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Turning Defense Into Offense

Everyone wants the Miami HEAT to run. The players. The coaches. The fans. The guy at the sports bar who looks up at the game every ten or fifteen minutes. Your daughter who just learned dunk doesn’t just apply to cookies. Probably your dog, too.

Everyone wants the HEAT to run because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the open court is one of the two or three most thrilling prospects the NBA has to offer. Even when they fail to score, you’re rarely disappointed. Even failures border on the spectacular.

The team isn’t constantly searching for entertainment value, though. The team is searching for easy opportunities, to provide relief to playoff grind of half-court offense. For efficiency. And the team knows that those things don’t come free.

“We want to play more in the open court, but it’s a whole lot easier said than done,” Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to get stops and you have to corral and make sure you secure the rebound.”

With that in mind, with the pace and space principles set firmly in place by Spoelstra, the season started swimmingly. Teams had just come off a shortened training camp, turnovers came in bunches and transition defenses were far from perfect. The HEAT averaged 24.3 fast-break points per game in the first four contests of the season before settling in around 16 per game in January.

Then began the downward trend. Fast-break points dropped steadily, from 16.2 to 15.8, then to 12.6 in March. In 16 April regular season games, the HEAT averaged 7.7 points in transition. It wasn’t that they were missing shots – these are dunk, layups and free-throws we’re mostly talking about – it’s that they weren’t getting the shots. Wade was in and out of the lineup, the defense took a dip and so did the opportunities.

“It doesn’t matter what our final fast break numbers are as long as we get attempts,” Shane Battier said. “If we get attempts, we’re going to get our fair share of free throws, we’re going to convert our fair share.”

Battier is, of course, using the royal “we”. He’s not the one sprinting down the wings and finishing layups or dunks, but that doesn’t make him any less crucial to the running game, especially in Miami’s series with the Indiana Pacers, in which the HEAT now hold a 3-2 advantage after winning Game 5, 115-83. A game won on the shoulders of Miami’s defense and, by association, 22 fast-break points.

For the first time in the series, Miami’s best lineup was its starting lineup, featuring Battier and Ronny Turiaf alongside Wade, James and Mario Chalmers. The group outscored Indiana by 13 points, which, other than the fact that these were the starters and the HEAT had been getting off to such slow starts, was no surprise. Putting James at the four spot has routinely produced the best results against a taller Pacers team, but it’s Battier that ends up defending the opposing power forward, David West, more often than not. It’s Battier that makes that lineup purr.

Between West and Carmelo Anthony, Battier has never been asked to play this much fronting defense in his career, but there he is, bumping West off his spots every possession, making every possible entry pass miserable for Indiana’s perimeter players. As long as the requisite help defender is in position behind him, Battier angles his way in front of West. If the pass is thrown, Battier re-positions himself for post defense and does his best not to give up any ground.

“He’s tough. I’m working my tail off. He’s a lot stronger than me,” Battier said. “I’m giving up about forty pounds on him. So I have to really sharp in my angles, in my work. I have to be really intelligent because I’m at a disadvantage. But like every good player in this league, you just make them work and live with tough shots that are made.”

Through five games, West is shooting just a tick above 40 percent. In the last two games, Miami wins, he’s 8-of-21. More often than not, when West is shooting, he’s missing. When another Pacer is missing, Battier does his best to keep West off the boards. And if Battier makes Miami’s smaller lineups viable enough for long enough that Frank Vogel goes to a smaller lineup as well, then rebounding becomes easier overall.

When James and Wade are in the mode they were in for Game 5, easy rebounding – as much the result of good defensive process as a made shot is for the offense – becomes easy offense.

“We were really active on the boards,” Battier. “This series is about rebounding. That’s the bottom line. The team that’s won the rebounding battle has won every game. When we rebound good things happen for us. This series boils down to one stat.”

