quarterback spy. The rest of their team might be playing man-to-man, but in the right context – situations always depend on the personnel on the floor – they are simply following the ball, putting themselves in the line of sight of James or Dwyane Wade to deter them from attacking the rim.

Noah Zone

“They’re really tied together,” Fizdale said. “That Chicago team has been doing it a long time together, so they have a feel for it. That’s one of those things that’s really given us problems in the past and they do a good job with it.”

Noah can’t play a straight, college zone because you can’t sit in the paint for more than three seconds without defending a man, but he’s one of the best defenders in the league because he so expertly dances around that call. All it takes is one foot out of the paint to reset the clock, which Noah does whenever necessary, as seen here:

“Noah is one of the best, if not the best, at patrolling the lane and not getting called for illegal defenses,” Fizdale said. “He really knows how to time it, get out, and time it [again]. That’s a real talent that he has.”

While the HEAT haven’t been perfect against this sort of defense, their failures have been few are far between. Some of this is due to James and Wade making major improvements over the past two seasons, which we’ll get to in a bit, but we can’t possibly understate the importance of the team’s evolution since the loss to Dallas. Two years ago Spoelstra was still playing big, lumbering centers that clogged the middle of the floor and, against a Chicago or Dallas, made it much easier for a Noah, Gibson or Tyson Chandler to play one or even two men at the same time while dancing around the three-second call in the paint and spying the ball.

Now, as you know, the HEAT stack the floor with shooters, often playing with four men outside of the three-point line. Now, if the Bulls want to zone a man in the paint and ignore an offensive player, that ignored player is going to spread the floor wide and be a threat to hit wide open jumpers. Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh hit a number of mid-range jumpers in the first quarter of Game 3 off positioning and spacing alone.

And in the fourth quarter Bosh spread out to the corner when Chicago zoned the ball.

The more space there is, and the better the HEAT position themselves, the more options the player with the ball has to choose from.

“What we try to do is just give LeBron a lot of outlets,” Fizdale said. “So instead of hiding behind the defense with our big, we try to get him to the middle of the floor like you’re attacking a trap or a halfcourt press. We get a big in the middle, get a guard in front of the ball, in the slot and in the corner and we just try to move it and get him in rotation as much as we can. But it’s easier said than done. A lot of times you’re not going to get a lot of great stuff on them on standstill strong-side stuff. You’ve got to get it moving.

“It takes discipline too, and you’ve got to really be focused on the attack because you can get baited into just playing on the strong side against these guys and between them, Indiana and Memphis, those teams are awesome at guarding that kind of set.”

Nothing is more important than spacing, but as many changes Spoelstra and his staff have made to the offensive system, you can’t simply attack a Thibodeau defense off the dribble from the three-point line all game.

The High-Low Game

“We like to get LeBron on the post on the move more than just stationary standing and posting,” Fizdale said. “They can just load up on that. You saw we got some high low stuff against them the other night.”

Post offense makes sense against the Bulls in part because getting the ball closer to the rim is almost always a good thing, but it also forces the Bulls to make tougher decisions. If the ball is on the block, the Bulls basically have to commit two defenders to the ball if they want to be as aggressive as they are when the ball is higher up the floor. Two years ago this was a viable option as both James and Wade were earlier in their development as low-post players. Now, though, both are so adept at passing out of double teams, and the floor is so spaced around them, that most post doubles ensure an open look somewhere on the floor.

“Any advantage that we see from that standpoint is because of our personnel,” says Fizdale, who has worked constantly with James and Wade on their post games over the years. “It’s Dwyane and LeBron. They’re so good on the post that we just can’t abandon that part of our game. We get some of our easiest baskets and some of our best fouls drawn because of their ability to post up.

“What Chicago does is they make you have to work to get it in there. You’ve really got to work it and be patient and understand your reads so that we can get the ball where we want to get it to. And then once we can it to them where they’re good, where they’re in their sweet spots, then we’ve got a chance to do something against them because the talent of who’s catching it.”

