featured-image

The Table Setter: HEAT-Knicks Opens With Mid-Game Adjustments, Jimmy Butler Dealing With Help, Kevin Love Throwing It Long, And Gabe Vincent Stepping Up

In front of an electric crowd on Sunday afternoon the Miami HEAT took an early double-digit deficit on the chin, marched back in front behind a string of Kevin Love outlet passes in the third quarter and took a 1-0 series lead. Here’s what we noticed in the first go around.

SHIFTING THE DRIVE

All season long, the HEAT were one of the best paint defenses in the league. They’ve never been one of the biggest groups, nor one that blocks a ton of shots, but with all their shrinks and stunts and switches and swipes they were just as effective at limiting paint points as teams with long-armed rim patrols. They allowed 46.2 paint points per game, second in the league – fourth, when you adjust for pace – behind New York and ahead of Cleveland. That number may as well have been the bedrock of their entire scheme. Opponent threes will fluctuate over the course of the season. They knew they could control the paint.

In Game 1 of this series, the Knicks scored 40 points in the paint in the first half. Even with New York shooting 9-of-11 in the upper paint – on quite a few floaters and push shots – there was enough easy stuff making up that 40 that made the defense look neither like Miami’s nor like one that was going to be enough to win four games in the next two weeks.

“That number jumped out at halftime,” Erik Spoelstra said. “They got our average in the first half. But that’s what they do. They’re an aggressive, attacking, assaulting team.”

With the bulk of the downhill offense coming from Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett, the Knicks had 21 drives in the first half produce 1.55 points-per-drive, including assist opportunities. Now, a coach could certainly see what was happening, say ‘That’s not good enough, do it better’ and stick to the plan they came into the game with. But that’s not typically Spoelstra’s style. If something isn’t working, he adjusts.

And adjust they did. In the second half New York drove the paint even more often, particularly once their lead slipped away and they found themselves playing from behind. They were also far less efficient with those attacks, producing just 0.83 points-per on 37 drives.

“We made some adjustments on the coverages that we wanted to do,” Kyle Lowry said. “In the first half there was a lot more spacing, in the second half we made a slight adjustment.”

What were those adjustments? They varied depending on who had the ball in their hands.

Let’s start with Jalen Brunson. While those of us in South Florida spent most of the season talking about how Bam Adebayo morphed his game into one where he did the vast majority of his work in the upper painted area, feasting on pocket passes and one-dribble pullups, Brunson took the second most shots in that zone behind Adebayo and made over half of those attempts. Most defensive schemes can safely give up a little bit of space, whatever coverage you use to get there, because most guards struggle to sustain efficiency on those intermediate two pointers. Brunson is the exception. If you let him in the paint, you’re already in trouble.

Watch this early Brunson drive. What do you notice?

Knicks Game 1: Brunson Attacks Strus Switch

First, Jimmy Butler was the primary assignment on Brunson from the jump but here they give up a rather easy switch so Brunson can attack Max Strus. With New York forcing the issue in transition early on Strus got caught on Brunson in some crossmatches, which is also why Butler defended Brunson for more initial touches in the second half as Miami scored more efficiently and forced New York to take the ball out of the basket. Let’s focus on the more controllable half-court decisions. Before the break, Strus, Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry all defended eight Brunson pick-and-rolls as the screener defender, per Second Spectrum tracking data. They switched seven of those screens. Hold on to that for just a moment.

The other note about the above clip is that Vincent is stunting off of RJ Barrett – a 31 percent three-point shooter this season who hit 25 percent of his threes in the First Round against Cleveland – as Brunson goes right past him for a comfortable floater.

With those two things in mind, let’s move on to the second half. After Spoelstra made his adjustments – which followed a brief foray into zone at the end of the second quarter that came with mixed results – watch what Strus and Lowry are doing to avoid giving up the switch without putting two on the ball, a coverage Brunson has picked apart when Miami tried it in the past.

Knicks Game 1: Drop vs. Brunson

They’re dropping back as if they were centers. Maybe not quite as far as if they were centers, but it’s typically a big-man coverage nonetheless. And with Adebayo roaming the baseline – with Robinson not screening, his area of effectiveness is the dunker spot – as almost a second layer of drop coverage, while remaining ever cognizant of the lob threat behind him, Brunson was seeing multiple bodies any time he came off a screen.

Sometimes multiple bodies didn’t just mean two or three, either. As Miami was more willing to commit to help in the second half, especially off weaker shooters (Barrett, Obi Toppin) or at times unwilling shooters (Josh Hart), Brunson often found the walls collapsing all around him.

Knicks Game 1: Collapse On Brunson

Brunson still added 10 points after the break on 5-of-11 shooting, but they were a grimier 10 points. Less getting into the paint at will, more getting into the paint and having the ball forced out of his hands. Barrett, Toppin and Hart combined to shoot 3-of-12 from three in the final two periods, all three makes coming from Toppin. New York scored 22 points in the paint after the initial 40.

