HEAT vs. Spurs: The Mirror Series

by Couper Moorhead

The Miami HEAT are the San Antonio Spurs. The San Antonio Spurs are the Miami HEAT. Staffing and personnel gives each teams its own unique flavor, but for all intents and purposes, these two franchises are as close to blood relatives as you will find in this league.

We’re not just talking about the way each franchise is built, either, with stable leadership and emphasis on character. We’re talking about the way each team wants to play.

Nobody had a better effective field-goal percentage – a blend of regular field-goal percentage and the increased value of a three-pointer – than the HEAT. Only the HEAT had a better mark than the Spurs. Each team was among the five best teams at finishing at the rim. Neither team takes a ton of mid-range shots, but both are among the best at converting from that range. Each team is among the top-five in corner three attempts.

The focus is efficiency. These franchises have done the math. They know where they have the best opportunities to score the most points, and they commit time, training and resources to maximizing their ability to earn those opportunities. One team has LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the other has Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, but the result is the same in the end – the HEAT scored more points per possession than the rest of the league and the Spurs were just two spots below in third place.

In other words, these teams know exactly what they want to do and how they want to do it. Neither has to prove they are capable of doing anything in this series, they only have to prove that they can play to their identity. And since those identities mirror one another so closely, that should facilitate each team being able to play its game. That means fun, and plenty of it.

“The most important thing for us is, can we impose our identity?” Erik Spoelstra said.

This leads us to the most important question of the series: what can the Spurs do that the HEAT don’t do slightly better?

The only honest answer is that we don’t really know. Most of the numbers suggest that Miami has a miniature advantage, but the HEAT are coming off a tough series with the Indiana Pacers and the Spurs haven’t played in more than a week. Gregg Popovich sat out his top players when the Spurs visited Miami earlier in the season and James and Wade didn’t play on the return trip. We simply don’t have much evidence to support predictive statements.

We can glean what we can from the previous two matchups – going back to previous seasons is a dangerous proposition – and we will in the space below, but it’s important to acknowledge what we do and don’t know. We know these are two incredibly good teams and we know what they want to do. We know we don’t have much useful data of them playing one another.

And we know this is going to be a brilliant series. So let’s take a closer look.

Spacing in the Corners

We’ve been over in each series that has come before. The HEAT made more corner threes this season than any team in the history of the league. They weren’t the team that pioneered the shot – that would be the Spurs – but with Shane Battier and Ray Allen spotting up they’ve taken ownership of the best non-dunk look in the game.

The HEAT also just finished playing the two best corner defenses in the league in Chicago and Indiana. The Bulls allowed fewer corner attempts than anyone because of their impeccable positioning and spacing, while the Pacers allowed a far lower percentage in the corners because of both their spacing and best-in-the-league closeouts. While the Spurs are just a few spots below those squads on the list, their numbers actually put them a little closer to league average than to the Bulls and Pacers. Their spacing is strong and their closeouts are good, they just aren’t the best the league has to offer.

While Miami’s March 31 win in San Antonio isn’t a game we can analyze too deeply due to the lack of James and Wade, there is still enough on the Spurs side of things that can at least illustrate a few general points. And when a high pick-and-roll is being run, its usually pretty easy to tell how much a team cares about cutting off the corners.

Spacing Image

This spacing is very similar to that of Chicago and Indiana, but the HEAT were still able to earn 13 corner threes in this game despite the lack of their primary playmakers. Again, we can’t read to much into the events of that night, but the HEAT should be able to get corner opportunities against this still-excellent defense.

The Blitz vs. The Ball Movement

If you’re going to try to stop the Spurs from scoring, there is no more important action to stop than the Tony Parker pick-and-roll. Nobody used more pick-and-rolls this season – according to Synergy Sports – and nobody approached his combination of efficiency and volume. Within a single possession, Parker can call for one screen, go away from it, run off another, give up the ball and run along the baseline only to curl back up to the high side of the floor and run another pick-and-roll. It’s a fluttering web of actions and triggers, and Parker uses each strand to weave a masterpiece.

