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The Process of Erik Spoelstra's Play Call

by Couper Moorhead

It’s a tie game. The Miami HEAT have possession and the shot clock is off. LeBron James handles the ball up top. His goal is to score for his team while not giving the other team enough time to get a shot off, so with two seconds left he pulls up and takes a jumper, missing.

Clearly, that was the play call, right?

This is a common trope when watching live basketball. A team comes up with what is generally regarded as a bad shot – anything off the dribble, outside of the paint and worth two points – in a late-game scenario and someone will remark, ‘Why would [Coach X] call that play?’ But that only scratches the surface of what goes into a late-game scenario. There are layers to the HEAT’s process.

Just as you can set out to make a dramatic movie and accidentally produce a comedy, even the best-intentioned set can produce a static, hero shot. Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe each probably took a role in Les Misérables thinking they could be up for a Best Supporting Role Academy Award, but it turned out that one of them couldn’t sing a lick and the other one was Hathaway. Erik Spoelstra called the same set multiple times down the stretch, intending for each one to get his most talented players in motion and manipulating the defense, but only twice did it result in an assisted look – both Ray Allen threes.

But first, the end-of-regulation set that led to James’ jumper.

Just as they do in most any situation with the shot-clock off, the HEAT inbound to James (or Wade) at the top of the key and wait for the clock to tick below 12. This is a variation on the Ray Allen Special we’ve discussed before, but the set up is a little different. Rather than having Allen begin in the right corner, where he would wait for a corner screen from Wade, Allen waits on the elbow opposite Chris Bosh in what amounts to one of Miami’s basic high-horns sets.

With Allen where Wade would usually begin, Wade sits on the left wing – awkward placement until it becomes clear that the HEAT are setting up a triple screen. Once James engages the offense, Wade approaches Alan Anderson as if he were about to set a pick and instead slips innocently out to the right wing (with Chalmers having cleared out baseline). One trigger down, two more to go.

Now it’s Allen’s turn.

While most Miami players will slip a screen whenever they run one of these Ray Allen Boston actions, Allen is strangely enough the only one that will consistently make the read to set a hard pick. Here, Allen doesn’t get good enough contact on Anderson allowing DeRozan to stick close to Allen, and Allen clears out to the left wing.

Then comes Bosh, who almost always follows up the Allen screen with a pick or slip of his own. But even though Bosh forces Toronto to switch and gets the mismatch with DeRozan, DeRozan effectively holds Bosh as they traverse the paint, and another trigger gets blown up. The three actions aren’t a sunk cost, however, because at least James is left with Amir Johnson defending him.

One reason many coaches bypass the set play entirely in these situations is that if the defense alters the timing and the execution isn’t as precise as is necessary, you can end up with a worse shot than you would have if you simply told your best player to attack from the top of the key. It’s a lower percentage play, but it’s a safer one. After all, a bad shot is better than no shot.

The HEAT don’t have the same concerns because between James and Wade, the ball is almost always going to be with a player than can get a shot off at will, but Spoelstra is still playing the middle ground. He puts bodies in motion and makes calls that require execution, but his best scorers still have the ball in their hands with the entire floor in front of them. The moment there is a breakdown, James or Wade can initiate the isolation.

This possession, the Raptors simply play heads-up pick-and-roll defense, maintain good defensive spacing and blow up the final trigger by hindering Bosh’s path to the rim, closing the paint off long enough to kill the clock for James. It’s a fair point to make that James could have still driven the lane, but there is also the understandable concern that if Toronto’s defenders sink into the lane – as they did well all evening – then there wouldn’t be time left for a kickout pass and a shot.

It’s a hero shot, sure, but this isn’t hero process.

If the process were poor, then naturally Spoelstra wouldn’t dip into the same well in overtime. Russell Crowe probably isn’t taking a role in another musical anytime soon.

A little over a minute into overtime, the HEAT bring out the same setup. Chalmers in the right corner, Allen and Bosh on the elbows, James up top and Wade on the wing. The only difference is that this time, Allen and Bosh are swapped, which means Allen will be going in the same direction as Wade.

After momentarily switching onto Allen, DeRozan releases his man back to Jose Calderon on the initial slip screen, but with Bosh giving Wade just enough separation to curl into the paint, Bosh’s man, Aaron Gray, has to sink to the rim.

It’s a strange concept, but now Miami effectively has a 3-on-2 above the free-throw line. That may not seem like much if you’re trying to attack the rim, but the advantage comes in handy if you’re trying to spring Ray Allen for an open three.

This time, all it takes is better contact from Allen to force the switch, and then a follow-up pick from Bosh when Anderson gets stuck in the middle of the action.

Three points.

Later, with just over a minute to play and Miami up three, Spoelstra runs another variation on the same call. Now, Wade handles the ball, Allen slots into Wade's old spot and James joins Bosh on the elbows.

One screen, two screen, three screen, four, Wade puts the ball on the floor – all the motion clears the paint for a moment and gets the Raptors defenders reacting to multiple actions rather than just watching, ready and waiting for Wade to attack. Using James as a traffic cone, Wade gets into the paint and when help comes, he takes a risk, leaving his feet knowing where Allen is supposed to go.

“I knew [Allen] was there before I even took off because of the set that we ran,” Wade said. “I knew where he was going. When I took off to go to the basket and saw how they were playing us, then I knew that I could have taken a shot, but it would have been a tougher shot. I saw my guy just sitting there chilling. They continued to leave him open. I was able to get the ball to him.”

Wade could have taken a jumper at any point in this possession and ensured that Miami got a shot off (the clock isn’t working against him here as it was for James), but he risked the possibility of a turnover and the prospect of no shot at all in order to get something better, trusting that:

1. Allen is going to be where he is supposed to be.

2. He is skilled enough to get Allen a good catch before he hits the ground.

3. The pass isn’t tipped and Toronto doesn’t come up with the ball, sparking a fast-break that could make it a one-point game with less than a minute to go.

It’s a calculated risk, and it pays off, but the most important thing here is that everyone knew what Spoelstra had called and where they were supposed to be. Results will vary, but Spoelstra stays true to his process, giving his players dynamic sets and then trusting that they will make the appropriate reads. This team isn’t leading the league in points-per-possession after timeouts for nothing.

Statistical support for this story provided by and Synergy Sports