The Rules Of Engagement: In A Make Or Miss Series, Erik Spoelstra And Doc Rivers Are Shaping The Floor To Their Own Designs
With just over five minutes to play in Game 4 and Philadelphia up only seven points thanks to a masterful 40-point performance from Jimmy Butler, James Harden has the ball. As the 76ers point guard Harden often has the ball, but in this case he really has it. After inbounding to Tyrese Maxey and getting it back with 16 on the shot clock, Harden proceeds to hold the ball for the next 14 seconds, doing nothing but getting the best switch defender in the league in Bam Adebayo switched onto him.
The clock is melting. Harden isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Adebayo. As we’ve seen so many times in this series already, Harden crosses over a couple times, jabs his right foot forward, steps back and launches a three. Adebayo is locked in the entire way. Hands up. Contest. Jump to the side to avoid the foul. He plays it as well as you can possibly play it.
With 1.4 seconds on the shot clock, the ball goes through. Before the game ends and the 76ers tie the series up 2-2, Harden hits two more three with under three on the clock. No team in the league forces more defensive possessions into the final five on the clickety than the HEAT, and when they do that, when the seconds are exhausted and the walls are closing in, they only surrender 0.82 points per possession. Elite, A-Number-One stuff.
In Game 4 the 76ers had 24 possessions – the seventh-most Miami has forced all season – go into the final five on the clock. You know what they scored on those? A whopping 1.72 points-per-possession. In Game 3 that numbers was 1.13.
“In those last five minutes,” Erik Spoelstra said, “they had probably a handful of possessions that went all the way down to the end of the clock and made some big shots.”
That’s probably putting it lightly, given the context. They weren’t just big shots, they were some of the biggest shots that have been hit against the HEAT all season. If you go through all 91 games Miami has played this season, the 34 points they allowed in the final five on the clock in Game 3 was a season high. And then that number was immediately topped by the 43 in Game 4.
You’ve probably heard the term Make or Miss League a few times in your experience watching the NBA. It’s either the most reductive or most accurate form of analysis, but sometimes it’s all you can say. Sometimes Dwyane Wade doesn’t make a three for four months before making two in the final minutes of a do-or-die game Charlotte. Sometimes Jimmy Butler hits four threes in a game against Atlanta after shooting 23 percent from deep during the regular season. It feels great when you win those. But sometimes Harden, who was shooting 32 percent on 40 postseason stepback threes heading into Game 4, sticks a dagger in you and there’s nothing you can do.
Maybe the shot-making is all it is. Maybe it’s all it ever is, really. Maybe the HEAT lost the last two games simply because they, the best shooting team in the regular season, shot 23 and 20 percent from deep in consecutive games while their opponent topped 48 percent on threes both nights. After posting their second-worst Shot Quality of the season in Game 3 upon Joel Embiid’s return, Miami’s looks returned to more normal-ish levels in Game 4. Shouldn’t the makes have followed?
“There aren’t any absolutes with that,” Spoelstra said. “In Game 3 we didn’t really generate enough good looks and our offense was really flat. I thought tonight we actually had some really good looks, we just missed them. That’s part of the game, part of the playoffs, sometimes you don’t make shots but you still have opportunities to grind out and get a win in the mud. We were able to do that tonight. We were close, we were banging on the door.”
The 76ers had the same gripes with the Basketball Gods after shooting 17 and 26 percent from three in the first two games, each semi-winnable without their best player.
“It just seemed like it kind of flipped,” Spoelstra said. “It feels like Philly was saying the same thing in two games in Miami. We’re saying the same thing here.”
“In Game 2 our composure was good,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “We just couldn’t make shots. Now we’re making shots.”
Maybe it is that simple, the series will be decided by who makes more threes over the next two or three games and we can stop writing right here. It really could be that simple.
But there’s so much more.
To start, despite what we said about the HEAT’s Shot Quality improving in Game 4, which it did, they only generated four uncontested looks – as they’re tracked by Second Spectrum – all evening. In the second half they only took one corner three, the best three you can get, after taking three in all of Game 3. There were good and open looks to be sure, but there are degrees to good and open. Are you facing down a hard closeout? Is someone trailing behind you? Did you have to dribble and relocate? Did you get a clean catch? Miami had the worst Shot Quality on threes this season largely because so many are either off the dribble or off movement, so they can make tough threes, but how many good, clean looks are the team’s best shooters really getting?
