Pacing and Spacing the Boston Celtics

LeBron James Dunk
Photo Credit: Garrett Ellwood

The Miami HEAT’s 120-107 takedown of the Boston Celtics was the perfect way to end the final celebration of last year’s success. The HEAT received their rings, watched a championship banner drift slowly up to the rafters and then proceeded to look every bit as dominant as they did months prior. The franchise could not have had a better night.

But as an indicator of future matchups with the Celtics, you can toss this one out the window. The Celtics, while still clearly running the defensive system that has allowed for sustained success over the past five years, were noticeably still in the early stages of integrating new pieces like Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa. Health provided, there is no chance whatsoever that the Celtics won’t be an improved squad later in the season. Time, not last night, will tell how contests between these two teams play out.

That’s all just as well, because this early in the year coaches are only concerned with how their teams are performing anyways. They want to see carryover from a month’s work in training camp, all the habits developed through constant drilling coloring every moments on the court. In the HEAT’s case that means, with Erik Spoelstra waving his team forward after every rebound, they had benchmarks to hit in both pace and space.

Setting The Metronome

Pick any song, maybe something from Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” or anything off a mixtape you once made a high school sweetheart that still lingers in your iTunes library, and listen closely. Not to the lyrics or the lead instruments, but the backbone of the track: the bass line, the percussion, the drummer. Nod your head or hit the table and discover the speed of the sound.

What does it sound like? Is it more: Beat – BEAT – Beat – BEAT – Beat – BEAT…

Or is it: BeatBEAT -------- BEATBEATBEATBEAT – Beat – BEATBEATBEAT?

It might not line up exactly with the former example, but it’s going to have the consistency of it. Every song has a tempo, and that tempo gives you something to hold on to no matter how the sounds build and change around it. If the tempo is changing every second, it will produce something that sounds like an H.P. Lovecraft short-story being read aloud, in round, by a Trumpet, a Tuba, a Sitar and a Kazoo.

The HEAT want to create good music, so they want to establish a tempo – both fast and relentless.

“It’s not about the speed of the pace, it’s about the consistency of the pace,” Shane Battier said. “It’s not running down the court as fast as you can. But it is running consistently. You can stride. It’s not a full out sprint. But if you do it time and time and time and again, that’s what you need. You can’t just run hard for two possessions then jog for two possessions. You have to stride it out every possession because that’s what really wears the defense out.”

For example:

Time and time again in the first half against Boston, the HEAT were striding out, pushing the ball off turnovers, makes, misses and rebounds both short and long. If there was a forward pass to make, they made it. If there was space to attack, they attacked it. The results weren’t always perfect, but there was a harmony to what they were doing. Battier wasn’t open for three on the first Miami possession of the game because he sprinted to the spot, he was open because he maintained a pace with the offense ahead of him and filled a spot at the correct moment. Had he sprinted ahead to join the others, the defense would have found him.

Miami used 96 possessions, well above last season’s pace of 91.2 possessions per game and a mark that would have led the entire NBA over the course of an entire season. But possessions don’t tell the entire story of tempo. You can’t use a possession without the ball, and you can’t get the ball without playing defense, so teams that routinely force teams to work deep into the clock – Miami was 7th last year in possessions defended with four seconds or less on the shot clock – are penalized, giving them a pace that might not be entirely reflective of an offensive system.

While the HEAT’s quarter-to-quarter possession totals were 24-27-22-23, a more valuable indicator of tempo is the average time elapsed in each of those possessions, which we can obtain using the shot clocks available on broadcasts.

In the first quarter, with the starting lineup of LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh-Mario Chalmers- Battier playing the majority of the minutes, the average HEAT possession ending in a shot lasted 11.4 seconds, with seven of those clocking at Seven Seconds or Less, the famous moniker for the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns offenses of the past decade. Once the team dipped into its rotation in the second quarter, possessions slowed slightly – despite being the fastest period by traditional pace measurements – lasting 12.35 seconds. Only four times in that first half did the HEAT take more than 20 seconds to get a shot off.

It was a lot to keep up for the first game of the season.

