When HEAT 'Small' Played Lakers 'Big'

Photo Credit: Noah Graham

Last night’s nine-point Miami HEAT victory over the Los Angeles Lakers was rightfully billed as the battle of Small vs. Big – a headliner in place long before the first regular season game was played. Because of our deep-seated bias towards size, a duel of this magnitude is often presented as less of an open-field game of strategy and more as cavalry using slightly-undersized ponies attempting to storm castle walls for which there are no gates.

Had the Lakers won, the story would have been – at least on a large scale, casual basis – that Miami’s tactics, the same ones used a year ago to win an NBA Championship, were proven invalid. Of course, settling any basketball discussion based on one contest is a ridiculous notion in and of itself, and in winning the HEAT didn’t prove their lineup superiority. The only thing proven Thursday night was that these are two talented basketball teams and one of them is a little further along in its internal evolution than the other.

We can still glean some valuable details that could inform a possible seven-game series in the future, but there’s some noise to sort through first.

There were two extremes Thursday night that aren’t likely to reoccur. The Lakers turned the ball over 16 times in the first half and 13 of those were Miami steals – live-ball turnovers that led to a constant rush of fast-breaks – which was a HEAT season high for an entire game, much less a half. Miami also hit a mere two threes, a season low for the team that leads the league in effective field-goal percentage and corner threes. Furthermore, Miami only scored six times outside of the paint, again a season low.

Simply put, the Lakers will probably take care of the ball better and the HEAT will probably shoot better when they play one another in the future. But the Lakers schemed their defense to cut off the threes and the HEAT’s system is designed to become chaos incarnate. Neither of these extremes happened by accident, and what triggered them is more useful to us than measuring the height and weight of each frontline.

Preventing the Post-Up

At the start of the playoffs last season, when Erik Spoelstra began filling in the framework for the HEAT’s ‘small’ lineups and taking full advantage of the versatility of both LeBron James and Shane Battier, one of the first things he unveiled was a determined and uncompromising strategy to front the post. Carmelo Anthony was the first victim and an injured New York Knicks team lacking playmakers had its offense stall out as a result. Then came Roy Hibbert and David West in the next round, followed by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the Conference Finals and Kevin Durant in the Finals.

Fronting became so prevalent that it wasn’t just used in the post. If Durant wanted the ball on the perimeter, he was going to have to fight his way around Battier. Spoelstra wanted to take everything you were used to and make you uncomfortable, because being uncomfortable leads to mistakes, mistakes lead to live-ball turnovers and we know what happens from there.

The mistake most teams made was trying to combat this aggressive defense by forcing the ball into the player being denied. They would attempt lobs, they would wait for the scorer to fight his way into position and sometimes the passer and intended receiver would just stare at one another as if some astral projection of themselves was doing all the work. The HEAT were beat sometimes, but more often than not the next worst-case scenario was a shortened shot-clock and an offense lacking in rhythm, with best-case resulting in a turnover.

This was the case early on in HEAT-Lakers.

Whether it was Udonis Haslem (below, left) or Joel Anthony (below, right), Miami did everything it could do discourage the entry pass most teams are accustomed to getting every night.

Much of the Lakers’ 22-point, 8-turnover first quarter was spent with Howard running to the left block, getting fronted and then trotting back and forth across the lane as the Lakers bounced the ball around the perimeter looking for an open passing lane.

On more than a couple of occasions, the Lakers attempted to go over-the-top with a lob pass, something the HEAT expect and counter by having a weakside player (Chris Bosh or LeBron James) sprint over to deflect or steal the ball. When Kobe Bryant was fronted, he made what might have been the best cut the HEAT have seen since using this strategy, spinning off the defender and cutting to the rim. But too often the Lakers’ lobs came with the entire defense set and waiting for the pass to be thrown. One ball got into Howard at the rim drawing a foul – Miami was very smart about its fouling with Howard all night, often fouling on the catch instead of the shot attempt – but other entry passes were stolen by Bosh or tipped by Joel Anthony.

And so, the team that posts-up more than 26 other squads (14.8 possessions per game, per Synergy Sports) at an efficient clip used just seven post-ups all game.

This is partly a credit to Mike D’Antoni for switching his offense up. As with most mismatches in the league, it’s easy to spot a size difference and think the best way to take advantage is by getting into the post, but endlessly backing down players with a low center of gravity can quickly stagnate an offense. The answer to beating Miami’s smaller lineups is not by force-feeding big men. It’s the same way you beat their bigger lineups. You move the ball and get those big men in motion, forcing smaller defenders to muscle up on the move and defend high point-of-catch passes as the ball movement keeps the defense shifting.

You don’t stop moving against Miami’s smaller lineups. You move more and attack the defense, as the Lakers did here:

The issue with this type of ball movement, which the Lakers attempted more as the game went on including high-low actions for Dwight Howard and Paul Gasol, being the most efficient approach is that it’s very tough to sustain over a long period of time. This isn’t a direct comparison, but the Memphis Grizzlies beat Miami with the same type of passing a couple of months ago and have since seen its offense slow down dramatically. The Grizzlies have their own issues to sort through, but even the San Antonio Spurs don’t move the ball perfectly every possession every night.

