The Defense that Saved a Season

by Couper Moorhead

NBA players will say the same thing over and over and over, whether you let them or not. They have their clichés and adages and they’ll retreat to them no matter how well-crafted your question is. That’s the reality of a sport with heavy media coverage. But it’s also easy to mistake something said with repetition as something lacking in meaning. Players may have their clichés, but they’ll often use them when they’re actually appropriate.

Whenever the Miami HEAT lost a game this season, or didn’t play particularly well, they talked about defense. And that’s because this is a defensive team. It isn’t discussed as one because of the bright lights of the city they live in and the glamour of their transition game, but the team has always operated under the collective agreement that defense would be the ticket to the promised land. It wasn’t until the year after the team won a championship that Erik Spoelstra would spend a full training camp on offense, and offense was rarely, if ever, blamed for a loss. Stops make runs. Stops make shots.

Missed shots were offered up as reasons, of course, but there was a belief in the process on that end of the floor. Sustain the process and the shots will fall. You can’t make every shot you take, but you can impact every single possession on the defensive end. And if the HEAT were going to beat the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, with a loss ending their season on the spot, they had to guarantee as much impact as possible.

They did, and the HEAT turned in their most complete defensive effort of the series. For that, they earned a Game 7 on their home floor.

Heading into this game, the Spurs were scoring at such a clip that it was fair to call some of it unsustainable. In Game 5, they decimated the HEAT with dribble-drive isolations, with precision shooting and with end of the shot clock baskets. If the math suggested the Spurs shouldn’t be doing it, the Spurs were doing it. Regression was likely to hit at some point, but anything can happen on a game-to-game basis. You can’t simply stand idly by and, to paraphrase Spoelstra, let a statistic win the game for you. Regression can walk with you down the right path, but you have to take it by the hand and show it the way.

Across the board, the Spurs regressed as the HEAT influenced everything they could. Open shots stopped falling, but they were also less open. Contested shots bounced off the rim, but they were more contested. Tony Parker stopped destroying the team with the dribble, the team found the balance between playing hard and playing smart when it came to tracking San Antonio shooters, and every player on the court was ready to step up and help.

If the HEAT were going down, they were going down defending.

LeBron James vs. Tony Parker

Asking LeBron James to defend Tony Parker for any extended length of time has been a dangerous proposition for Spoesltra. It’s not quite the same as pointing James in the general direction of a Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant and yelling, ‘Go’. Parker won’t simply attack you off the dribble and use high pick-and-rolls. The moment it became clear James was going to spend some time on Parker in Game 6, the Spurs immediately went into marathon mode.

It was an important moment in last night’s game that this didn’t work. Not only did James keep pace with Parker, he also jumped the final screen and cut off the passing lane entirely. There’s no telling exactly how much an early possession like this has on later play calling, but the Spurs didn’t put James in this situation very much for the rest of the night. You can try to wear James out, but if you’re killing half of your shot clock every time you do it there might not be much value to be had.

While James only defended Parker for a handful of possessions in the first half, he picked him up halfway through the third quarter and stayed there for much of the duration. And what James really shut down was the Parker isolation game that had tortured the HEAT in Game 5, as Parker scored about 16 points on 11 isolations. James isn’t an auto-block when asked to guard a smaller, quicker point guard, but Parker had nowhere to go.

The exception to this came in the final minute of regulation when Parker hit a monumentally tough step-back three over the arms of James, but there was a reason Parker was taking that shot in the first place. And once the HEAT tied the game on Ray Allen’s second-chance three – an opportunity earned by Chris Bosh’s offensive rebound – James kept pace with Parker full-court and took his team to overtime as Parker ran himself out of bounds.

James giving Parker so few places to go had the expected detriment on the Spurs offense. Parker wound up standing in the corner, just to get James away from the ball and give Parker a break, more often than we’ve seen before in this series, and without its primary playmaker in position to make plays, the Spurs had just three assists on 14 second-half field-goals. Parker finished 6-of-23.

James, of course, didn’t do this by himself.

The Switch and The Help

The key, to everything, has always been Chris Bosh. When the HEAT use Shane Battier or Mike Miller as a defensive power forward they are effectively pointing at Bosh and saying, ‘You’re the man now, dog.’ Bosh becomes the rim protector, he becomes the point man in any pick-and-roll situation, and he has to dash side-to-side as he alternates between helping and defending his own man. Bosh was up to the task in Game 4, and he was once again last night as he made life easier on James.

If Parker tried to run James off a screen, Bosh was there. The HEAT have played the pick-and-roll slightly more passively than they tend to do, and at times they have struggled to find a way to play behind the screen and contain the ball while still having an active impact on the play.