“I thought we actually slowed down in the second half,” Battier said. “I think we got a little tired with the emotion of the night. But it was good that we kept trying to push the ball. It was a tough pace. I think the Celtics felt it. We felt it.”

Battier was right on the money. Possessions lasted 14.3 seconds in the second half, over two seconds longer than before. But even as things bogged down a little, the HEAT still managed 125 points per 100 possessions used. For reference’s sake, you can knock ten points off that mark and if it is sustained over the course of a season, Miami would be operating one of the most efficient offenses in league history.

Running Wide, Finding a Spot

The most consistent tempo in the game isn’t going to mean anything if players are running into one another, which is why during training camp we saw the HEAT working defense-to-offense drills, developing habits to carry them through a season.

“It’s a mindset,” Battier said. “You start by running wide. If you run narrow, you’re spacing already is messed up. It’s distorted. So the first habit you have to gain is you have to run wide and everything else just sort of flows in from there.”

You also have to find a spot, Battier noted.

“What happens is, especially if we advance the ball quickly, there will be a lot of cross-matches and that’s when we can really take advantage.”

In the possession below, Paul Pierce has just made a layup and the HEAT have already run the floor and found spots before even four seconds have expired. Battier and Wade each run to the left wing to space the floor, Chalmers brings the ball up the right lane and James cuts to the block – something you’ll see the HEAT doing all season with the middle of the floor so open.

Because the HEAT pushed the ball, Pierce is cross-matched on Chalmers and Kevin Garnett had to pick up James, leaving Rajon Rondo stuck in space, trying to find the final man. Bosh fills the spot at the top of the key and five seconds into a possession off a made basket, the HEAT have an open three.

A few minutes later, Bosh gets the ball from James in the same position – again, the HEAT players pushing the ball in tempo with one another, like cavalry mounting a unified charge on an enemy, rather than randomly sprinting to the other end of the floor – and with the paint once again wide open, Chalmers sets a simple back-screen, for James.

Every offensive player is in his spot, leaving nary a soul in the paint to step in front of James.

What happens if the defense runs straight to the paint to prevent that early look at the rim? It looks something like this:

With Wade attacking, every HEAT player is hitting their spot at the exact same time (you can even see the top three players putting the brakes on with their front leg). Consider what the means for a moment. You have one of the top attackers in the league dashing into the paint as three shooters come into the picture – how do you communicate who helps where and who closes out? Jason Terry is hedging his bets, lingering around the left elbow between Lewis and Allen, but he has to react to where the ball goes. If he swings to Lewis on the pass, Lewis swings the ball to Allen, who then hits Norris Cole in the corner after a Lee closeout.

But none of that happens, because Terry chooses not to leave Allen, giving Lewis another wide-open shot.

The floor doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced in transition, either. In the fourth quarter, the HEAT overloaded the strong-side lane, forcing the Celtics to pick-up the immediate threats as Lewis runs into an open three on the far side of the floor.

Sure, Garnett could have picked up Lewis earlier, but then you’re leaving Rondo and Jeff Green to stop James in transition, with Mike Miller filling the nearby wing.

There’s no easy answers for the defense. When the offense comes all at once, and the players are spaced apart, defenders have to make split-second reactions – often mismatched at the same time. Choose poorly, and Miami gets an open look.

It sounds simple, but it will take a great deal of discipline for Miami to sustain that kind of attack all season. This is as good of a start as you can have, though, and it’s even more encouraging than the HEAT’s high-flying rout of the Dallas Mavericks in last season’s opener (another performance, as against Boston, with an offensive efficiency of 125).

In that game, the average HEAT possession through three quarters – before the benches were cleared – lasted 11.5 seconds, but Miami also enjoyed 28 fast-break points and 20 transition possessions (as logged by Synergy) over that span. That the HEAT managed an average possession of 13 seconds against Boston while only using 12 fast-breaks all game, with just 10 fast-break points, indicates that the team is coming into this season not just with good intentions, but with the habits, pace and consistent spacing to keep the sweet music going for awhile.

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