'The Run' Featuring Mario Chalmers, LeBron Screens and Mike Miller The Keymaster
In basketball, things rarely happen as suddenly as this. One moment, you’re down one at home with the specter of a possible 2-0 deficit in the NBA Finals before even hitting the road looming over the proceedings. About eight minutes later, you’re up 24 and as the opposing coach pulls his starters the game is quite literally over.
Things rarely happen so fast, and yet with the Miami HEAT these are the moments we expect. The run is always coming, even if it doesn’t always arrive. The HEAT win with bursts of controlled energy that few teams in the league can match – bursts that don’t follow any script or inherent logic. Lineups change, as will shot locations and the time on the game clock, but the one constant is the defense, that shadowy predator lurking just below the water’s glittery surface.
Stakes aside, Game 2 was just a fun, entertaining playoff game for much of three quarters. None of the stars of the San Antonio Spurs were playing particularly well, but Danny Green couldn’t be bothered to miss a three as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh sustained Miami’s offense while LeBron James worked his way over, under and through the defense’s particular blend of coverage. Things were shaping up for a fine finish, perhaps even the sort we would find ourselves talking about a decade or two from now.
Then came the run, and a fine day at the beach became just the opposite.
Things didn’t begin for Miami so much as they started working in a consistent manner, which is an important distinction to make. The HEAT don’t make many deliberate adjustments, at least not relative to some of the other teams in the league. Erik Spoelstra rarely calls specific plays – after-timeout and final-minute possessions being the most major exceptions – opting instead to fire up broader packages in which his players can read and react ad infinitum. If one package, such as one built around cross-screens setting up James or Wade in the post, works a couple of times then the HEAT will dip back into that well as long as it keeps producing water.
So when both teams went with smaller lineups late in the third quarter – with Bosh and Tim Duncan matching up up at the five spot and Mike Miller acting the part of a power forward – Spoelstra went away from the Wade post-ups of the first half and the pick-and-roll roulette that sprung Bosh for a number of jumpers and called for James to set screen after screen after screen. James quickly picked up an offensive foul when Tony Parker ran into him on the elbow, but even with James making less contact in the following possessions the Spurs couldn’t find a proper solution to Mario Chalmers becoming the primary playmaker.
The idea has always been the same. If you don’t want to designate a traditional big man to defend James full time, then he’s going to force players unaccustomed to defending the pick-and-roll off the ball to be uncomfortable. And because the Spurs don’t have a true backup power forward behind Kawhi Leonard, that means Danny Green being put in a position that he’s barely been in two dozen times this entire season.
To make matters worse, Green doesn’t have many options when the HEAT load up the weakside with shooters and pull San Antonio’s second big man out of the paint. When James is attempting to turn the corner on a pick-and-roll the Spurs are going to send help early and often. But with James just near the ball, Green – and Leonard later on – gets to be the only man standing between the ball and the rim.
And then Chalmers takes care of the rest by attacking the retreating defender.
We can’t take this sequence lightly. Years ago, the sight of James setting an on-ball screen was a rarity. Spoelstra would break it out every so often at the end of games, but for the most part those actions were special in the truest sense of the word. Back then, defenses would routinely switch in this situations because James was still developing his post-game and he typically would not go to it when drawing a smaller defender on the perimeter. But now James’ post-game is nearly second nature, and he’s become equally as adept as slipping screens is the defense overplays the action – so everyone is kept honest.
If you can force honest coverage out of situations where the most dynamic offensive player in basketball is moving away from the ball, those situations won’t be very rare. It’s quite common these day to see James setting ball-screens, and just as with his post-ups, the more the action works the more the HEAT are going to go right back to it.
So Spoelstra did just that in Game 2, running the same package with James over…
It’s Chalmers who made this work. If he doesn’t use the screen and make himself a threat, he doesn’t draw to defenders. But he hit floaters and runners and missed a wide-open jumper, and when Chalmers hit a rolling James there was either as clear a path to the rim as James will experience throughout this series.
