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Prized Possession: Patience at Play

Prized Possession has been a versatile storytelling tool all season. Piece a handful of them together and you have a film strip for Miami’s offensive journey in the halfcourt. Others have simply highlighted a new wrinkle here or a play there that keeps showing up in fourth quarters. Some were one-offs, plays unlikely to be seen again, but deserving of a place in the archives.

Many, however, were able to illustrate the key points of a game within the span of a single possession. This fourth-quarter sequence, hardly the prime example of execution or playcalling ingenuity, from Game 1 of the NBA Finals, did just that.

To set the stage, the HEAT lead the Dallas Mavericks by three with seven minutes to play, DeShawn Stevenson having just hit his second three-pointer of the game. Dallas wouldn’t score for the next three-and-a-half minutes after that shot. The game begged for Miami to seize control.

We begin with LeBron James taking the ball out of bounds on the sidelines following a foul on Chris Bosh as he was cutting baseline. The possession has already been extended by Udonis Haslem grabbing an offensive rebound.

No gimmicks are at work. With Dallas having to choose either Jason Terry or Stevenson to guard James, and the HEAT having been posting James on Stevenson at any opportunity – including the second play of the game, when he hit a fallaway jumper – Miami sets up in their usual high-post set, Dwyane Wade clears the corner and James get the ball with his back-to-the-basket.

James owns the size advantage here, and at any time he could shoot over the top of Stevenson as he did in the first quarter, when he made 1-of-2. But therein lies the danger of the Dallas matchups. When the HEAT utilize their big, no-point lineups, they will always have a size advantage. Shots will present themselves all series over defenders that cannot deign to block the attempt. Those shots will also present themselves early, as one did here, and however tempting it is to pounce on the easy-looking look, there is no process.

And in a series of defensive scraps and long television timeouts, where offensive rhythm will be at a premium, if the HEAT set aside their process for early looks – due either to mismatches or hero shots – too often, the overall product will suffer.

It’s simple business. Sacrifice short-term gains for long-term dividends.

By the fourth quarter, the HEAT have seen the matchups, and the shots, that they’ll be presented with, and are now exercising patience, as James does here.

Note also the spacing on the floor. All five Mavericks have at least a foot in the paint. If Miami stands around, they will be at the mercy of LeBron’s ability.

So, they cut. Though Dallas is in man-to-man, they are utilizing the zone principles Erik Spoelstra spoke of before the series, loading the strong side with a second defender, Terry. This leaves three Mavericks to account for four Miami players, Kidd splitting Wade and Mike Miller. And when Miller sees Kidd turn his head, he goes baseline, creeping up behind Tyson Chandler.

Because Chandler is a very astute anchor, he slides in front of Miller. At the same time, Wade cuts at an angle through the paint, bringing Kidd with him and forcing Nowitzki to shade down.

Without the ball moving an inch, the HEAT have effectively collapsed the defense as the help takes the bait, leaving James with two options, Bosh at the top of the key, or Haslem across the paint. Either one would be an open mid-range jumper. James opts for Haslem.

The shot is off, but here’s where Miami has an edge that Dallas may not have the personnel to smooth out. Dallas’ best backcourt players are Kidd, Terry and Jose Juan Barea. None of whom are over 6-foot-4. Miami’s size alone ensures that the Mavericks cannot play more than two of them at a time, which means more second-half playing time for Stevenson. This means a HEAT lineup that goes 6-4, 6-8, 6-8 is matched up with a Dallas backcourt that goes 6-2, 6-4, 6-5.

With the Mavericks already in help, whether they’re zoning or not, that’s a major advantage on the offensive boards. And with Nowitzki out of position – baseline jumpers are far more likely to bounce long than back in the direction they came from – Kidd is left fending off Wade and Miller, who nabs the extra possessions.

The HEAT reset.

Because Nowitzki had gone to the glass with Bosh in spot-up position, Bosh now has Terry on him in the high post. Another mismatch acting the siren, luring the taller player in with a comforting tone.

Most observers see this sort of pairing and assume the proper play is for the larger player to back his man down, whether it’s Bosh on Terry or Wade on Barea. Sometimes that’s true, but people have been trying to muscle smaller players their entire lives. They’re used to it, they understand leverage, they have the quickness to avoid a quick spin move and if the big brings the ball down for a dribble, their quick hands will terrorize.

So, unless Bosh wants to try to back down a 6-foot-4 door stop, the shot available to him is the jumper.

Just as with James and Stevenson, the ballhandler elects patience with the shot clock in his favor, Bosh’s height giving him a clear vantage over the entire floor. This makes defenders nervous as they stand, watching an out-of-position teammate. All four heads turn to watch the ball at once, and when Chandler thinks he has released a slow-cutting Haslem to Nowitzki -- while also having to maintain help position for Terry and get a foot out of the paint to avoid a defensive violation -- Haslem simply flashes to the ball and reaps the rewards, putting the HEAT up six.

One full possession in an 86-possession game, and the HEAT show their patience with mismatches, lineup advantages on the glass and willingness to move off the ball. To borrow a few buzzwords from Spoelstra, winning habits as part of a winning process.

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