So, how does Miami stop it? The easy answer is that you don’t. While Parker isn’t as athletic or overpowering as LeBron James, he is so adept at splitting defenders and going away from screens that he can be almost as unguardable with the ball in his hands at the top of the arc. But the HEAT will try, and it’s no secret how they’ll go about doing it.

Blitz. Blitz. Blitz. Omega Swarm. That’s the HEAT’s defense when it’s at its best, as in Game 7 against the Pacers. They swarm the ball, they get players to take retreat dribbles and pass off their heels. They play offense with their defense. So when Parker is about to use a screen, the big man will often cut off the ball at the point of attack.

Notice here that Cole doesn’t chase the ball, instead playing back to get into the most obvious passing lane (to Duncan). The HEAT won’t trap every pick-and-roll – it’s extremely difficult to do that with the intensity required for long periods of time – but the keys to this aggressive defense working are that Parker cannot split the coverage and take both defenders out of the play and the big man (Bosh) has to be ready to sprint back to his man in the paint.

“We just have to wear on him,” Spoelstra said of Parker. “We've worked on pick and roll defense now for three straight years from match ups like this. And our defense will be tested, but we trust it. We built a lot of habits with it. Throw different bodies in front of him, and then hopefully there's a cumulative effect of wearing on him.”

While Bosh is out on the perimeter in the above video, Duncan dives to the rim, leaving Joel Anthony and Rashard Lewis to cover three men at once. The rotations are tight enough here to prevent an open three, but this entire series hinges on this battle between rotations and ball movement. The best offenses against Miami’s approach are the ones that don’t panic and move the ball with efficiency and precision. That’s San Antonio.

Also, if the HEAT are going to trap then they have to make sure it has an impact on the action at hand. Parker will fake and he will fake often, so if you overplay your hand then by the time you realize what is going on he’ll be 10 feet away at the rim.

The Staggered Screens of Tony Parker

Miami is fortunate because it has a long-armed, quick-handed point guard in Mario Chalmers alongside one of the best on-ball defenders in the league in Cole to throw at Parker. Of course, the Memphis Grizzlies could have said the same about their pairing of Mike Conley and Tony Allen, but it’s still better to have the resources than none at all.

The quest for Chalmers and Cole – and James when he elects to take on Parker, though this will likely be a late-game tactic – won’t just be to stop Parker in the pick-and-roll and in isolation situations. Parker is also a lethal weapon running off screens, and defending him means running and running and running some more. He’ll simply run up one side of the floor, hand the ball off and enter the Spurs labyrinth of staggered screens along the baseline. Sometimes the defending point guard emerges intact and ready to work, but there’s always a chance of getting lost in the belly of the beast while Parker takes a mid-range jumper that he makes 47 percent of the time.

The ideal outcome for the defender chasing Parker looks something like this:

Cole chases, he evades two screens and he closes on Parker quickly enough to keep him from getting the ball entirely. By the time the action is finished and the offense resets – of course, the Spurs always have another option coming up and here Duncan is ready and waiting to post-up – then there’s only about ten seconds left on the shot clock. Half a possession killed just by Cole running hard and being aware.

But it won’t always work like this.

If Cole or Chalmers is trailing Parker too much and he has space to make a clean catch, then help has to step up. Because of how the Spurs typically have the floor set up, that means a Miami big man has to leave Duncan or Tiago Splitter or Boris Diaw and get into the passing lane or get onto Parker on the catch.

Best-case scenario, this coverage acts like a pick-and-roll. The big man swarms the ball, the guard recovers after the screen and they can either pressure Parker or the big can recover onto his man.

Just the slightest hesitation or miscalculation, though, and Parker capitalizes. Here, Chris Andersen waits a beat before closing on Parker, and the gap this creates is enough for Parker to make a pocket pass to Duncan.

Duncan’s pass is a little off and Ray Allen’s closeout is on point, but you can see how quickly the Spurs can get out of trouble and turn it into an advantageous opportunity.

The most important thing for Miami to limit on this sort of possession – on any Parker or Spurs possession, really – is dribble penetration. If Parker gets a catch and the necessary step on the point guard to enter the paint, then the HEAT are at the mercy of chaos.

The Return of the Pick and Roll

Alright, so that header is slightly disingenuous. The HEAT’s pick-and-roll never really went anywhere – they actually ran more against Indiana that in any stretch of games this season – but against the Pacers the actions had a different look than usual.

