The Reminder Game in Oklahoma City
Turnovers, Threes and Shading Kevin Durant
This has been the season of the Reminder Game. We’re three appearances in the NBA Finals, two NBA Championships, two MVP awards and almost 400 games deep into the run with the current core of the Miami HEAT. Despite the additions of Michael Beasley and Greg Oden, the team has never before endured such a lack of change from one season to the next. Combine a relatively static roster and playstyle with the variety of injuries suffered by Eastern Conference teams and you have a fairly predictable regular season. Nothing has been perfect about Miami’s play, but they just need enough to stay at or very near the top of the conference while taking the cautious approach toward health and fatigue.
So it hasn’t been much of a surprise that the HEAT have had their defensive lulls. They had similar stretches in previous years and always recovered after the All-Star break to swarm with their typical ferocity in the playoffs. You go through that cycle often enough and it’s tough to find a reason to worry. But part of that cycle has always been the team mixing in the sort of standout defensive performances that leave behind Post-It Notes on your refrigerator when you aren’t looking – notes that say, ‘Just in case you forgot’.
We’ve had plenty of those games during the regular season and last night’s 103-81 victory in Oklahoma City added to the list. After getting beaten handily when the Thunder visited Miami – itself not a poor defensive game as far as energy went – The HEAT played this game as if it were the playoffs, and it showed in both energy and execution.
THE TURNOVER GAME
By design, the HEAT force more turnovers than any other team in the league. We don’t need to rehash the central tenants of Erik Spoelstra’s defense in this space again, but you know that it’s unlike almost any other system in the league. Pressure the ball. Take away passing lanes. Rotate and help and rotate and help.
When the HEAT have gone full Omega Swarm, you know it when you see it. It looks something like this:
Admittedly, with Russell Westbrook playing his first game back since Christmas Day the Thunder weren’t particularly sharp with the ball. But when the HEAT are pressuring the ball and trying to get deflections, turnovers are more likely to come out of the ensuing chaos. The more you relax, the more comfortable your opponent gets. And comfortable opponents don’t turn the ball over 20 times in a game.
Twenty is something of a magic number. The HEAT are 9-3 this season when forcing at least 20 turnovers. Since the beginning of the 2011-12 season, they’re 29-4 when hitting that mark. Just as important, however, is how many of those turnovers stay alive and lead to transition opportunities for the most efficient transition team in the league. Fifteen of those Thunder turnovers stayed in-bounds, and the HEAT are 87-17 over the past three seasons when they get at least ten steals.
Still, the HEAT committed 19 of their own turnovers. If you’ve ever found yourself frustrated with the defense this season, the turnovers that create easy points for opponents in transition are a good place to direct your ire. The turnover battle wasn’t an outright win. They still had to hold Kevin Durant – hold being an extremely relative term – to 28 points on 45.5 percent shooting.
There is no perfect way to defend Kevin Durant just as there is no perfect way to defend LeBron James. No matter what you do, they’ll figure out a way to beat you given enough time. If they’re dribbling into your defense and rising up over multiple defenders, you live with the results. What is most important is that you consistently execute your plan. As long as everyone does what they’re supposed to do, and in turn knows where everyone else is on the floor, then you'll minimize the possessions where you get caught out of position and the person you’re trying to stop will, theoretically, be taking most of their shots in places that you’re comfortable with.
The simplest thing the HEAT want to avoid on defense is the player with the ball getting two feet in the paint. Keep them from getting two feet in the paint. We don’t want them getting two feet in the paint. It’s a common refrain from the staff.
How do you do this? You rig the traffic lanes. When Kevin Durant had the ball, the HEAT exaggerated their defensive positioning and tried to force Durant to attack from the side of the paint – ideally, the side of the paint where a help rotation or two is ready and waiting.
This is a basic NBA concept but also an easy one to mess up since you’re effectively giving one of the most lethal scorers in the league open space to attack. If everyone else on the floor isn’t aware of where Durant is and where his defender is trying to send him, with those players either helping to funnel Durant away from the middle or to step up and stop the eventual drive, then you’re toast. And not toast in the sense that you just gave up an open jumper. Toast as in you just got dunked on.
But when it is working and Durant does goes away from the middle, a cohesive defense has players ready to step up.
According to STATS LLC’s SportVU cameras, 17 of Durant’s 22 shots were contested (a defender was within four feet of the shot). Durant is great enough to beat you no matter what you’re doing, but if you’re contesting over 75 percent of his shots and infecting the passing lanes with limbs, your process is just fine.
Assuming, of course, you aren’t giving up wide open shots to everyone else.
BODIES ON THE ARC
There were two primary reasons for the Thunder winning in Miami. First, the HEAT gave up far too many easy points off turnovers. Second, the Thunder hit 16 threes – more than the franchise had hit in a game since moving to Oklahoma City – with more than half of those coming from Derek Fisher and Jeremy Lamb. Whether it’s Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio or Indiana, if the role players are hitting threes in bunches it’s going to be very tough for you to beat them.
But if you’re dedicating so much attention to a primary scorer like Durant, how can you not give up some open shots? Well, you can’t always stop the ball from finding a player, but you can run faster to the shot and close out more efficiently by knowing ahead of time where a pass is going to go. When teams are defending the HEAT well they sprint to the weakside corners knowing that the HEAT are trying to swing the ball into open corner threes. So just as players have to be ready to help on Durant when he drives, everyone else has to be aware of the shooters on the floor and prepared to close out on a number of locations.
The HEAT contested threes so well Thursday night that it led to a few contact fouls, but it’s not a terrible trade when, according to Synergy Sports, you only allow three unguarded jumpers all night. The Thunder took 20 threes in the loss – here’s what 12 of them looked like as the ball was released. A visual shot chart, so to speak.
Of all the Thunder shots, not just jumpers, SportVU had the HEAT down for contesting nearly 65 of them. There’s a ton of variance involved in defending three-pointers, but when you’re contesting shots this well it’s not a mistake when the other team shoots 2-of-20.
Two Thunder threes. Twenty Thunder turnovers. Kevin Durant making fewer than half his shots. A defensive efficiency of 86.7 against an elite offensive team. If you needed another reminder game from Miami in a season full of them, there it is. Just don’t forget it happened.