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Pacers Game 1: Miami Mind Tricks

by Couper Moorhead

Memory is not always to be trusted. The mind deliberately plays tricks on you so that things make logical sense. Whenever something happens that affects you in one way or another, your brain wants to assign a cause for that thing that happened. Confusion begets insecurity, so we instinctively do ourselves a favor and apply rationale, just so things make sense. But that reasoning doesn’t always make sense, nor does it help us inform future decisions.

That might be the best way to explain how professional basketball players make mistakes they’re trained not the make. No matter what you tell yourself, or someone else tells you, is right, as soon as you’re in the heat of the moment, your mind starts telling lies. You weren’t supposed to be up on that shooter because you didn’t think he could make the shot. You made the help rotation that left someone open because your teammate needed help. You did nothing because you were told to be in a spot. No matter what you think you know, there is always a moment where you want to ignore the complicated and trust the simple.

The key, for the Miami HEAT, is that your brain is being forced to work.

Nothing is more important to the HEAT than space. Well, the ball going in the hoop and scoring more points than the other team is pretty crucial, but after those things it’s all about space. Space enables every action, and it makes defenders think. It makes defenders think about what they know, about what they’re supposed to do, about their immediate experiences and the lies they’re telling themselves about results.

That’s how LeBron James scored a game winner against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals with just a tick over two seconds at his disposal. He made a move into space with no hesitation, and the defense, thinking, hesitated to move into that space. And it can all be explained by two plays that came first.

Before James was able to drop in the buzzer-beating layup off one of Erik Spoelstra’s more complicated sets, the HEAT used the same play at the end of regulation following Paul George’s incredible three to tie the game. The result was a Ray Allen turnaround jumper that hit the side of the backboard, but it’s important to note the process that went into it.

Here’s the setup:

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Dwyane Wade with the ball on the sideline. Shane Battier up top with Tyler Hansbrough defending. James, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen forming a triangle around the top of the paint. Roy Hibbert is not in the game, though if he was remember that either David West would be left to chase Battier around the perimeter, or Hibbert would have been pulled out of the paint by Bosh.

Things kick off with a decoy as Battier runs away from the ball with Bosh setting a pick on his man – were this the San Antonio Spurs, Battier might be a primary target to flare off that screen and catch-and-shoot.

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Hansbrough gets around Bosh’s screen, following Battier to the far side of the court. Then we get the first real option as Bosh, after cleverly calling for the ball to give David West something else to think about, gets a screen from Allen.

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If Bosh has a clear path to the lane here, Wade can throw a lob. But George Hill stays home in the paint to prevent the quick look, and West sprints down the middle of the lane – leaving Allen all by his lonesome for just a moment.

This is where end-game protocol comes into play for Indiana. Allen is running free, so George has to leave James and switch onto Allen just as Wade is making the pass. Had George not switched, then Allen gets off a clean shot, but had Wade held onto the ball for another second he has James flashing to the ball with the shorter Hill coming to contest.

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George makes the correct decision because you always have to play the most direct threat in a situation like this, with no time on the clock for a second pass and the inbounder only have five seconds to get the ball in. That’s not what we’re concerned with here. Recognized the makeup of the court as the shot is released. The man defending the inbounds, Sam Young, is not a factor. Hansbrough is a mile away hugging the three-point line near Battier. Allen has been chased to the corner, West is stuck to Bosh and James is in the middle of the floor with enough space in front of him to fit a pool table, a grand piano and a line of arcade machines.

This is going to be important.

But before we get to our destination, let’s take a brief detour to the possession before James’ game-winner – which also happens to result in a James layup. The HEAT are actually going to use an action they used throughout their five-game series with the Chicago Bulls:

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While the James-Norris Cole pick-and-roll was primarily used to take advantage of Nate Robinson in the previous round, the same principles apply here – if you think you can get the defenders to switch assignments with a screen, get the smallest player on the floor switched on to James. So, with the Pacers being safe and switching in another end-game situation, James faces down Hill.

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Notice that big chunk of space in the middle of the floor, occupied by nothing but paint and hardwood? Every one of the Pacers defenders is glued to their man, with Wade and Bosh stretching things out in the corners and Allen basically being face guarded on the wing just as Tom Thibodeau has done to him in the past.

This is where Indiana’s base defense begins to work against itself. Unlike the HEAT, Frank Vogel does not want his team to have to make help rotations. Indiana’s perimeter players pride themselves on keeping the ball in front of them so they don’t have to compensate and rotate off shooters. You still need a help defender because nobody can play stifling on-ball defense on every possession, but typically Hibbert is in the game to be the only help rotation, allowing everyone else to stay home and shut down the three-point line better than any other team in the league.

Here, there’s no Hibbert. James is going to beat Hill off the dribble because James can beat Hill off the dribble. West isn’t going to leave Bosh in the strongside corner because you aren’t, as a rule, supposed to help off the strongside corner. George is out of position to do much of anything and Allen is being taken out of the play. That leaves Young playing the role of Hibbert.