“We just made it a point of emphasis of cutting that water off and defending, really,” Vincent said. “We didn’t do a good job of defending in the first half.”

As for Barrett, who shot 4-of-13 in the second half after shooting 6-of-7 in the first, the adjustment was slightly different. Still an effort to avoid switches, to a degree, but one just as focused at keeping the ball away from the danger zones.

Here’s two Barrett drives from the first half.

Knicks Game 1: Barrett Over Drives

And here’s three from the second half.

Knicks Game 1: Barrett Under Drives

If that looks familiar, it’s exactly what Jrue Holiday was often doing to Butler in the last series. Vincent simply changed from going over the screen, which was often giving Barrett the step he needed to get downhill, to under, keeping himself in front of the ball while conceding a pull-up three if Barrett were so inclined to take it.

Barrett shot 19.6 percent on just 51 pull-up threes during the regular season. He didn’t take many because he didn’t make many. Miami went under on just one Barrett pick-and-roll in the first half, six in the second. Barrett isn’t going to run half as many screens as Brunson – New York likes to get him curling around handoffs to his left hand – but without Julius Randle the Knicks needed his scoring punch and despite some success Miami kept him on the outside of the restricted area looking in for much of the second half.

On paper these aren’t the most mind-blowing tactical adjustments. They require expert execution – Lowry made a number of veteran plays down the stretch, incredibly being credited with four blocks – as anything does at this stage of the season. In both cases Spoelstra saw what wasn’t working and toggled to something that did. That’s just coaching. Had the Knicks been able to make any threes we might not be talking about this nearly as much, but they didn’t and here we all are.

YOU TELL THEM I’M COMING

There is no sound quite like the absence of sound inside an arena that was once deafening. That sort of quiet is typically only achieved by extended, dominant performances – LeBron James or Jimmy Butler in a Game 6 at Boston, for example – or bursts of shocking plays, like a string of threes that nullify entire quarters that had come before them. It’s all screaming and shouting and cheering, then a confused murmur followed by nothing. It’s happened in every arena in the league, Miami included (the 2014 NBA Finals, for an example).

Kevin Love made that happen in Madison Square Garden on Sunday in a most unusual way. He did it with passing.

In Game 1 against Milwaukee it was startling to see the Bucks, such a fine-tuned defensive machine, get beat by so many hit-aheads and outlet passes going right into the hands of Butler. In fact, the four hit-ahead passes Butler received were tied for second-most in the first half of any playoff game in the past 10 seasons. The expectation was that Milwaukee would clean that up and minimize those plays after the damage had been done, and they did.

Typically, those plays happen early, when teams are still settling in and they aren’t expecting Butler to be running a go route while they’re still taking a three on their own ends. Typically, teams are locked in by the second half and they aren’t letting anything through over the top. Sunday was no typical day.

Knicks Game 1: Love Outlets

Both Love’s four hit-ahead passes and all four of Butler’s hit-ahead catches are tied for the most passes or long receptions in the second half of any postseason game in the past 10 seasons.  Butler – and Strus, for one – just kept leaking out and the rebounds, fortunately, kept ending up in Love’s hands as he kept his eyes up.

That stretch changed the entire game, pushing Miami out front as the Knicks struggled for airspace on their own end. That’s enough for one win, and if that were it for the touchdown plays that would be just fine.

That probably won’t be it, though, even if Butler is unable to play in Game 2 with his sprained ankle. There’s always a trickle-down effect of some sort. New York came into the series with a reputation as a dominant offensive rebounding machine. It was not one earned simply by their big men. They will crash their wings, even their guards – Immanuel Quickley was darting towards shots from the corners like he was P.J. Tucker at times – and hunt those second chances.

If they’re worried about Butler, or anyone else, leaking out the other direction, that means fewer bodies they can commit to their mission.

“The beauty of it is they have to send maybe a defender or two back,” Love said of the side effects that come from his outlet passing. “They’re such an offensive rebounding team, they’re so great at rebounding the ball, even their wings as well. The luxury of that is we contest those long shots and they have to send a guy back. They might have to send Hart back or Obi Toppin back, those type of guys.

“It just allows them maybe one less offensive rebounder, which helps us.”

We’ll keep an eye on New York’s crash rate going forward. The Knicks’ offensive rebound rate was slightly above average, but a chunk of them came late as the game was already slipping away. Adebayo was thorough and consistent putting a body on Mitchell Robinson to clear the boards for others, and that’ll have to continue. Love’s outlets may have won Miami a game, but they also might change a part of the series even if we never see another one.

AND HELP IS COMING WITH ME

All you had to be was somewhat familiar with Tom Thibodeau’s history, or New York’s current style of defense, to know that the Knicks weren’t going to let Butler get away with one-on-one and two-on-two offense like he was throughout the entirety of the Milwaukee series. Not that double teams were immediately going to be coming Butler’s way. He was, at minimum, going to see extra bodies. The help was going to come. It wasn’t always going to come from the same place.

