Pressure Points and an Offensive Precedent

Dwyane Wade
Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

November is not the time to be perfect. Sure, being a perfect basketball team for an entire season would be a wonderful thing but it’s not realistically going to happen. Playing your best possible basketball is a wearying process. It’s hard. If it was easy, every team in the league would be dunking with rainbow-sprinkle explosions every night out. It’s fine to expect more, especially if it’s a group that’s planning to be playing deep into May and June, but at the very least you want to use November to set a precedent.

Are you a team capable of playing elite-level defense when anything short of that will send you home? Prove it. Do you have an offense that teams will struggle to stop even with a week to prepare? Show that you can do it. If you want to be great, then be great.

That’s what works for the HEAT. They’ve had dips and doozies on both sides of the ball in each of the past three regular seasons, but with the exception of their figuring-it-out first-year offense, they have always offered a glimpse of their very best. In their home opener against Chicago, the HEAT were at their blitzing, swarming, defending best. But it wasn’t until Sunday’s victory over the Washington Wizards that the offense reached the same level – and reminded us that this is a group that can ride it’s process back to where it needs to be no matter how sluggish the game before happened to be.

“We talked about coming out with much more competitive disposition [and] intensity at the beginning of the game,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We put it on our starters really to get us off to a better beginning [and] set the tone for the game even if everything wasn’t perfect. The intensity was better and the consistent ball movement was better than it has been.

“We had moments that we talked about the last couple games where it’s looked good, then we fall into some poor habits. For the most part throughout the course of the game the ball was moving.”

Assists have never told the full story of how well an offense performed, but even with NBA.com releasing camera tracking data assists remain an effective tool for pointing us in the right direction. There’s a lot of noise in traditional passing data, but it’s hard to look at a team with a high assist total and say it played poorly. It might not have been great or even particularly good, but at the very least when the ball moves from one player to another and the ball goes through the net, something positive happened.

So when we say that the HEAT’s 32 assists on 37 made field-goals against the Wizards is the highest percentage of assisted baskets they’ve had in a single game since the Summer of 2010, that’s not to say it was the best offensive game they’ve had in over three years. It does tell us that the ball was moving, though, and in the context of a system that has often dealt with bouts of stickiness, movement is always a good thing.

Especially when it means upwards of eight passes in a single possession.

An assist is still a result, however. The above possession will be graded out as a positive possession by the HEAT’s coaching staff regardless of whether Udonis Haslem makes the shot or if Wade’s interior pass gets tipped. If the process is good, the result in an isolated instance is almost irrelevant.

“To get assists you have to make shots too,” LeBron James said. “We knew from the start of the game that even though we missed a lot of shots to start the game, we continued to move the ball. [Passing] is very contagious; guys want to move extra shots. We had five, six or even seven pass possessions and it worked to our favor.”

For Miami, five, six, seven or eight-pass possessions aren’t in themselves enough. You can rack up passes just going around the horn as the defense just sits back and waits. The HEAT don’t put shooters on the floor just to have them shoot. They’re there to give the creators space to be great.

So as fun as it is watching a team whip the ball around the perimeter, there has to be a point of pressure on the defense. And this is where Dwyane Wade does his best work despite not being a prolific floor-spacer on his own. Instead of pulling the defense out to him as Shane Battier or Ray Allen might do, Wade pushes the defense inwards.

There’s three points of pressure in that clip. First Chalmers gets into the paint and behind the defense, then Haslem’s pass to Chris Bosh collapses the defense once again before Wade gets a catch in space and drags two to the ball.

Chalmers may end up with a reasonably contested shot at the end of the clock, but the shot is only there because Wade drew Beal into the paint on a drive that started with ten seconds left on the shot clock.

“The ball was popping and it was moving,” Wade said. “That is the way that we play as a unit and that is the way that keeps everyone involved on both ends of the floor. It was very important tonight.

“We know what works for us; just sometimes we don’t do it. We just have to continue moving the ball and understanding that we are at our best when everyone is involved. It keeps everyone alert. That is the recipe for success for us, keeping everyone involved.”

By everyone, Wade might as well be including himself. While his drives are among the more lucrative actions in the league, this offense always reaches a new level of ascension when Wade – and James – feasts on the opportunities the ball movement affords him without the ball.

If you see it coming, then one of Wade’s cuts are just another pressure point. But if you don’t, if you blink or look away for a beat too long, then Wade has already sliced through your formation.

It’s fair to ask whether the HEAT eventually gained a 20-point lead because their ball movement was so good or because the Wizard’s defense was out of sorts, but that can be a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Neither the offense nor the defense exists in a vacuum away from the impact of the other, but the HEAT can only control what they can control. Great ball movement can make good defense look bad, or it can make shaky defense look just as shaky.

But just as Miami’s defensive performance against Chicago was both relevant and important regardless of Derrick Rose’s re-acclimation to the league, so is a game with an offensive rating of 117.4 against the Wizards. That’s what the regular season has become for Miami. It’s rarely about who they’re playing, only how they’re playing. And as long as there is a healthy precedent set on both ends of the floor then there will be little cause for concern, no matter the early results of a young season.