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Young get stuck in the middle, neither rotating to the ball nor tracking Wade as Wade cuts to the rim. Remember here that Young is being asked to make a rotation he is rarely asked to make on a night that he’s played less than ten minutes. He is being forced to going against the instincts that have been drilled into him all year, to fight his mind of the fly and become Hibbert. All while the HEAT have ideal spacing, giving Young even less time to think because he has more ground to cover.

This, also, is going to be important.

“Any time our guys are at the rim, it’s usually the result of good spacing,” Battier said. “That’s why it’s really important to keep their big guys away from the basket. They’re a very good defensive team when you allow them to pack the paint. So you have spread them out to attack the tin.”

Now, to the final possession. First the HEAT set-up. . .

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And Vogel calls timeout. So, the HEAT set-up again, in the same formation with the same purpose.

“[We] just made it look slightly different,” Spoelstra said. “But it was the same play.”

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“Our play didn't change at all,” James said. We went into the timeout, we had two different calls, and me and Spo looked at each other, and he asked me which one I felt comfortable doing.”

And then, just as they did at the end of regulation, they run the starfish pattern. With Wade having fouled out on the previous possession, the one that put George on the line for three foul shots, a few things are different. Battier takes Wade’s place as the inbounder, and with Cole not being the same target he doesn’t run the flare-screen pattern used before. Instead, Cole starts along the baseline. And this time, Allen starts things off.

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Allen slips the high screen meant to free Bosh for the dive to the rim, causing Hansbrough and Young to switch. Bosh, with Young now on him, runs down the right side of the lane and triggers Cole’s curl to the wing before clearing out to the far corner. Allen, as before, runs to the near corner, but this time George doesn’t switch.

“They ran the same play,” George said. “Ray Allen went to the corner for their last possession, you know, and we all switched out. And it kind of threw me off, because I see Ray running by. It kind of threw me off a little bit.”

So George sees Allen going by and, going by his words and his turn of the head, has to remember what happened before, remember what he is supposed to do and act on it. It might have only taken him a fraction of a second to process, but it’s enough to spring James out for a clean catch at the three-point line.

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Now George is playing catch-up. He has to find James again, and that half second means the difference between the image immediately above this paragraph and the one below it.

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George’s momentum from having to put on that smallest bit of turbo to get to James pushes him just one foot higher up the floor than he needed to be.

“I was up too close on him,” George said.

It doesn’t help that James makes the crafty play to stop on a dime and let the ball come to him rather than running to the ball for the catch, but George is still left out of position on James’ hip when he should be in front, square to the ball.

“Shane definitely gave me a great pass,” James said. “I peeked over my left shoulder. I saw Paul George was a little out of place. So I just took off.”

James makes the quick turn over his right shoulder, and he has his man beat. And once again he has all of the space in the world to play in. The difference between this play and the ones before it is that at the end of regulation James wouldn’t have had time to drive with less than a second on the clock, and on the possession just before this one James had plenty of time to kick out to a shooter. Here, James is on his own. He doesn’t have time to make a second play. The defense can key in on him.

But Cole and Allen just finished running to spots. Their men have been trying to keep them from getting a clean catch, so they aren’t exactly updated on all of James’ exact movements. West is trying to disrupt the inbounds pass – shading toward the corner where Allen is, not to the catch in the middle – so only Young is left in position to help.

“I knew I had enough time to get to the rim,” James said. “Two-plus seconds is plenty of time. I only need one dribble to get to the rim. And the set that we ran, the space that I had, you know, [Bosh] having the first trigger, going to the rim for a lob, and Ray slipping to the corner . . . then I was able to be the option at that point and get to the rim.”

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There was much discussion after the game concerning Hibbert’s absence from this possession, but there are a few crucial things to consider. If Hibbert is in the game, he either ends up switching onto Allen to chase him in the corner or the Pacers can’t switch at all and the HEAT, realizing this, are able to use a hard screen to free a shooter for an opportunity. Or, he’s left chasing Bosh and still has to cover all of that ground to get to James. That said, there would be nothing stopping Hibbert from camping the lane – not much chance of getting a three-in-the-key call with less than three seconds on the clock – but that would leave his teammates basically playing 3-on-4 as they try to cut off passing lanes.

In the end, Young was in the game and because of how things played out, the responsibility was Young’s to provide the help, both on this and the last possession. He didn’t do it, but it’s largely because the HEAT and James put incredible pressure on him to make snap-judgments, with the best player in the game bearing down on him, plenty of space to cover and no help in sight.

“That's the dilemma they present when they have Chris Bosh at the five spot and his ability to space the floor,” Vogel said. “We put a switching lineup in with the intent to switch, keep everything in front of us and try to go into or force a challenged jumpshot.

“We pushed up a little bit too much, LeBron was able to beat us off the bounce.”

The mistakes are clear, but this is what the HEAT do to teams. This is how Ray Allen keeps getting open for game-winning threes for all of November. This is how James gets the final score against the Orlando Magic, or how Bosh sunk the Spurs with a buzzer-beating three. This is how Norris Cole is left uncovered by the Chicago Bulls at the end of a close playoff game. The HEAT spread you out, get multiple bodies in motion and run slight variations on plays they probably ran before. This team makes your mind play tricks on you by making you think. And by the time you’ve finished thinking, there’s James soaring through the air, there’s the ball above the rim, and there’s the game.