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The Pacers' Identity Protocol

by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

Less than two hours before the Miami HEAT’s eventual Game 2 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Erik Spoelstra addressed the media for about one minute. And in that minute, he managed to make the most poignant statement of the night.

“When our offense is at its best, everybody is involved and we’re getting those open looks from triggers and spacing and the pace we run things,” Spoelstra said. “When our guys are not shooting it, that’s an issue. It’s not a requirement for our three-point shooters to make threes, and it never has been. I think that’s a major misconception. It’s a requirement that they shoot their threes.

“We can go long stretches with guys going 2-for-10 but I like the 10. As long as they’re getting that, it means we’re getting to our game.”

By those standards set by Spoelstra, the HEAT have yet to get to their game in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Miami’s formula isn’t overly complicated. Blend shooters, creators and attackers into lineups that are constantly pulling defenders out of the paint with shooting and sucking them back in with penetration. As long as the proper shots are being earned and taken, their success rate is of lesser concern. The right shots lead to the right spacing which in turn leads to more of the right shots. When that interplay is working correctly, the defense is left with little option but to commit to taking away one zone or another or, ideally, hesitating to make any play at all.

While hesitation eventually led to Indiana’s downfall in Game 1, Pacers coach Frank Vogel did not waver in his gameplan. Indiana does not want to go deep into its help rotations as the HEAT will often do, preferring instead to contain the ball with a primary defender and a big man playing near the rim. It doesn’t matter what part of the floor the ball is on, if you put shooters on the floor then the Pacers will be in position to cut off their threes. In Miami’s context, that means cutting off available passing outlets for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh while forcing them to beat one defender on the perimeter and another in the paint.

In orientation, Indiana’s defense will often look something like this:

Perimeter Defense

It’s working, too. The HEAT may be attempting about 20 threes per game through the first leg of this series, which is just a tick below their season averages, those totals don’t speak for the general lack of quality in that quantity. James has taken 13 threes by himself so far, about double his usual rate, while Shane Battier and Ray Allen – the pair that led the way for Miami setting a league high mark in corner threes made during the regular season – as a measly 1-of-12, with nary an open look between them.

“Offensively we just did not execute and get shots or the type of shots we wanted going down the stretch,” Spoelstra said.

How rare is this? Well, when Allen and Battier get their average attempts in a single game – about eight – the HEAT are 47-8. When the duo gets four or fewer three-point attempts, as they did Friday evening, Miami is now 6-4. In other words, what the HEAT have done 55 times between the regular season and the playoffs, the Pacers are instead making them do what they’ve done 10 times.

That, Spoelstra might say, is the team not getting to its identity. Let’s take a closer look.

Taking Away Shane Battier

The idea is the same as it has always been: play Battier at power forward and force bigger, often slower players to manage their responsibilities as paint protectors while also managing Battier on the three-point line. Moving Battier into the starting lineup during last year’s HEAT-Pacers series was a revelation, largely because David West and Tyler Hansbrough weren’t prepared for such a drastic change to their defensive responsibilities.

This year, they came ready.

What West and Hansbrough are doing to limit Battier’s open spot-up looks isn’t particularly special in any way. They’re just executing a plan with precision. A plan with three basic principles.

1. Positioning

Last year, once Battier was shifted to more minutes at power forward, West typically positioned himself with at least one foot in the lane when the ball was on the opposite side of the floor. At even the slightest hint of dribble penetration, West would suck in to the paint in order to be available as a help defender. As a result, West would wind up in no man’s land.

Perimeter Defense

Now, as long as Battier is one reasonable pass away from a catch-and-shoot – so if the ball is in LeBron’s hands, that’s just about anywhere – West is not only planting himself one big step away from Battier, enough to stop a quick shot entirely, but higher up on the floor in order to push Battier to the baseline and cut him off from the rest of the team.

Perimeter Defense

As we’ll get to in a little bit, this sort of positioning can leave the paint vulnerable to many other actions, but Vogel is willing to trust his guards and Hibbert to mitigate risk while neutralizing one of Miami’s deadliest weapons.

2. A Particular Brand of Coverage

Knowing that threes were going to be hard to come by against one of the stingiest defenses in the league, Battier could be seen freshening up on his pick-and-pop game after practices leading up to the series. If they weren’t going to be able to get as many threes via the natural spacing of the offense, better to have a few quick-hitters ready.