The Pacers might have only turned the ball over nine times in Game 5, but they also missed 59 shots and Miami grabbed 49 defensive boards, getting at least a pair from every player that was on the court for at least 10 minutes, including a career-high 11 from Chalmers.

Our game doesn’t really change too much off of misses,” Spoelstra said. “We want to play fast. We want to play with force. We want to play aggressively in the open court. We have to get the stops.”

From those changes in possession, Miami generated 20 transition opportunities, getting points out of 13 of them. The points themselves you’ll see in the highlights. Here are some of the defensive possessions that led to those fast-break points.

“The one thing we want to do is continue to defend,” James said. “When we defend and we rebound, we’re a very good team. It’s always been a good thing for us. When we rebound, it allows us to get into our break and make some plays before the defense is set. We’ve been doing a good job at that of late.”

“It’s what we continue to say: If we get stops, we’re able to get rebounds, they crash a lot of guys, so we’re able to get out and go,” added Wade.

A few things to focus on here:

-Rebound positioning is key. Both James and Wade play the probabilities when it comes time to decide whether to run out on the wing. They don’t always have to know that their team has collected the ball, but they have to believe there is a high percentage chance of a HEAT player corralling the rebound before they leak out into transition. It’s a similar relationship between gambling in passing lanes and playing straight up on defense. Players have to make the reads and weigh the risks and rewards of each situation within split-moments. Run the other direction too early, and that tipped rebound becomes an advantage possession for the other team.

But when James or Wade is confident that Miami will end up with the ball, they are off like bullets. Give the video another watch and focus solely on those two when the shot is in the air.

-When it’s Miami ball, every player is looking for Wade or James, and the first place they look is up the court. Chalmers in particular has had very nice court awareness for the finishers and tossed a couple of tough, crisp go-ahead passes that made sure a full-court sprint wasn’t wasted.

-As with everything in basketball, there is a bit of luck involved, no matter how much the HEAT want to get out into space. It’s easy to underestimate the time it takes for a big man to find a ballhandler for an outlet after a rebound, and tipped passes and long rebounds aren’t always going to fall right into a point guard’s hands, kick-starting an immediate break.

-You can nudge luck in your favor, however, by forcing the offense into bad shots. Though those shots can lead to equally bad rebounds, that unpredictability can cost an offensive player that chooses to chase the miss, particularly when you have players as adept as Wade and James at reading the ball.

-Pushing the ball up the floor doesn’t always have to result in a shot opportunity, especially as teams adjust and keep more players back (making it easier for Miami to rebound). But the faster the ball hits the offensive zone, the less time a defense has to settle. Chances are, if you’ve pressured the defense with athletes, there will be a few defenders out of place, mismatches, right off the bat. That alone means a higher probability of scoring.

-Secondary breaks always seem to play a huge role the playoffs simply because transition defenses are better. The ball might get stopped, but in the scramble to get back it’s very difficult to account for that trailing shooter – you’ve seen Paul Pierce and Ray Allen do this often – running up to the arc on the wing. Three of Battier’s four threes came in the secondary break in Game 5.

-This is nothing new for Miami, but if the ball gets stopped, Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf both sprint right at the ballhandler to set a screen for a possible quick-hitter. Wade drew a foul on one of these plays in the second half, and James had a turnover that almost hit Turiaf for a dunk on the roll.

It’s important to reinforce the fact that fast-breaks rely almost entirely on defense. You can choose to run, but you still need live-ball turnovers, missed shots and relatively clean rebounds.

“It’s tough to play at the pace that we would like to in the playoffs,” Spoelstra said. “That’s just the reality of this second season, for everybody. Usually the scores come down and it’s tough to get fastbreak opportunities. We know it’s our strength. Everybody else knows it is our strength, but we have to commit to being able to defend and rebound.”

You’ll often hear that it’s remarkably difficult to beat the HEAT when they run as much as they did in Game 5, but perhaps what we should say instead is that it’s remarkably difficult to beat the HEAT when they defend like they did in Game 5.

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