The HEAT's Return to Self

by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

If you’ve watched a few of Erik Spoelstra’s postgame press conferences during the playoffs, you’re probably familiar with his media vernacular. Competition. Own It. Warrior. Pace. Space. Pure. The Rope. They’ve all, among many others, been used multiple times over the years. Some have stood the test of multiple appearances in the NBA Finals. Some have faded away as his team has changed. But Spoelstra always has his words, and one has always stood out among the rest:

Identity.

Spoelstra takes some good-natured prodding for how often he utters this word, but there’s a reason for the high usage rate. He doesn’t just say it as part of canned phrasing manufactured to dodge questions. There’s truth in the repetition, and it’s a simple truth. The Miami HEAT win basketball games when they play their game. The team has been constructed with versatility in mind and this keeps them in position to win, but the ability to fulfill multiple roles doesn’t mean there isn’t a paradigm around which the roster and the system has been designed.

So when Spoelstra begins an answer talking about identity, it’s usually because the HEAT aren’t playing the way that they’re meant to play. You can scheme a playoff series to perfection, but if the execution isn’t on point, all the complexities of the game are lost on a team that simply needs to play harder, better. Or, in the HEAT’s case: Play fast. Play smart. Share the ball. Space the floor. Attack the rim. Shoot when you’re open. And above all, defend.

The HEAT did very little of these things in the first half of Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers, and when the team went back to the locker room down four after one of its most discouraging and disjointed halves of this postseason run, Juwan Howard let everyone know.

“There's a lot of bleeps and stuff like that,” Udonis Haslem said, paraphrasing Howard’s speech. “But basically they're not going to give us the game. We have to go out there and take it. We have to be a two way team. We have to be aggressive offensively and we have to be aggressive defensively and play Miami HEAT basketball.”

Soon after, LeBron James echoed the sentiment.

“There was a few plays in the first half that were just like . . . didn't make any sense to us,” James said. “Didn't make any sense to me and to some of the guys, like a couple of plays we know we're capable of making that we just wasn't making. And it had nothing to do with X's and O's. It was about a sense of urgency. I think we all sensed that, we all felt that.”

The Pacers, as they had done for much of this series, had stolen Miami’s identity. It was on the HEAT to get it back. And so they did.

Through four games, the premier story of this complex series was that the Indiana Pacers had transformed from one of the league’s most average, predictable offenses into one scoring at a league-leading clip against one of the NBA’s best, most aggressive defenses. Sure, the amount of free-throws they were taking and their simple size advantage around the rim made for a natural uptick in efficiency, but few could have foreseen such a sustained period of success. Every so often the HEAT would activate their Omega Swarm mode and make life difficult for Indiana, but with the exception of the latter stages of Game 3 the Pacers always replied in kind with tough, earned hoops.

Through four games, the Pacers had topped 20 points in every single quarter. In the third period of a Game 5 that gave the HEAT a 3-2 series lead, all of this changed.

While we’ll get to Miami’s coverage of Roy Hibbert and their improvements on the glass shortly, if there was one simple thing they had to change from Game 4 it’s that they had to pick up Lance Stephenson – he had 20 points – in transition. The HEAT obliged without adjustments or schematic tinkering but with simple effort and awareness. When Stephenson grabbed a rebound early in the third quarter and attempted to go coast-to-coast, Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh ran back, picked up the ball and got in front of the rim to stop the layup.

Then there was the Hibbert issue. Unlike in last year’s series, the Pacers had been able to beat Miami’s post fronting with enough consistency to keep the post a worthwhile endeavor for their offense. While Indiana employed precision passing when successful, the most noticeable shortcoming on the HEAT’s end was the omission of weakside help. If the primary defender is between Hibbert and the ball, then there is nobody between Hibbert and the rim should he manage to make the catch. So, it’s on the weakside defender along the baseline to either stunt across the paint and discourage the pass entirely or rush to the ball if the lob is attempted.

In other words, if the Pacers are trying to get Hibbert the ball, the weakside defender needs to be in position, as Chalmers is here:

Chalmers Play Image

Or as Wade is here in a similar third-quarter situation:

When the HEAT pull off this coverage effectively, it not only takes away Indiana’s first offensive option but it forces them to waste time trying to get to it. With seconds ticking away – in the above video – as Paul George decides whether to try and get Hibbert his post touch, the shot clock hits five seconds before George makes a move with the ball. By the time Hibbert gets a catch, he’s a step inside the three-point line with less than three seconds to work with. He forces a dribble-drive, Chris Bosh steps in his way and Hibbert commits the charge.

