Solutions Only: In Searching For Answers To The Jalen Brunson Problem, Miami Shows Exactly Why They're Making History

There was almost nothing they could do.

Jalen Brunson was that good. Miami had shown him drop coverage of all depths. They had switched. They ran zone. They collapsed two, three, sometimes even four players on his drives. No matter what Miami tried in this series, he just kept coming. Jumper. Three. Floater. Foul.

“We threw a lot at him for sure,” Gabe Vincent said.

“Jalen still was incredible,” Kyle Lowry said. “He gave them a chance to win the game. You have to respect him.”

Throughout, Erik Spoelstra kept looking for answers to the question mark New York was using as a battering ram, making larger adjustments and smaller tweaks alike. Yet there was a level of restraint within the strategizing. The big red button was right there. If someone is beating you that badly, every team has the option to send a hard double, to trap, and literally pry the ball out of their hands. Spoelstra resisted.

They had tried that during the regular season. Miami had sent two the hard way and Brunson had picked them apart, calmly finding the right pass almost every time so his teammates could play 4-on-3 going downhill down the middle. It’s nearly impossible to direct two to the ball and maintain the shape your defense is supposed to have. You can get stops that way – highly valuable ones if you force a live-ball turnover – especially if the other team doesn’t have many other creators, but it’s going to be a scramble.

Spoelstra stuck to his priority – keep the Knicks out of the paint. Instead of committing two defenders to a trap – something New York was doing to Jimmy Butler without the aggression in the passing lanes that typically accompanies such a coverage – Miami tried to slow Brunson softly. Wait for him to bring over a screen. Wait for him to make his move toward the paint. Then bring two. Not in a trap. In containment.

In one late possession, we saw both versions of it. Max Strus and Vincent held the initial pocket together, and on Brunson’s second attack Butler peels off his man to direct the ball away from the paint.

Knicks Game 5: Brunson Double Action

“Even at the end of this game we had two guys on the ball but we weren’t actively attacking him,” Vincent said.

Just before that possession, Spoelstra pulled off a micro-adjustment on the fly. With just over three minutes to play, Bam Adebayo and Vincent were in containment, Adebayo essentially holding a high drop until Brunson got off the ball. But Adebayo wasn’t high enough and Brunson pulled up for three.

Knicks Game 5: Brunson Three

“We came in with some different ideas to try and get the ball out of his hands, then he went to a different thing, 5-of-10 from three,” Spoelstra said. “That’s what great players do. You figure different things out.”

Exactly what Spoelstra’s teams do, too. On the very next New York possession, with no stoppages in play to aid communication, the coach delivers the fix. While we can’t know for sure what words were exchanged, body language tells us what we need to know. As Brunson initiates the action, watch Spoelstra agitate the air around him, raising up both palms in unison as if he could actually push Adebayo higher up the floor.

This time, Adebayo drags the electrified fence above the arc. Brunson passes out.

Knicks Game 5: Bam Step Up

“Having the opportunity to switch up coverages and be ready for all types of situations and scenarios, Coach was really prepared for everything,” Lowry said. “The team, we all responded to it.”

Brunson still scored 41, shooting an incredible 14-of-22 from the floor, but in the moment of need the HEAT got the stop. Brunson had found so many ways around Miami’s coverages, changing up his rhythm and tempo to keep the defense off guard, and down two with the shot clock off he calls for a screen one direction before accelerating the other way. But Strus wisely peels off his man and gets in front of the ball. Again, not trapping. Holding ground even against Brunson’s fake turn.

Knicks Game 5: Clutch Brunson Stop

“Thankfully we were able to get that one stop at the end,” Spoelstra said. “I think we were all on the edge of our seats, but we got the stop.”

Through the first three quarters, Brunson had produced 14 points on nine drives, good for 1.55 points-per-drive. In the fourth quarter, as the HEAT’s soft doubles dictated the terms of engagement, he produced just five points on seven drives, 0.83 points per. And with Miami’s defense not as bent, their defenders not as out of position as they would have been with a trap and thus better able to recover to the middle of the floor, New York’s other attackers weren’t able to capitalize. Only Julius Randle and RJ Barrett had more than five drives among the other Knicks, and they combined to produce six points on 18 drives, or 0.66 points-per.

It wasn’t all perfect, but it was enough. And it was enough in Miami’s way. They want to protect the paint above all else. After forcing that game-sealing turnover on a paint pass, they held the Knicks, one of the league’s elite attacking teams, to just 20 points in the paint – a full 10 points below their lowest mark of the regular season as they averaged nearly 10 fewer paint points per 100 possessions in the series. The HEAT found a way, again, but they found a way to be different yet still themselves.

That’s why this team is here, on their way to a third appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in the past four seasons and tenth since Pat Riley joined the franchise – most in the East – and why they’re now the second No. 8 seed to advance past the second round. They’re always the version of themselves they need to be.

Against the Milwaukee Bucks, and the way that team defends, the only way for Miami to win that series was to make the shots, to take the shots, that were going to be available to them. It wasn’t a style which necessarily suited them given the way the regular season had gone – granted, they had offered plenty of hints against drop coverage throughout the year – but they were willing to be who they needed to be.

It says a whole lot about a team that a series after shooting 45 percent from three to knock off the No. 1 seed the HEAT punched their ticket to the Conference Finals by shooting 30.6 percent. A series after Jimmy Butler had one of the highest-usage and most-efficient performances you’ll ever see across a postseason series, they adjusted to New York doubling Butler and packing the middle of the floor against Adebayo’s pick-and-rolls and found enough offense to advance. They always protect the paint and keep the ball away from the rim – if they aren’t, it gets fixed in a hurry as it did in Game 1 against the Knicks – but there is nothing they won’t try. That starts with Spoelstra.

It’s why the HEAT are here, making history. They are guaranteed nothing, but again and again they afford themselves chances and possibilities by simply being willing – by taking lemons and crafting a near-win out of threes and zone as they did in Game 2. They’ll call it finding beauty in the grind. Part of that grind is problem solving.

To them, a problem is merely an obstacle in need of an answer. There’s no time for frustration or stubbornness. There are only solutions waiting to be found. They keep looking for them until someone tells them that their time is up.

There was almost nothing they could do with Jalen Brunson, but there wasn’t nothing they could do. And that’s why the HEAT are where they are, are who they are. They find the best path forward, no matter how many hacks of a machete is takes to clear it, and they march on.