When is the right time to gamble?
Is it when you’re down in the last minute of the fourth quarter? Is it when you’re leading in overtime? Is it when a post player is turned away from you? Is it with the ball trapped in the corner and an open man at the top of the key?
If you’re Dwyane Wade, the answer is yes.
The odds are against the Miami HEAT defeating the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday night were it not for Wade’s defensive risk taking. His rude interruption of the passing lane between Vince Carter and Darren Collison in overtime pushed Miami up seven with three minutes to play, but without a rogue double team of Dirk Nowitzki with the HEAT down three in the final minute of regulation, there likely would have been no overtime. Each steal led to easy, efficient points. Each steal was crucial.
On the other hand, each steal marked a complete break from Miami’s defensive scheme. And each play on the ball could easily have led to open, ship-sinking shots for the Mavericks. It’s called gambling for a reason, and like tough, contested off-dribble shots taken at the end of games, we shouldn’t judge the decision based on its success or failure when one outcome was more likely than the other.
The question is, then, when are the odds in your favor – and were they ever in Wade’s?
Let’s put aside the question of whether it’s better to have a chaos-dealer in your defensive garrison or to simply have five men play straight-up, fundamental defense. We’ll get to that in a bit. First, Wade’s steals – we’ll call them his even though the first was credited to LeBron James.
To set the stage, Nowitzki has just nailed a pair of free throws to put Dallas up three followed by James missing at the rim. Vince Carter brings the ball up and bounces around for a few seconds before twisting himself off a Nowitzki screen. As James is meant to do, he jumps out on Carter, but he jumps too far – likely gambling for the steal himself – and Nowitzki draws the help of Ray Allen. James recovers well onto O.J. Mayo, but the damage of James’ gamble and the pick-and-roll is done: Nowitzki gets to back down Allen.
This is what Wade is looking at:
The first thing to note is that while Wade has been watching Nowitzki the entire time, he has turned to check on Carter twice and appropriately sunk into the lane as Carter spread out to the wing. He’s cheating off Carter, but he’s mitigating that risk by sitting directly in the passing lane. His positioning has allowed him to key in on Nowitzki. And Nowitzki, who is more than a little deliberate with this post-up so far from the rim likely because of the mismatch with Allen, has his back turned to two-thirds of the floor.
Notice the shot clock as well. While this may not have played into Wade’s eventual action, the shorter the shot clock the tougher it is for an offense to take advantage of a hard double team. If the help is ready and waiting behind you – leaving the open shot more than one pass away – then time will be on your side.
Wade also has James waiting to Nowitzki’s right, which perhaps lends to an expectation that Nowitzki will have to spin middle sooner rather than later to get a shot off.
So, with Nowitzki turned away from the middle of the floor, James’ presence pushing Nowitzki back the other direction and the clock on Miami’s side, Wade pounces – making a read from what Erik Spoelstra called ‘The Nowitzki Rules’ leftover from the NBA Finals. The ball is tipped free, James gathers and tosses the go-ahead pass and Wade gives Allen the layup. The HEAT shrinks the lead to one with more than a shot clock remaining.
The result is positive, but here’s the risk Wade’s gamble creates as he moves in on Nowitzki – who, again, already has a mismatch because James went steal-hunting on Carter:
With Wade closing in and James’ attention on the ball, both Mayo and Carter are allowed free lanes to the rim – Mayo starting from the corner and Carter from the right wing. If Wade misses the ball and Nowitzki is able to turn and face the rim, he has two players streaking to space and a height advantage over his newfound pair of defenders.
If Wade misses and Nowitzki gets a pass off, the Mavericks get to play 4-on-2 for a few precious moments with time for two passes left on the clock.
“Looking at the ball, kind of seeing a situation and seeing his movement, you can tell if [Wade’s] going to go,” Bosh said. You just try to have his back.”
That’s the risk Wade takes. Get the steal and Miami has a much higher chance of winning. Whiff and the game has a much higher chance of being over within seconds. Don’t gamble at all, however, and the percentages rest somewhere in the middle.