The key here is in understanding how Philadelphia is defending Butler. On one hand Butler has been brilliant these last two games, scoring 33 and 40 points and largely standing as the sole reason Miami has been able to hang within single digits when they have. But Butler has also had to be brilliant because the 76ers are defending him in the complete opposite manner to how the HEAT are treating Harden, Embiid and Trae Young before them.
It’s part of their base defensive scheme, but the HEAT have pointed at Harden and Embiid, wagged their finger side to side and said, ‘Nope, not you two.’ They load up multiple bodies into Harden’s driving lanes. They front Embiid – second in the league with 8.9 post-ups per game, he only has four total through two games in part because Bam Adebayo is putting on a fronting clinic – and have help always at the ready to swarm him when the pass is in the air. Here’s a quick look at two possessions, the first a reminder of what the floor balance looks like when Harden has the ball and Embiid is on the bench, the second how Miami tilts their entire effort towards the mere threat of an Embiid post-up.
While Shot Quality for Philadelphia has largely remained flat through all four games, that’s partially due to Harden’s particular brand of threes drag the overall number down like an anchor. It’s been pretty clear that the likes of Danny Green, Tobias Harris, Georges Niang and Tyrese Maxey have all benefitted from the tilt of Embiid’s gravity. Looking at only those four shooters, the 76ers’ three-point Shot Quality in Games 1 and 2 was 51.1, which would have ranked dead last during the regular season. In Games 3 and 4 that number rose to 53.2, which would have ranked a much healthier eighth.
We’re playing with pretty small samples here, but that tracks with possessions like this one (camera is messy on the second, but you get the idea with the help sucking in on Embiid in the middle):
On the other end of the floor, Philadelphia is playing things very differently. During each of the past two postgame press conferences, Butler has mentioned that he probably wants to pass the ball a little more than he has. The 76ers have engineered their defense to prevent that. While they are showing help off certain players – they’re well aware that Tucker is primarily a corner-three specialist, for example, so he’s not getting the same attention while running through other zones on the floor, and they’re playing off Butler when he doesn’t have the ball – if you’re Tyler Herro or Max Strus, both of whom are coming off incredible shooting seasons, Rivers is positioning his players so that their airspace is as minimal as it can possibly be.
Let’s play a little Where’s Waldo. Try to find Strus on this play, where Butler is coming off a Bam Adebayo screen and trying to get downhill against Embiid (he takes a jumper).
Where are Strus and Herro on this play, a Butler isolation on the left side of the court? Does this look different to you from how Miami is loading up on Harden and Embiid?
Where are Miami’s shooters here, when Butler is holding the ball at the free-throw line? Are there any immediate passing angles for him to generate three-point looks?
Lastly, try this one. Where is Herro?
Alright, that one was a trick. Herro isn’t even in that screen grab, but he is on the court. You see Maxey off on the left of the image? That’s where Herro is, off screen. Note that there’s 12 seconds on the shot clock, so Herro isn’t coming down the floor in transition. Spoelstra is often asking Herro and Strus to space out as wide as possible to open up the middle of the floor, and Philadelphia is sometimes taking their scheme to a comical, though effective, degree.
So you can trust that we aren’t just stealing screenshots at the exact moment to help prove a point - which to a degree is unavoidable - let's look at a handful of possessions to show Philadelphia's focus in motion. You’ll notice a consistent theme, Butler or Adebayo are working together to attack a pressure point while the best shooters on the floor have been cut off as the 76ers are often happy to defend the pick-and-roll with two bodies if one of them is Embiid. Even with the ball going towards the rim, the help, positioned on shooters, doesn’t come. For the HEAT, that would be blasphemous.
While the HEAT indeed had some open, makeable looks earlier on in the game, this is a string of six crucial possessions played out down the stretch. Watch how the defense is playing the shooters even as Butler and Adebayo are scoring in bunches.
Miami only had two catch-and-shoot threes in the fourth quarter that were deemed uncontested or lightly contested by Second Spectrum. Neither of those came from Strus or Herro.
A quick history lesson here. Tom Thibodeau, who designed some of the best defensive systems in the league in the years following the various rule changes in the early-2000’s, spent three seasons with Rivers as Associate Head Coach in Boston while the Celtics went to the NBA Finals in two out of three seasons with an elite defense centered around Kevin Garnett. When Thibodeau got the head coaching job with Chicago, he designed his entire system around the capabilities of big men like Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. The ideas in play were similar to what we’ve seen the last two games. Use the big man to contain the immediate action and space the floor so the best shooters are cut off or at least facing a hard closeout depending on how many miles the ball would have to travel in the air. We don’t have a reason to get into who came up with what, but there’s a long history with the choices Rivers is making. He’s had success with this style. Their goals are as clear as Miami’s are when they treat high-volume ballhandlers the same as they’ve done for years.