The HEAT’s defense demands you seek perfection, and it’s a defense all too willing to capitalize on any effort that falls a little short of that standard. If these two teams played again tomorrow, Miami would employ the same strategy.

The Rule of Three is That You Don't Get Any Of Them

The other primary strategy used last night that we might see again – I use might here only because we lack sufficient data on this Lakers team – is how D’Antoni approached the HEAT’s high pick-and-rolls, which might be the single most strategic decision any team would be faced with before a seven-game series. Where the HEAT are very proactive with their pick-and-roll defense, blitzing ball handlers and sending help every which way, the Lakers elected to sit back and take away that which the HEAT holds most dear.

The corner three.

In a move reminiscent of the Indiana Pacers in last season’s playoffs, the Lakers primary big men rarely took more than a step toward the ballhandler when a screen was set. Just as Roy Hibbert did – which Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote last week was a Frank Vogel move partially inspired by Stan Van Gundy’s use of Howard in Orlando – Howard and Gasol would sit back below the free-throw line, effectively conceding an open in-between shot should that be desirable to the offense.

While we can’t speak for D’Antoni, given the consistent spacing of the defense, the plan appeared to be to trap the ballhandler in the most inefficient space on the floor while the defenders on corner shooters displayed no illusions about providing help defense. Typically, a help defender on the weakside has his foot on the painted area, but as you can see happened over and over, those defenders played well off the paint in an effort to yield as few corner looks as possible.

This was a sound approach, as the HEAT only shot three corner threes all night – they lead the league at 8.9 attempts per game – and never developed a consistent drive-and-kick game. In essence, they weren’t going to allow LeBron James to simply pick them apart.

The main, and last night the most crippling, issue here is that this strategy asks Howard, who still doesn’t quite look like his old self after back surgery, and Gasol to shoulder the load in the middle of the floor and play one-man containment defense on James while giving up just enough space for James to reach Mach 5.

Howard was far more up to the task than Gasol, who later struggled to keep up with shooters when the Lakers played him and Howard at the same time, and with Howard the strategy worked very well at time, but the result was James (and Wade) too often using the freedom afforded to him by the floor spacing to pull off his “I am Godzilla” routine.

Erik Spoelstra helped out by countering the reactive defense with some misdirection up top, using slip and double screens to get more than one defender in motion – which helped late when Howard and Gasol were on the floor and Gasol was back to jumping out on ballhandlers again – but James was on a different level. When James is attacking like this you are simply going to hemorrhage points on the defensive end whether you like it or not, but the Lakers facilitated his aggression with their chosen style.

And yet, it almost worked. This was a close game until the end, and while giving up so much space to James will always have its flaws, there’s nothing saying this can’t be a viable approach if Howard gets back to being one of the best defenders the league has ever seen.

Shut It Down, Blow It Up

Spoelstra’s approach to pick-and-rolls, as you’re likely familiar with by now, is about as different from what the Lakers tried to do as you can get. Where Howard and Gasol sat back, the HEAT’s big men stood up and bull-rushed the ball as the Lakers tried to get the Steve Nash high pick-and-roll working in the third quarter (before the Los Angeles offense reached a fork in the road and went the path of Kobe Bryant).

It wasn’t just effective defense, it was some of the best team defense Miami has played this season and yet another piece of evidence supporting the team’s ability to reach a new gear when necessary.

The Lakers don’t have their best lineup on the floor here, but on three consecutive possessions at the end of the third quarter, they went with a pick-and-roll and ended up with nothing – in large part thanks to the efforts of Joel Anthony.

First, Gasol sets the high screen for Nash and Anthony immediately jumps into way and forces Nash to retreat a few steps toward mid-court. Then James slides over to chuck Gasol off his dive to the rim before releasing to the perimeter as Anthony recovers into the middle.

Notice that James doesn’t jump out at the ball on the wing. He simply closes out, plants his feet and prepares to play defense if the shot isn’t taken. When the ball goes baseline, James graciously leads it right into the help of Chris Bosh. The Lakers do well to keep passing, but every rotation is on point, and Bosh slides back across the lane to contest the shot.

Bryant doesn’t get the ball here, but he does on the next two possessions when he misses contested jumpers after the HEAT again blow up the initial pick-and-roll action. And to cap the quarter off, Miami forces a turnover in the last thirty seconds when Gasol receives the pass and Anthony is joined by Norris Cole – a better defender than many might still think – to apply pressure.

It’s a very different style of defense from what the Lakers used, but it has also led the HEAT to success regardless of the size they have on the court. Thursday night, both teams knew exactly what they were trying to do defensively, but the one with more experience in its chosen style earned the victory. It’s OK if that’s all this game meant. Miami’s win doesn’t have to lead to overarching commentary about the state of the league. Every team in the league does something that makes it unique, the HEAT and the Lakers just happen to do things that can be boiled down to the same measurements taken at a doctor’s office. No strategy is the end-all be-ball, but every game, one of them has to win, and it can be terribly fun watching which one it will be.