Basically, the HEAT stopped running as many high pick-and-rolls and they didn’t have their big men set screens nearly as often. Whereas the New York Knicks attempted to use Tyson Chandler as a screener and run things directly at Roy Hibbert over and over again, Hibbert simply takes up too much space in the paint for that to have been a viable option for Miami. Instead, they ran pick-and-rolls with guards and wings as the primary screener along the sidelines, forcing the ballhandler to attack the paint from side angles. This got Hibbert moving side-to-side, and turn his head to the ball, rather than being allowed to stay vertical and see the entire floor as everything developed in front of him.

You’ll probably see some of this against the Spurs simply because it was a functional and effective strategy, but as strong as Duncan is on the defensive end, he simply doesn’t have the size and length of Hibbert. That means the HEAT get to return to high pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops and rim dives from their big men that suck in defenders and open up threes.

Note that Duncan plays back behind the screen, which should look familiar because it’s exactly how Joakim Noah and Hibbert played things. But with Duncan focused on the ball, Splitter has to account for Haslem as he dashes toward the rim, leaving Bosh wide open for three.

This speaks to a more important point about Bosh. Spacing was at such a premium against the Pacers that Bosh often had to stand and wait on the perimeter simply to give James and Wade an outlet when the middle of the floor was suffocated. He helped create space, but until later in the series he was rarely able to use it. Against the Spurs, with more actions at their disposal, the HEAT will be able to use more of the floor, manipulate the defense and give Bosh options.

No Second Chances

This point is simple. The Spurs have size and instincts that make them a very strong defensive rebounding team – they finished third in the league in defensive rebound rate – but as part of a team-wide strategy employed by both the HEAT and the Boston Celtics, the Spurs simply don’t pursue offensive boards. That doesn’t mean they don’t get them, but generally if you are a Spur and you aren’t around the rim when the shot goes up then you are supposed to get back and prevent transition opportunities.

No Offensive Rebounds

Danny Green took this shot, but every Spur not named Kawhi Leonard is already retreating onto defense. The issue on this possession was that Leonard still managed to get the second-chance board, which hurts the advantage Miami should have because of what San Antonio is giving them.

There’s always the chance that Popovich switches things up to try and take advantage of size, but this is how the Spurs played for most of the season.

Duncan the Shooter

There’s more, but we won’t delve into every single detail. The HEAT are going to front the post as they often do, but the Spurs are one of the best teams at beating that front, recognizing coverage immediately, swinging the ball to the middle of the floor and using precise lobs and triangle passing to beat the front. The HEAT will post-up James and Wade, but we simply don’t have any recent evidence for how the Spurs will play those possessions with Duncan-Splitter lineups. And each coach is an exceptional play caller – though the HEAT rarely run called plays these days opting instead for packages that guide them through read-and-react situations.

One of Popovich’s most well-recognized plays is the simple flare screen for shooters like Green where a decoy pick-and-roll on one side of the court sets up a weakside screen-and-flare for an open three. It’s coming, the HEAT will know its coming and it’s still incredibly difficult to stop. But one of San Antonio’s other sets they’ll use in pressure situations or after timeouts, and the play we’ll leave you with, is the Duncan pin-down.

While you usually expect pin-downs for athletic wings like James, Wade or Kevin Durant, Duncan actually used off-screen possessions as often as any big man in the league not named Dirk Nowitzki. Like any pin-down, it’s a simple action, but when you combine dynamic players with hard screens you are going to be able to create opportunities.

At first, that’s what it seems this series is going to come down to – which team can create the best opportunities with the most consistency. But each team plays executes so well within their respective, and similar, systems that it’s almost impossible to expect either of them to consistently take away each and every option from the other team. The HEAT are going to do what they want to do and so are the Spurs. So, with opportunities abound, the team that wins each game might just be the team that makes the most shots.

That may seem exceedingly simple, but sometimes when faced with a series as complex as this one – we’ve barely touched on all the minor details that will come into play – it helps to take a step back and ask the simple questions. Who can make more shots? Who can get the most stops? And who can do what the other team wants to do, only better?

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