How these concepts have played out, with spacing at a maximum - in that respect, the shooters are doing what they're meant to do by creating room for attacks - is that Butler has answered a call that keeps ringing. He’s taken 20 and 22 shots in consecutive games – Butler only took 20 or more shots three times in the entirety of Miami’s Finals run back in 2020 – but with Rivers challenging him to score Butler has obliged with a combined 73 points on efficient shooting, often going right at Embiid. Butler has been Miami’s most effective ballhandler in pick-and-rolls by a significant margin, producing 1.09 points-per-screen over 54 actions in two games, a number that’s equivalent to a Steph Curry pick-and-roll during the regular season. He’s produced 11 points on 10 isolations and Adebayo, getting similar spacing treatment on the block, has eight points on six post-ups. When those two have run a pick-and-roll together, Miami is getting 1.27 points per the entire possession that the action took place in. Not quite as effective as Harden and Embiid together – 1.24 points per screen on double the usage – but points are going on the board.
It also hasn’t quite looked like Miami’s usual offense. Not quite in the same way that the HEAT catapulted Atlanta’s vaunted offense into a different dimension in the first round, but the HEAT’s offense is one built on a balanced, motion-heavy attack, with everyone on the floor a threat in part thanks to the selflessness of lead players like Butler and Adebayo. The 76ers are trying to turn them into selfish players, at least in effect, and for as much as the HEAT are trying to grease the wheels with more complex screening actions and by having the shooters constantly relocating, the offense has been down. In Game 3 they scored just 89.8 points per 100 possessions, and while Game 4 was an improvement the final number was still a below-average 110.2.
Perhaps more telling, in the 16 minutes that Butler has sat over the past two games, Miami’s Offensive Rating has been just 51.7 as the non-Butler minutes have given Philadelphia a chance to stretch the lead in each fourth quarter. And the team’s assist rate with Butler on the floor is sitting at 55.9, down from 63.1 during the regular season.
And yet despite all of this, even with the 76ers making nearly half their threes, the HEAT have had a chance to win each game. Each contest turned on some incredible shot-making in the final period, with Maxey going off in Game 3 and Harden – posting a usage rate over 30 in a postseason game for the first time in two years – owning the end of the clock in Game 4. Through the first three games, Harden was producing just 0.63 points-per-isolation at high volume. Embiid looked more comfortable in Game 4, but he’s still being forced to work incredibly hard to even get a good catch and his own isolations have produced just five points on 10 possessions.
A little more make here and a little more miss there, and the HEAT could have easily taken one of two.
All this means for the series going forward is that each coach, barring further adjustments, have laid out their rules of engagement. Miami has tried to force the ball out of the hands of Philadelphia’s best players, and even with all the made threes the 76ers won on some incredible individual efforts. Philadelphia is trying to take away the HEAT’s best threes, and even with all the misses Butler – and Adebayo in Game 4 – was so good that Miami was right there. Both sides are doing what they intend to do and living with the consequences.
The question for Miami is whether all this takes its toll on Butler, who has had to be rather Herculean. It’s true that the HEAT underperformed their expected effective field-goal percentage from three in Game 4 by more than they have in any other game this season, but they also over-performed their expected efficiency on twos by the fourth-most this year. Make or Miss cuts both ways, and it’s not all about threes.
Still, the HEAT have had enough opportunities to capitalize on even with how they’re being defended. Game 5 could easily a huge perimeter swing, with the HEAT back at home making more of the same threes and the 76ers not getting Danny Green – 10-of-13 from three in two games – toggled into Hunter Killer mode. We could also see both Butler and Harden struggle to make as many shots and others step up in their stead. Miami is probably in pretty good shape if they’re forcing the type of shots they’ve forced in the last two fourth quarters, especially if they can get to that point with a bit of a lead rather than playing from behind. The 76ers might feel the same way on their end.
Maybe Make or Miss really is everything, but each coach has had a major say in who is doing the making and who is doing the missing. Spoelstra and Rivers have set the guidelines. The fun – and the heartbreak and joy, depending on where you sit – of the postseason is not knowing who is going to perform within them.