So instead of dealing with the ball in the post, Chicago is trying to prevent the ball from getting there in the first place. If you want to see where the real physical play is in this series, watch James or Wade try to gain post position. Both teams push, both teams shove, and for the most part Chicago’s defenders have done an excellent job either killing clock before the pass is made or forcing James and Wade to step out further from the paint to make the catch.

In Game 3, Miami used Chicago’s aggressive, fronting defense against themselves.

Here’s one such play late in the second quarter. As many coaches will teach young big men, you don’t have to fight for position and waste energy until you need to – let the other guy tire himself out. So even before the ball crosses mid-court, James plants himself on the block and remains motionless.

Noah Zone

Then, when the ball is swung over the Shane Battier on the wing, James lets Taj Gibson front.

Noah Zone

And here is where both James and the entire team have taken major strides. Rather than stare at the front and try to force the ball over the top – think New York or Indiana in the playoffs last season whenever Battier fronted the post – the HEAT simply swing the ball back to the top of the key. James, trusting that his teammates are making the right plays, holds his inside position on Gibson.

Noah Zone

Because Bosh is the player positioned up top, Noah is forced to come out of the paint, leaving Bosh with a direct passing lane to James with no risk of anyone coming from the weakside for the steal.

Noah Zone

This may seem simple, but it’s one of the most difficult plays to consistently execute in basketball. This triangle passing takes time to set up, for one, and every player on the court has to have an understanding of what is going on. If the high-low game was easy, the Memphis Grizzlies would have continued to be one of the league’s five best offenses after their first few weeks of this season. But it’s not easy, and that’s what made Miami’s ability to work this action, over and over, against Chicago so impressive.

“It’s what we’ve done with the whole team,” Fizdale said. “As Spo and I are talking footwork with [James and Wade] down there, how to seal a guy, how to just root them up, don’t fight the rear, don’t fight when they’re fronting you, we also had to have the team around them so everybody understands the defense will tell us where the next pass goes. We don’t have to premeditate, we don’t have to force it into them and we don’t want to throw those floater passes that make them step out to catch it. Let them anchor it down on the block and whatever they do is wrong.

“If they’re going to go high side then we go corner with it. If you’re going to play all the way in front of them we’ll go high-low with it. If we don’t have that, we swing it, they go block to block and they sit down in that post and now that guy is behind them.

“It took work to just get to where we are now and we still need a lot of work to do on it,” Fizdale continued. “It’s just getting them to understand it because once they trust that the team is going to work to get them the ball on either block, they’ll stay deeper. But if they don’t trust that we’re going to give them opportunities to go side to side, to post up, they’re going to step out further and further. And that’s the worst thing you want against Chicago.”

The high-low isn’t the only weapon Miami has against Thibodeau’s defense. As you can tell from reading Fizdale’s quotes, the HEAT have a package (Spoelstra rarely calls specific plays anymore) for every situation. And within those packages, Spoelstra trusts his players to make the right reads based on how the defense is set up.

Game 2 was wrought with off-ball cuts that took advantage of Chicago’s spy player leaving the weakside big man (often Carlos Boozer) to defend multiple players. The entire series has seen Norris Cole turn into a screener for one of the first times in his career, and James has consistently motioned for Cole to set a high screen to take advantage of Nate Robinson trying to hedge the ball. There have been corner screens, there have been typical pick and rolls, we’ve seen James setting off-ball screens and rolling to the rim and we’ve seen Bosh expertly shading the ball on dribble penetration, evoking his shuffle-roll of two seasons ago. This is the point with this iteration of the HEAT – they have so many options at their disposal there is no defense that should completely shut them down as Dallas once did.

Shots will fall in some games and miss in others, but everything this team does these days is thought out and practiced long before the action is ever necessary. Chicago’s defense is magnificent, but after every mistake it forces out of Miami’s offense, the HEAT come back with the appropriate counter. This is an adapt or die league, and where once this team had to spend an entire offseason rebuilding its system, adaptation is now second nature.