Sure enough, Butler’s Game 1 drives, such as they are, were the center of attention. Any move towards the rim drew an equal and opposite move from at least one extra defender in wait – and they would come across the paint, from the nail, even from the strong-side corner. Butler’s drives produced a superb 1.20 points-per, counting assists, against Milwaukee. Against New York, that fell off to 0.89.

Knicks Game 1: Jimmy Draws Help

In five games against Milwaukee, Butler attempted 25.9 half-court shots per 100 possessions. In Game 1 against New York, that number was 15.1. Sure, he was limited in the final five minutes, but the same effect was there through the first three quarters. Fewer shots from Butler. More shots needed from everyone else.

Need is the operative word there. Lowry has been excellent for the past two weeks, dialing up his own offense whenever Butler has needed a break, often delivering run-stopping jumpers in big moments. That’s Lowry’s game. Everyone expects it, make or miss.

The same can’t be said for Vincent. You can sense a bit of angst – on social media at least, however representative it actually is – about the shots Vincent has been hunting, particularly early in games. That’s natural with a player who isn’t nearly as proven as Lowry, particularly as a regular scorer. But with the absences in Miami’s rotation, every shot Vincent is taking, all team-leading ten of them in the first half, is a need.

“With the injuries that we’ve had, with Tyler out and Vic out, we frankly do need Gabe to be more aggressive,” Spoelstra said. “And he’s doing it within the context of our offense. But we do need him to put some points on the board or at least make the defense play him.”

Vincent isn’t going to be Herro, but he can play the same role when it comes to impact. You don’t have to be Sean Connery to be an effective James Bond. Miami can win with Roger Moore, especially if it’s closer to the Roger Moore from The Spy Who Loved Me and farther from the Roger Moore of A View To A Kill.

“Especially now we’ve got guys out, people need to be more aggressive in taking shots when they’re available,” Vincent said. “[Butler has] been encouraging me, Bam has been encouraging me, the staff has been. My teammates have been in full support of it. I’ve just been mindful of taking good shots and going from there.”

Vincent offered up 20 points on 16 shots – including a huge pull-up three to put Miami back up six with under five minutes to play – to go with five assists and just one turnover in Game 1. Those are winning numbers, numbers that fill a need. With New York clearly committing a bulk of their attention to constricting Butler’s options, the need is greater than ever.

EARLY READS

There are going to be more opportunities to talk about Adebayo in this series, so we won’t dwell on this one. We’ve already mentioned how well he did managing his defensive spacing in the second half, deterring easy attempts in the paint just by constantly staying ahead of, and rotating ahead of, any approach. We mentioned his crucial box outs, too. Offensively, he had a similar experience to Butler. What we thought we would see from New York’s coverage, we saw. No more of that two-on-two Milwaukee defense with defenders sticking to shooters. The paint was filled to capacity.

Early on, what would have been a routine pick-and-roll against the Bucks became one of Miami’s eight turnovers just because the Knicks did exactly what the previous HEAT opponent did not. Mitchell Robinson came up to the level of the screen, an arm’s length away from the ball, and the third defender came over to disrupt the pocket pass at the dotted line.

Knicks Game 1: Awkward Third Man Turnover

Considering there were only seven turnovers the rest of the way, Miami adjusted just fine. They found the shooters left open. They swung the ball against the tilted defense, stringing New York’s rotations out to their limit. Miami changed up the looks some, adding a bit more variety to keep the Knicks’ help thinking. When Adebayo got a rare catch in the middle of the floor, he made the reads he’s spent all year practicing as teams devoted increased resources toward limiting his paint game.

Knicks Game 1: Bam Third Man Assist

And with Butler hobbled down the stretch, they went to basic, empty corner sets with Lowry and Adebayo, even if they weren’t entirely empty corner in practice because Brunson was playing in a strong-side zone. Adebayo set 36 screens in Game 1. They produced 1.30 points-per-screen, according to Second Spectrum. A massive number.

This isn’t Adebayo’s first rodeo at this point, which is part of why there was always a lurking suspicion this season that Miami’s offense would be better off in the playoffs after Adebayo (and Herro) spent a year carrying a larger, and different, scoring and playmaking load than before.

At the end of the day, the most important thing that happened in Game 1 was that New York shot 20.6 percent from three. No teams are winning a postseason series shooting that poorly, no matter how many offensive boards they collect. Even if Miami is influencing things by helping off specific shooters, the numbers will come around in some fashion just because you aren’t getting too many 0-of-7 games from Brunson.

That’s the NBA today. We can talk about all these adjustments on Miami’s part and they can all be rendered moot by three more open jumpers going in. But that’s why you make those adjustments, why you try creative sets, why you put all your players in the roles they need to be in and why you test the outlet waters until the other team adjusts. You control what you can control in each game because that means you’re in control when the shots are going in, as they did against the Bucks, and when they aren’t, as they often did not on Sunday.

The HEAT have enjoyed the benefits of chance, both in their own shooting and their opponent’s lack of it at times, to be sure. But through five postseason victories, they’re leaving as little to chance as possible.