So far, Battier has been unable to spring free for any open looks after setting picks. While he’s been used often as a screen-setter – frequently with West defending – the player defending James (typically Paul George) has done a routinely excellent job fighting through the screen and, in the process, impeding Battier’s progress enough to allow West to recover.

And instead of recovering to a spot inside the three-point line, as defenders usually will, to cut off penetration, West is running directly into the passing lane to prevent Battier from getting the ball. Battier isn’t a major threat to dive to the rim off screens, and the Pacers are playing pick-and-rolls as such.

Perimeter Defense

This is the same adjustment that got West a tipped pass late in Game 2 when Ray Allen set a high screen and popped out into space.

3. Closeouts

When all else fails and Battier is left open enough for a pass to be sent his way, the Pacers rely on what should easily be the best closeouts in the league. Every ounce of breathing room is quickly suffocated, which in turn increases the minimum space requirement for Battier to get off a catch-and-shoot.

The Ray Allen Plan

While the same principles the Pacers are using with Battier apply to Allen, Vogel is being even more aggressive with possibly the best shooter we’ve ever seen. And by aggressive, we mean almost denying Allen a chance to catch a pass entirely.

Perimeter Defense

This is reminiscent of what Tom Thibodeau did in the previous round, in certain situations having Marco Belinelli practically hugging Allen for an entire possession just so Allen wouldn’t get any space – something Allen says Thibodeau has done to him frequently, out of respect, since Thibodeau left the Boston Celtics to coach the Chicago Bulls.

"Having been a coach of mine [Thibodeau] gave great respect to what my abilities are," Allen said. "He didn’t care for me to be wide open too much when I was out there. "

This type of coverage does have its advantages for Miami. Knowing how closely Allen is being defended, Spoelstra often places him on the weakside wing alongside Chris Andersen, who is coiled like a spring deep in the corner as he waits for dribble penetration. And because the Pacers are trying to limit Allen’s clean touches so deliberately, that man is often out of position to affect the developing play.

Here’s how the possession pictured two paragraphs above this, with George Hill so tight on Allen, plays out:

And later in the game, here’s James slicing into the space afforded to him by Tyler Hansbrough hugging the corner. (Not that Hansbrough is the primary defender here, but the coverage takes him completely out of the play.)

“[The] focus,” West said, “has to be those other guys and making sure we keep those other guys contained as best we can.”

Of course, for Indiana, there’s Miami’s role players and then there’s Allen.

One of the most natural ways for the HEAT to get their shooters a few good looks is to run off both misses and makes, but again the Pacers have been intelligent with their transition defense, often forgoing a direct closeout on the ball in order to make sure Allen does not get a corner three.

Look familiar? That’s another Thibodeau specialty.

Put it all these concepts together, mash up Indiana’s physical approach with Battier in the pick-and-rolls, their adherence to Allen on the perimeter at the cost of a little space in the middle and their excellent closeouts and you end up with possessions that look just like this (regardless of the foul at the end):

At some point while you were reading this article, you probably noted that a number of these possessions wound up producing positive results for the HEAT – which is entirely correct. This issue is that this is not the type of team the HEAT want to be. They don’t want to rely solely on the dribble penetration of James and Wade. Spoelstra will bring up the word ‘identity’ at any chance during media sessions, but that’s because this team knows exactly what it is.

This is a team that plays for each other. Everyone makes the extra pass, everyone sacrifices their own touches to free up a teammate and everyone keeps things moving. In giving Miami’s playmakers a little more daylight in the middle of the floor – with the promise of a split-second eclipse if they so much as think of taking advantage – the Pacers have been able to take away pieces of what makes the HEAT the HEAT.

And whatever the solution is – likely involving better, quicker more precise ball movement – James is going to look for it:

“We have to figure out a way to get our shooters into the game more instead of trying to get them the ball and make them make a tough one late in the game for Ray or from Rio or from Shane,” James said. “We have to figure out how to get them some shots early in the game, where they feel like they're part of the offense. That has to come from me, come from [Dwyane Wade], come from [Chris Bosh]. We're the three guys that have the ball in our hands a lot. [ We have to] try to get our shooters in the game early.

“We know they've been there for us all year. We're going to continue to have confidence in them. We know it'll help us out a lot.”

Statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports