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The Path to a Prized Possession

What do the Miami HEAT run when they need a crucial, late-game basket?

Erik Spoelstra has been brilliant this season designing plays out of timeout situations, but the answer to that question, Miami’s identity in the flow of the game, likely won’t be easily definable this season. The system is still very much under construction, but in the HEAT’s Game 3 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, we got our best glimpse of the future to date.

Having absorbed yet another burst of energy from the stubbornly determined 76ers, the HEAT ran off a quick six points on three consecutive possessions to take an eight-point lead with just over five minutes to play. Finish strong and they would have the series in a 3-0 vice.

The adage concerning this circumstance happens to hold true more often than not. Miami has great offensive players that can run the most basic sets – isolations or pick-and-rolls – in any situation and manufacture an opportunity to score, whether it’s a dribble-drive to the rim or a pull-up jumper. And with old habits, and countless repetitions, in tow, they return to the well of familiarity.

The predictability of such offense has been often, and rightfully, criticized. But the HEAT have the same criticisms of themselves, and have been working the entire season toward something more. Something, like this:

“I didn’t want us to fall in to the early season temptation to run home runs for Dwyane or LeBron,” Spoelstra said. “It shows you how far we’ve come that we were actually able to execute offense that wasn’t a high-post isolation for either one of them. And we we’re able to do it in a pressure moment.”

Nearly everything the team would want to happen in this situation happens. All three of the All-Stars touch the ball, the floor is reasonably spaced, their best finishers are moving off the ball, and when Dwyane Wade comes off Chris Bosh’s screen, he has options. With two defenders in the paint and two recovering, Wade can either split the help and take the ball to the rim, hit Bosh rolling to his left or lay the ball up for LeBron James, making his second cut of the play having already gone corner-to-corner on a Wade screen.

James gets the ball, the HEAT go up by double-digits and take control of the game that gave them absolute control over the series.

It’s human nature to think this is a simple decision made by the team to run such a play. We think in end products, not in process. We come out of a movie sharing reactions to the experience, not talking about costume design and camera placement. We don’t initially consider the person-to-person meetings required to get a producer in a studio to lay down a single beat for a hit song. With time, appreciation of those details comes, but most moments in sports don’t have the opportunity to age in such a way, especially when they mark the mid-point of development.

In those terms, the above possession began months ago, remarkably after the HEAT had just decimated their December schedule, going 15-1. They had performed effectively and efficiently during that stretch, but not in a sustainable manner. So, instead of relying on an offense of ease and individualism, Spoelstra began spending more time with half-court offense. And at first, with practices spent repeating the same half-court reads and reactions, things got worse.

“It was very, very tough in the beginning. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work,” Bosh said.

“As much as we wanted to fight it, it was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if this is going to work. We’re not getting anything out of it.’”

What made things even more difficult was that Miami didn’t have the benefit of relative anonymity. They were facing teams that treated them like former champions, playing to or above their defensive capacity, all while in the infant stages of an increasingly complex offense. At times, the same Game 3 set worked, but broken plays and frustration persisted. Still, Spoelstra ran corner sets – a cousin of sorts to the famed triangle offense – dribble hand-offs and timing-reliant stacked screens. He asked for more, and when the team dropped five consecutive games in early March, the team realized why.

“When we had the five-game setback, we were honest with ourselves,” Spoelstra said. “I think everyone collectively understood that our half-court execution was not going to get it done against the best teams in the league. We were going to have to address it, spend a lot more time on it and be a lot more disciplined a diligent about it. That’s probably when the real progress was made.”

Progress, but not achievement. There was, and still is, plenty of practice tedium ahead, plenty of failures yet to be realized in order to capitalize on the opportunity at hand.

“To get to that precision, it’s tough. You’re going to have to go through some down times,” Bosh said. “We were struggling with it early because nobody really knew how to read, nobody knew each other, nobody knew the offense, everything was brand new.

“It was hard to do. But it worked out. Now we’re to the point that we can really execute.”

That’s the key. Though it will not always happen, they can do it enough that Spoelstra can feel comfortable calling for execution-heavy sets in situations as both late March and Game 3. And with this most recent success comes satisfaction, months after the initial resistance and frustration.

“It was worth it,” Bosh said.

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