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Prized Possession: The New Old Faithful

by Couper Moorhead

The Miami HEAT have one possession left in the first half. It’s a close game and possessions are at a premium. What set does Erik Spoelstra run?

As we’ve discussed often in this space, when the clock is winding down before the break, Spoelstra has one trusty play he likes to conjure up. Whether the HEAT have a timeout left or they are running off a miss, Spoelstra gets his most talented offensive players on the floor and puts them all in motion. Last year the focal point, the first trigger as Spoelstra likes to call it, was LeBron James. This year, it’s the Ray Allen Special. With so many options built into one set, results varied from game to game, but the same structure is used so often that it has become genuinely surprising when and if ever it isn’t used.

Saturday night against the New Orleans Hornets, we got a genuine surprise.

Once you’ve run a certain play enough, the league is going to catch up to you. Video coordinators will cut up a few possessions, the head coach will take a look, the team will run through it a couple of times during a morning shootaround and what was once catching teams off guard gradually becomes an expectation. At the very least, an unknown becomes a known, and the baseline level of execution required for a positive result is raised.

But that can be an advantage for the team being scouted. When one thing is expected, then there are inherently countless other possibilities that are then unexpected. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at a recent example of the HEAT running old faithful.

Though the HEAT aren’t coming out of a timeout in this situation, the setup is exactly the same – typically they’ll come out of the timeout and James will hold the ball at the top of the key until the time is right. James has the ball, Chris Bosh hangs – or, as he would put it, chills – around the left elbow, Ray Allen runs to the right corner, either Mike Miller or Shane Battier runs to the left and Dwyane Wade streaks down the right side of the floor.

Spoelstra always describes his sets as sequences of triggers, so let’s do the same, one action always followed by another.

1. Wade runs to the right corner and sets a screen for Allen.

2. Miller makes a baseline run to make the defense react and clear the paint.

3. Allen runs up to James and makes a read.

Here, Allen can either choose to slip the pick and flare out towards the left wing, where he might get an open look from three. Or, as Allen does here, he sets a hard screen, allowing James to turn the corner and get momentum going towards the rim. Either way, Allen’s choice directly affects what Bosh will do next. If Allen slips and the defense covers, Bosh will set a second screen for James, whereupon he also can decide whether to slip the screen and dive to the rim or stay and give James an angle.

Since James uses the Allen screen, Kris Humphries is forced to step over in an attempt to thwart James, leaving Bosh with a clear lane to the rim. Then it’s just a simple (for James) pocket pass and Bosh has a great opportunity.

Against the Hornets, Spolestra used a setup that looked just familiar enough to make an opposing team think it knows what is coming. We’ve still got James up top, Allen in the right corner and Bosh above the left elbow. But this time, Wade joins Bosh, Mario Chalmers is on the right side in Wade’s usual place and there is no baseline runner going from corner to corner.

That’s because this time, instead of approaching James, Allen is the baseline runner.

Like the preceding play, this is very similar to the sort of thing Doc Rivers used to draw up for Allen – give Allen a running start with a screen, give him a barricade to utilize and count on a great passer to deliver the ball on target and on time. The HEAT haven’t sent Allen on many marathon runs such as this, so far, but this is a good example of why it’s a good weapon to have even when the defense keeps up.

The moment to focus on is when Allen comes off the double screen set by Bosh and Wade. The Hornets play this pretty conservatively, having Rivers set up to switch onto Allen and Jason Smith sink deep into the lane to prevent Bosh from diving to the rim. This shuts down the option to hit Allen for a spot-up three, but it remains a positive play because the defense is forced into a reaction.

As Allen comes off the screen, you have one defender playing high up on the three-point line, his momentum carrying him away from the rim. You have another defender colliding with Wade and momentarily drifting towards the corner while Smith catches Bosh in the lane, out of position to step up on a drive. Instead, Smith steps laterally when he’s already at the top of the restricted circle, and when James beats his man – having a set that depends on the ballhandler taking his man off the dribble is a fine option when you have James – he gets into the paint with no resistance.

From there, James makes another tough pass look easy and Bosh gets a layup, with no other defenders sinking deep enough into the lane to affect the play – if they had, we’re looking at an open three for Allen or Chalmers here.

This is nothing particularly complicated. The HEAT want to get as many players in motion with these sets as possible, because the defense will always have to react to motion. Even though James ultimately has to take his man off the dribble, he’s not attacking a set defense that is fully prepared to help onto him. James attacks a defense in flux, and that almost always equates to positive process for Miami.

And now Spoelstra has two sets – at least – he can trigger with the same corner-screen action. Just as the end-of-half possession may have gradually become a known quantity after scouts caught on, show teams something different and you give the defense more things to think about. You can’t expect to keep catching the defense off guard once the playoffs arrive, but for every extra microsecond you force a defender to consider what he should be doing, you are creating an advantage. One that Spoelstra can start creating in December.