“We were a little out of sync in that quarter,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “A lot out of the sync, actually. Certainly that's where the game was decided.”

It’s tough to understate the effect a short clock has on an NBA offense. While the HEAT were remarkably efficient with less than four seconds on the shot clock (according to Synergy Sports) the average team scored fewer points per possession than, say, an average jump shooter taking long two-pointers off the dribble in isolation sets. For every 100 possessions that went deep into the clock, the Pacers – with over 1000 such possessions – scored about 73 points.

In Game 5, exactly a quarter of Indiana’s 81 possessions went at least 20 seconds into the clock. They still scored on a fair number of them, but for the most part the result was a rushed, contested shot. Six of those short-clock possessions came in the third quarter, and the Pacers scored 13 points.

“We stopped moving the ball on the offensive end,” David West said. “We became very stagnate. We didn’t make them pay when they brought two and three guys to the ball.”

While Spoelstra rarely sends hard, deliberate double teams at the ball, his players are still encouraged to be opportunistic. If the time is right and you can trap a player along the sideline or baseline – especially a player who can’t dribble out of trouble – then Spoelstra encourages his players to be aggressive. And if you make a hard, natural help rotation only to return to find a teammate holding down your mark, pounce.

“We swarmed around defensively,” Haslem said. “We trapped and boxed. We closed out to the shooters and we rebounded.”

This type of energy, while not consistently present, hadn’t exactly been rare in this series. The problem was that whenever the HEAT turned it up a gear and forced a bad shot, the result was a bad miss. And bad misses are tough to predict, often ending up in the hands of the other team if you aren’t prepared to fight for the rebound. In Game 4, Indiana rebounded over 40 percent of its own misses and Hibbert came up with a number of huge second-chance points down the stretch. In Game 5, the Pacers only retrieved 15 percent of their misses and it was because of plays like this:

“They doubled from time to time when the opportunity presented itself, but what I really saw, they made a concerted effort to send two or three bodies to me when I went to the offensive glass,” Hibbert said. “I couldn't create as many offensive put backs as I wanted to.”

“We didn’t give them any second chances, which is really the key to the series,” Bosh said.

It was no coincidence that this play also led to a fast-break and a wide-open – though an eventual miss – Ray Allen three.

“We're a team that gets energized by defensive plays and a sense of urgency,” Spoelstra said. “It gets us in the open court, and that loosens things up for us. And from there the momentum just shifted. It can be a very fragile game. The tempo and the pressure wasn't where we needed it to be in the first half.”

There’s more.

Every facet of defense that we’ve discussed carries weight in determining the outcome of a defensive possession, but nothing had hurt the HEAT more in this series than surrendering dribble penetration. When the HEAT got beat off the dribble, Paul George dunked. When the ball got into the paint and Chris Andersen had to leave his man – he was more attached to Hibbert than ever tonight – then a simple dump-off pass got Hibbert a dunk. Every time the attacker got within ten feet of the rim, a defensive player had to help and get out of position. And every time a player got out of position, another player was getting open or in position for an offensive rebound.

Stop the dribble penetration, and the chain reaction never begins.

Put all of this together, and you end up with nearly-perfect visualizations of the HEAT’s identity.

Feet moving. Bodies charging. Hands up. Teammates helping one another over and over again. Recovery. Rebounds. The energy level required for a possession like this is incredibly difficult to sustain, which is why you’ve often seen a far lesser version of this defense over the course of this season, but when the HEAT are the HEAT on defense, it can be one of the most thrilling, and beautiful, things in sports.

Beautiful, breathtaking and effective. The energy translated to the other end of the floor, Miami outscored its opponent by 17 in the quarter and the game was theirs for the taking.

It won’t always be like this – how often are you the best version of yourself – but the HEAT have proven over the years that they know how to get back to the level they showed in the third quarter. As much as the little things like who to pick up in transition and where to trap and when to stunt and all the other technical bits we love to break down matter, nothing defines the HEAT more than how they do things. Thursday night, Juwan Howard offered his team a reminder. In the third quarter, we saw the difference.