What Happened At The End
It’s a strange twist of fate that defeated the Miami HEAT Wednesday night. It wasn't that they lost to the Golden State Warriors, who executed very well despite a poor shooting night from their best player. It was that they defended a play better in the first quarter than in the final seconds of the game.
At least, the results were worse.
The HEAT’s defensive inconsistencies have been well documented this season. Through different starting lineups and a variety of opponents, this Miami team has struggled to shut teams down before halftime. But through it all, you could also depend on the team to adjust and put forth a vintage defensive performance in the fourth quarter and beyond.
The HEAT’s fourth-quarter defense was allowing less than 97 points per 100 possessions, a rating that would have been the best in the league extrapolated over an entire game, and things only got better in the final five minutes with either team closer than five points. No matter what had occurred in the previous three quarters, the HEAT would climb the battlements, raise the drawbridge and dare their opponents to swim across a gator-infested moat and scale ice-covered walls.
So while it came as a surprise that the defense was conquered on the second-to-last possession of the game, when Draymond Green slipped a pin-down screen and caught a lob from Jarrett Jack, it was even more of a shock to discover it was the exact same play the Warriors had used in the first minute of the game – when they turned the ball over.
Before we take a look at that final defensive stand, let’s take a look at the first quarter, when the HEAT had everything sniffed out.
You know this is a set play from the start because Harrison Barnes is bringing the ball up the floor off a dead-ball turnover on the other end. The Warriors set up to run identical actions on either side of the paint, with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson starting in opposite corners, and David Lee and Festus Ezeli giving them pin-down screens timed to hit at the same moment.
Some teams will run these dual-actions and have the guards, if the defense isn’t cheating over the top of the pick opening up a lane to the rim, criss-cross just above the free-throw line – the idea being that their defenders could get mixed up or simply run into one another, opening up a three on one of the wings. Then, if the big comes from the lower side of the floor to help, the original screen setter slips to the rim.
Of course, if none of this works, you risk your offense getting all bunched up and floor spacing working against you. Assuming things are designed as they play out, Mark Jackson avoids the potential mucky muck by having one guard take the high road and the other the low.
With two players on two different trajectories, the Warriors in effect establish a strong and a weak side of the floor. Curry remains a threat, but his primary option coming from the top is to flare out off the second screen for a possible spot-up shot, and this almost opens up when Mario Chalmers gets caught momentarily on Ezeli.
Watch what Chris Bosh does. We don’t know exactly what is being said on the court, but Bosh turns towards the ball in a way that seems to indicate he realizes that Thompson, about to spring toward the ball off another pin-down, is the real threat. So instead of overplaying the tougher pass to Curry, Bosh sinks towards the middle of the floor to provide help.
Even though Dwyane Wade has done well chasing Thompson and is just a step behind, the HEAT usually play off-ball screens like this the same as they do ball screens, which means the big-man defender has to at least show on the guard – preventing a quick pass and open shot in the same manner as they are meant to prevent a ballhandler from turning the corner and driving the lane. Haslem does this, jumping up the floor to meet Thompson on the catch as Wade runs around the Lee screen.
Notice where Bosh is now, having traversed the paint to help onto Lee. Bosh has left Chalmers with two men on the weak side, but if he doesn’t make that rotation then Lee gets to stand underneath the rim and do jumping jacks.
A nice read from Chalmers read and Thompson’s pass to Ezeli – with two defenders on him – is picked off. The Warriors forced the HEAT to go deep into their defensive rotations, but everything was on point.
Now, to the fourth quarter, after the HEAT have missed two open corner threes – process over results, always – with the game tied and just over ten seconds remaining.
Lee sets his screen for Thompson a little higher up the floor, but this is effectively the exact same set, only with Jack, a much better passer than Barnes, holding the ball up top.
Ray Allen escapes most contact with Lee and nullifies the first trigger, then as Curry runs off his own corner screen and flashes to the ball, Wade is on him the entire way. Once again, Thompson and Curry are forced to cut parallel to one another.
So far, everything is exactly as it was about a hundred possessions earlier. And that’s where the comparisons end.
It only takes a split second, but here’s the moment where things break down.
Not wanting to leave Wade by himself with two shooters on the left side of the court – remember, last time Bosh helped off on this play he was leaving Ezeli – Bosh steps up to chuck Curry a little off his line. It’s not the wrong play, but it takes Bosh out of position to provide any help in the paint. For the final few seconds, Battier and Allen are on their own.
Before, Thompson curled sharply off the second screen, forcing the big defender to show up the floor, allowing him to remain a presence in the passing lane. But here, Thompson takes a wide arc around the pick and Battier has to show out rather than up.
It just happens at the wrong moment. Allen is already coming around the screen himself and doesn’t need quite as heavy a show as Battier provides. Green is left to his own devices, and the four-year college player makes the heads up play and slips to the rim.
Here’s what each party had to say:
“[Thompson] came off their big. Typically we always show, but they didn’t pass the ball and their big slipped. He got the open layup. Typically what we’ve been doing all game, there’s always weakside help. They occupied that weakside. Nobody’s fault. So, we’ve got to be better down the stretch.”
“We just have to have each other’s back better down the stretch.”
“I think I showed too much, too early. It’s our defense, but it was a second too early and that’s what happens when you show too early on that sort of play.”
“That’s our scheme though. If a guy comes off that angle, the big guys are to step up on the pass. The only problem was the pass wasn’t made yet.”
“I just got anxious and jumped out too early.”
While Battier took responsibility for the miscue, more credit is due the Warriors than fault lies with the HEAT. With seconds ticking off the clock, Golden State’s players kept running through their options, and they capitalized the moment one player was caught out of position. That – not just catching one of the league’s smartest defensive players out of position but taking advantage of it in a high-pressure situation – is hardly something to scoff at.
“We broke up the first two or three triggers,” Erik Spoelstra said. “Their guys just kept on running, trying to come off screens to daylight and we’re trying to help on them. It’s just a little bit early of a help and Green slipped to the rim and he was wide open. It’s a clever action to be able to do that at the end of the possession, after we defended two or three of their triggers. You have to give them credit. That’s some poise.”
Ultimately, the final result will mean more to an up-and-coming Warriors squad, still waiting on Andrew Bogut, than it will to the veteran Miami squad. There’s no shame in losing a well-played game, and just as it was captivating watching the HEAT figure things out over the past couple of seasons, it’s a pleasure seeing such a young team putting things together.