The Big Beginnings of Fronting Durant

As far as its script goes, Prometheus is a hollow movie, full of technical expertise, strong performances and some very pretty things, but lacking in all narrative cohesion – not to mention logic – necessary from any piece of entertainment pretending to ask the big, mysterious questions about life.

Taken on their own, however, the script does feature a number of nicely written adopted, well-read lines. One such line that sticks out is one you’ve seen in trailers, when Michael Fassbender’s ever-evolving robot David quotes Claude Rains’ character, Mr. Dryden, in Lawrence of Arabia as he stares at a decidedly un-Lawrence of Arabia drop of alien goo.

For now, with the Miami HEAT, the opposite is true. What started as a major adjustment entering the first-round series against the New York Knicks, the decision to front Carmelo Anthony with LeBron James and Shane Battier not only in the post but as far out as the three-point line, is now just a small part of Erik Spoelstra’s defensive approach to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I think it’s just a consequence of the playoffs,” Battier said. “Against the Knicks, obviously Carmelo was rolling, and we just tried to limit his catches. After one game we said, ‘Hey, we’re on to something here.’ It’s funny how the playoffs evolve; you throw something out there and hope it sticks. And it stuck.

As Game 1 against the Knicks played out and it became apparent that both Battier and James would fight to obtain and maintain ball-side position whenever Anthony was trying to make a catch, it was even clearer that New York didn’t know how to adjust to Miami taking away their most basic offensive play: the wing isolation.

It was shocking for a number of reasons. For one, the fronting had such a great effect on New York’s offense that it stagnated to the point of flat lining, but it was also just so rare to see a team consistently front so far from the basket, possession after possession, daring point guards to throw a difficult lob pass with mobile big men waiting to swarm from the baseline.

The fronting was not, however, a shock within the context of Miami’s defense. Less a change and more of an evolutionary step fitted to the style of the postseason.

“It’s not necessarily a departure from how we play,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ve done that. We try to play aggressively and try to impose our identity on other teams. Sometimes, that can be at the expense of some mistakes, where we get overextended on that. But that’s our nature. We’re built different than other teams, but those are the habits that we tried to build up for a few months.”

While the HEAT likely would have beaten the Knicks regardless of the tactical move, you can easily argue that the aggressiveness with which both James and Battier played Anthony was the single most important factor in the series. Against the Thunder, in part due to where Durant attempts to catch the ball and the screens he comes off of, the effect is smaller.

But for four or five possessions a game, when Oklahoma City’s offense slows down just long enough for Battier, James or even Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – with Miami switching more in this series – to get in front of Durant, disruption takes hold.

Sometimes, the difference is simply in where Durant catches the ball. Instead of getting the pass at the three-point line, he’ll get it five feet behind while another precious second ticks off the shot clock, as Chris Bosh forced after switching onto Durant.

Even in what is typically a mismatch, by pushing Durant into a tougher catch, Bosh puts more space between the ball and the basket, forcing Durant to cover more ground with the dribble and spend more energy if he wants to get to the rim.

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To the Thunder’s credit, they at least react to the defense. They don’t stand and stare while Durant calls for the pass over the top, unwilling to take the risk of a turnover with Bosh or Udonis Haslem laying in wait. They’ll adjust, either quickly finding another pass to Durant or going away from him, never forcing the issue.

“You play long enough, you’ve seen everything, you’ve seen it all. You see all the defenses, you see all the tricks that teams try to pull out. It just comes down to figuring out a way to still get what you want, individually and as a team,” Derek Fisher said. “Teams paid that much attention to one guy, then the other guys have opportunities to make plays. It’s not about trying to force something to happen just for Kevin or just for Russell or just for James, those are the three guys that teams pay attention to the most, we have to figure out a way to still be effective even when they’re still playing Kevin that way.

“When you’re trying to run offense as a team, you shouldn’t run it in a way where the goal is just to get the guy the ball. If he’s not in the right spot, if the spacing is not proper behind the catch, then you’ve wasted a lot of time just to get Kevin the ball 28 feet from the basket with five guys staring at him on defense.”

The problem for Oklahoma City, then, is less a matter of decision making and more an issue of Miami taking away their best offensive player. As talented as Russell Westbrook is, most of the Thunder’s more dynamic sets rely on Durant moving off the ball, using screens to get to the spots where he can be most efficient.

Take all that movement away, and the Thunder are often left with either Westbrook or Harden creating off the dribble in what amounts to little more than an isolation.

In other words, take Durant away with the middle of the defense intact, and you can force a tough shot.

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“When KD has the ball he’s one of the best scorer’s to ever play this game,” Wade said. “One thing we can do is make him see different defenders, make him see our bodies, make him take tough shots. He’s going to make a lot of them.”

Again, this only occurs a few times a game, but it happens throughout the game, too. With Miami up one in Game 3 and less than seven minutes remaining, James turned what could have been an efficient catch for Durant in the mid-range to a dribble-heavy isolation beginning almost 30 feet away from the rim, all by getting his hip turned in front of Durant’s.

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Bosh may have been far from the initial front here, but he doesn’t provide James with any verbal reinforcement, yelling, ‘Got your help, got your help.’ When you really trust your teammates, you don’t need them to keep telling you how much they have your back.

“No need,” Bosh said of letting James know he’s in position. “That’s what we do. We always help each other. We’re all on a string together. If I know that he’s fronting then I know where I have to be. We’re going to continue to do that. Even if they hit us with a counter, we’re prepared.”

Though the question has little to do with this series, it is worth considering whether other team in the league will review tape of Miami fronting so aggressively, whether against Anthony, David West, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Durant, and see something worth trying themselves. Maybe not much in the regular season – it is a very demanding form of defense, after all – but perhaps a habit worth building up for the playoffs.

It’s a style that fits perfectly for Miami, with their speed at all positions and “small” lineups, but as other team experiment with their own lineups down the road, will we see more consistent fronting?

“I don’t know,” Battier said. “We’re not very big. We don’t have very much shot blocking on the frontline, so we have to get creative in ways we defend. We have to defend with our speed. We can do that because we do have speed on the wings. When you’re a bigger team, you can just get behind somebody and make them shoot over you, but we don’t have that luxury.”

No, but the HEAT have another kind of luxury, the sort that allows elite defenders to pursue elite scorers with every tool at their disposal with minimal risk of throwing the defensive out of alignment. Fronting won’t decide this series as it did against the Knicks, but it doesn’t have to. It simply has to contribute, and any small thing that positively affects four or five possessions in the NBA Finals absolutely does just that.

So maybe with its grand beginnings in the New York series and use deep into June, fronting is a big thing after all.