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Seeing is Believing

HEAT Beat the Pacers in the Passing Lanes
by Couper Moorhead

Realistically, nobody expected the Miami HEAT to be at their defensive best for an entire season. No team can pitch one perfect game after another for months on end, and over the years the HEAT have proven more than capable of recovering from any slippage. But with every fresh week of defensive underperformance comes doubt. Doubt from without. Doubt that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the team itself. But still doubt. Miss enough rotations and questions will follow.

If this seems like a familiar topic, it is. Just six weeks ago in Oklahoma City the HEAT dialed up the Omega Swarm and showed what they were capable of in siphoning 20 turnovers out of the Thunder. A couple weeks earlier LeBron James defended just about every player in the building in toppling the Los Angeles Clippers. Since the All-Star Break, the team has had the 6th-best defensive rating in the league (101.6), putting them above the Indiana Pacers. Still, enough losses occurred in close proximity to one another so the questions started to creep in like the pests that keep evading the exterminator.

Another reminder, especially so close to the start of the playoffs to a team that could possibly show up again, never hurt anyone. And beating the Pacers, 98-86, was one heck of a reminder.

From the first possession, it was clear that this game would be different. When the HEAT lost at Indiana in late March everything about their defense appeared to be scaled back. Where you normally see defenders attack the ballhandler, they sat a few feet back, seemingly content to allow the Pacers make their own mistakes. Friday, it was clear from the first possession that the reactive would become the proactive. Udonis Haslem would set the tone.

There’s little mystery to how the Pacers want to dance. They want to get Roy Hibbert the ball but they don’t want to grind out post-up after post-up. So, as they do more often than against most other teams, they use Hibbert in the high screen-and-roll, knowing they can draw two players to the ball and create usable space for Hibbert.

The HEAT are typically happy to oblige. They don’t change their system just because they get beat, they execute their system better. The battle in these Hibbert pick-and-rolls is in the in-between. Everyone knows where the Pacers are trying to get the ball. Can the HEAT stop them from doing that?

“They [HEAT] imposed their will as far as bringing pressure,” Paul George said. “We had the right mindset of movement and sharing the ball. We just didn’t complete the passes tonight. This team [Miami HEAT] always does a strong job of loading up strong side; forcing the ball to really be thrown to the weak side. Sometimes, it’s just tough to make that play.”

You might ask, ‘Why do the HEAT play so aggressively when it leaves them so vulnerable?’ It’s a risk-reward proposition. The more conservative you are, the fewer turnovers you’re likely to force. You have to have a lot of faith in your backline rotations to send two players to the ball, but the more you muck up the simple actions a team is trying to run, the more chaos you induce.

Sometimes, as in the animation above, you’ll get the turnover off a broad, sweeping rotation like Haslem’s. At others, making an uncomplicated pass just a little more complicated is enough to keep an offense out of sync.

The HEAT amassed 16 Pacer turnovers and 10 steals, including three during a 20-4 scoring stretch in the first half of the third quarter, improving their record to 91-21 since 2010-11 when collecting at least 10 steals. Turnovers are currency in Miami’s world, and they were collecting quite the return on their investment.

“Our defense was on point with the deflections, the pressure, [the] rotations,” Erik Spoelstra said. “They were beating us to the punch on a lot of those opportunities. In the second half we just continued with that pressure and finally broke it open and you never know when that happens, if there is a residual of that work and that pressure. It was about as consistent to our identity as we’ve had in a while for 48 minutes.”

Of equal importance was that Hibbert, for a time, was taken out of the game entirely. Hibbert didn’t get his first shot until the third quarter, and when he did shoot he was taking turnaround jump-hooks from the outskirts of the paint. They were shots that Hibbert has made before, but with Haslem increasing the discomfort, they were shots the HEAT will take their chances with.

“Today we were able to stay between him and the basket and make his catches in the paint tough,” Chris Bosh said of Hibbert. “Play good five man defense and make him finish over the top.”

According to SportVU tracking data, Hibbert is usually in possession of the ball for about 60 seconds a game. That might not seem like much, but when you consider that his role is typically to catch and finish in the paint, 60 seconds is more than enough to do significant damage. Friday, Hibbert only touched the ball for 52 seconds, as he took just seven shots and had one rebound. On March 26, when Hibbert did so much damage in the first quarter, Hibbert possessed the ball for 78 seconds.

While we acknowledge that the HEAT weren’t exactly running their full offensive packages in these final days of the regular season, it’s only fair to say that the Pacers might have been holding back as well. Frank Vogel may have a heretofore unseen strategy to unveil should these teams meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, but strategy wasn’t what hurt the Pacers in this loss. It was the plays we take for granted. Some turnovers were the byproduct of Miami’s pressure. Some just weren’t good passes.

There’s something to be said for the HEAT’s defense wearing on a team over the course of a game, forcing them into unforced mistakes. And certainly, the Pacers have a history of turnovers in the context of this matchup. But you can’t count of a team to always make its own mistakes. At some point, the Pacers will be better. Spoelstra wants his team to control what it can control. Control the process.

That process was good enough Friday, but it will have to be better. And soon.

When asked how close their defense was to playoff levels, Bosh held up his index finger and thumb, about an inch apart.

“Little close,” Bosh said. “It amazes me, how when we watch regular season and then the playoffs, how much more intense and how much faster guys are. You can’t synthesize that kind of energy. It just happens, you feel it. When the playoffs come, it just turns into a different beast.”

The HEAT have had enough reminders games this season. The evidence is on the table. The playoffs can’t come soon enough.

Statistical support provided by and STATS LLC