Sometimes all it takes is quick feet.

If all goes as planned, as it did in that example, Bosh hedges on the ball, prevents any dribble penetration, buys James time to recover and then Bosh has to get back to his own man. Time and again, Bosh made the play, but at times he was asked to do more. The HEAT have also switched on pick-and-rolls more than usual in this series – though on occasion the switch was simply a matter of Parker running a good distance away from the initial screen – and it has hurt them at times when a miscommunication has left one player wide open.

Apart from a couple early miscues, the switches were executed cleanly and without hesitation. If James got caught up on the screen, Bosh was there. Even better, Bosh consistently kept Parker in front of him, including in the last minute of overtime when Bosh made a huge defensive play that will likely be soon forgotten if only because the night was full of huge defensive plays.

But in any help-heavy defense there is always another defender behind the curtain waiting to be important, and just as James needed Bosh to be effective, Bosh needed the rotations behind him to be loaded up.

All night, Bosh battled Duncan in the post as Duncan had one of his best games (30 points and 17 rebounds on 61.9 percent shooting) in his entire career. If Bosh wasn’t hedging a pick-and-roll, he was trying to front Duncan and cut off the post-up option. If Parker, being the magnificently crafty player that he is, manipulated that coverage and attacked the front using it as a screen, Bosh had help – whether it was Shane Battier or Dwyane Wade.

This is the HEAT’s defense at its best – at that Omega Swarm level you’ve seen them hit before. One player stepping aside always to reveal another, the most aggressive web of illusions known to basketball. When it works, the HEAT often win, and in the HEAT’s three wins in the NBA Finals the Spurs are scoring 97.5 points per 100 possessions vs. the 115.7 the Spurs are scoring in HEAT losses.

Chris Bosh vs. Tim Duncan

There’s still that nasty bit of business with Duncan in the post to deal with, and this has been Spoelstra’s gambit. Much like the Spurs have offered James single coverage in the post until he makes a hard move, in either direction, to the rim, the HEAT did the same to Duncan. If the Spurs want to pound the ball into the post then the HEAT are going to make their catches tough, but they aren’t going to over commit and give Duncan easy passing lanes to shooters.

The part the HEAT have sometimes struggled with was making the catches tough. Few teams can beat the front like the Spurs, or take advantage of the passing angle that opens up for a microsecond when Bosh re-positions himself in the post. When Duncan catches the ball within a step of the rim, he has been punishing. But even as Duncan was putting together an instructional video of post moves in his vintage first half, Bosh was making him work.

And by the second half, those same post opportunities started coming up empty.

In the first half, Duncan scored 12 points on nine post-ups. In the second and in overtime, Duncan was scoreless on four post opportunities.

Meanwhile, Miami’s refocused effort on San Antonio’s shooters reaped rewards.

The Danny Green Dilemma

Bosh’s shootaround remark that Green wouldn’t be open wasn’t as menacing as it came off in print, but it proved to be correct. No longer would Green be able to slide along the baseline and pop up in the corner with no defender to be seen for miles.

No longer would Green enjoy the luxuries of time and space as he caught the ball along the wing.

If Green was going to make a play, he was going to have to do it off the dribble.

After shooting 65.8 percent in the first five games of the series and, almost more importantly, getting off 38 attempts, Green was just 1-of-5 from distance in Game 6. And it didn’t take any faceguarding a la Chicago or Indiana’s coverage on Ray Allen. The HEAT simply kept track of Green, closed out when closeouts were supposed to happen and made him make the uncomfortable play. Nothing complicated, but effective.

Breaking the game down in this way almost does it a disservice. This was such a beautiful representation of the sport – modern art in the purest sense of the term – and it won’t be the pick-and-roll coverage or the closeouts or the backline rotations that you’ll someday tell your child about ten years from now. You’ll remember Mike Miller losing his shoe and immediately hitting a three in the second half. You’ll tell the tale of LeBron James losing his headband and deciding to plunge deep into the heart of San Antonio’s defense time and time again. You’ll talk about Ray Allen’s three and the Chris Bosh rebound that made it possible, of Tony Parker’s insane stepback three and of the Bosh blocks that saved the day. You’ll tell so many stories about this game, you could fill a children’s book.

But that story will evolve as this game ages and takes its place in history. Today, there is a Game 7 tomorrow. And if the HEAT are going to win the game and the championship, they’ll have to repeat the same defensive performance that they had in Game 6. They’ll have to, because that’s what they’re meant to do. Defense, as it always has been, is Miami’s way.