Or the HEAT would enjoy either a 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 situation – each of which James tends to pick-apart in his daydreams. Most of the league’s big men aren’t adept enough as passers to make a catch on the move, turn, read the defense and fire off an accurate pass within a couple of beats, but then again neither are most of the league’s wing players.
Who else can make these reads within a few minutes of one another, and make them seem entirely casual.
“LeBron couldn't get into a rhythm early on, and other guys stepped up,” Spoelstra said. “He showed great poise and trust in not getting caught up in feeling like he had to make the play or score, but rather either facilitate or let other guys make plays. And that's what they did.”
Even with Chris Andersen not being a shooting threat, the floor was exceptionally spaced throughout the HEAT’s 33-5 run because of the smaller lineup Spoelstra put on the floor. And the key to unlocking that lineup – and forcing Popovich to go small himself in taking Boris Diaw out of the game while Splitter was getting a breather – was Mike Miller.
As much as James can make the opposition suffer when opposing big men are drawn further and further out of the paint, the HEAT have rarely wanted to wear him down by asking him to defend power forwards for long stretches of game action. Spoelstra will ask and James will do it, but typically the team wants to keep James’ defensive responsibilities consistent to keep him fresh for the second half. This means someone else has to step up and not only guard power forwards but also take on the power forward rotations in Miami’s defensive scheme.
For two years, that player has been Shane Battier. He would shoulder the load on one end in order to space the floor on the other, and because of his ability to do that the HEAT won the title last year. But with Battier enduring a shooting slump, Miller has stepped into his place.
That place being the weakside, where Battier was asked to step in, chuck a rolling big man off his line and either recover to a man around the rim or, as was the case when San Antonio went small, find his way back to the three-point line.
After years of debilitating injuries, Miller isn’t exactly the quickest player in the league. But he makes up for his athletic shortcoming by, as Spoelstra might say, competing on the defensive end, both with energy and with smart activity.
These lineups don’t work if Miller can’t rebound at an above-average rate as he does, but they also don’t work if he can’t join his teammates at that level of defensive intensity – that we like to call Omega Swarm – that only the HEAT seem capable of reaching.
“The little things,” Spoelstra said. “He does a lot of those things. Very similar to Shane. Some of those things don't show up in a boxscore, but his effort, his hustle, extra efforts, closeouts. He has a knack for being around the ball. If you see a collision or loose ball, Mike likely is involved with it somehow, some way.
“You add all those up, those are winning plays.”
Winning plays for winning lineups. We must warn you, as always, that the sample sizes behind the following numbers are extremely small and as such we use them to simply illustrate a point. But that James-Chalmers-Miller-Allen-Andersen lineup that was on the floor for most of Miami’s run? That lineup outscored the Spurs by 152.3 points per 100 possessions in seven minutes of Game 2. And Miller make that possible.
“We want him on the floor,” James said of Miller. “As teammates, we want him on the floor. We know what he brings. He's a 6'7", 6'8" two guard/small forward that can shoot the ball from anywhere and can rebound at a high clip. With the lineup we had in the late third to the fourth, me, Rio, Ray, Bird and Mike – it spreads the floor. It spreads the floor for our attackers.”
What makes the HEAT the HEAT, however, is that this lineup may or may not have an impact on the rest of this series. Spoelstra will go back to it because it worked, but if the lineup doesn’t work as well in future games Spoelstra could easily switch things up or go to different packages. That, in essence, is what Miami’s offensive system is. Have options on the bench, have options in the playbook and have options on the floor – then use them all when the time is right.
As long as the team is scoring, it doesn’t matter how the points are coming about. But everything comes back to the defense that can come from nowhere and end a game in a matter of a few overwhelming minutes. For all their offensive options, the HEAT have no better weapon than the energy that fuels the swarm.