Let’s look at the second steal, when Wade put the HEAT up seven with three minutes to play in overtime:
Collison begins the possession as the ballhandler and after going away from a Nowitzki screen, he has his forward momentum stymied by Allen. James comes over to help again, and when Nowitzki slips into the paint, Shane Battier makes a short slide over to help, leaving Carter open for a pass on the wing.
Carter makes a move to attack the baseline, but he slips, the HEAT trap and the floor looks as such:
Again, Dallas is working with a short shot clock. Carter has lost his dribble, and with James sliding in front of Nowitzki without fouling as Bosh retreats to the paint – cutting off a potential pass to Shawn Marion – Carter is left without many options.
Carter sees Collison first, but Allen makes a move in that direction and Carter hesitates. Having seemingly given up on trying to get the ball to Nowitzki with James in the area, Carter has one option left – other than hoisting a bad shot or taking the dead-ball turnover, which would have been preferable in retrospect – and Wade knows it.
“Vince was in the corner and he didn’t have many options,” Wade said. “So, I saw him look, then he turned his back and I knew he was going to throw it because [Mayo] was open for a minute.”
The move is made.
If Wade hits nothing but air, Mayo gets to choose (with minimal time) between an open three and a driving lane. That happens and maybe Dallas is only down two with three minutes to go. But the percentages here are heavily in Wade’s favor simply because Carter’s pass is so poor and Wade, making as good a read as you can expect, gets the perfect jump on the ball. It’s not a no-doubt play, but Wade wasn’t doubting.
“I know I had a pretty good break on the ball,” Wade said. “If I don’t come up with that one, then it’s not meant to be. Sometimes you go for them and you might not go exactly when you think about going. You might hesitate a little bit then you go and you miss it. I was kind of in front of him so I knew I could get them.”
“I call it gambling for me, but he’s one of those guys, when he’s going he knows he’s going to get the ball,” Bosh added. “It’s just a unique skill that he has. He reads it like he’s a cornerback in football.”
That confidence had a profound effect on this game, but not just in the successful steals shown above. Wade’s approach to defense isn’t only on display when things go well, and the team has often tried to find the right balance. Two seasons ago the HEAT lost a regular-season game against Chicago when Wade cheated off the strong-side corner and left Luol Deng wide open for three. Last year the HEAT were giving up more corner-three attempts per game than is acceptable, so they tightened things up – which included having Wade staying home and staying safe more often.
Even in the Dallas game, Wade wasn’t perfect. In talking over defensive philosophy, Battier, who half-jokingly claims to have never gambled on a steal in his life, recalled a possession a few minutes earlier in the fourth when Wade took a similar risk.
This is what the floor looked like on that play. Collison had a step on Udonis Haslem after coming off a pick-and-roll and Battier has come across the paint to provide help, leaving Wade to deal with a two-on-one on the weakside.
Wade jumps the lane in anticipation of a pass to Elton Brand, the ball instead finds its way, slowly, to Mayo in the corner. Mayo hits it and the Mavericks go up six with four minutes to play.
“He guessed [Collison] was going to throw it to the top of the key and not the corner and that’s where a gamble bites you in the butt,” Battier said. “Versus being solid, playing it halfway in the middle and then the pass goes and you play the pass.
“In certain situations you can get away with it. Some guys have instincts. Dwyane has instincts. He’s going to make some spectacular plays. He’s going to make some plays where you’re like, ‘D, What are you doing?’”
There’s a philosophical difference here, but it isn’t tension-fueled. Battier’s position on defense is clear:
“I believe in ground wars. I believe in position. I think over time that wins,” Battier said.
We also know Wade -- who said he wasn't allowed to hunt for steals his first season under Pat Riley -- is constantly scanning the field, assessing risk. And that might be why this team’s defense, when operating at full capacity, fits so well together. Battier believes in fundamentals in their most pure form, but Erik Spoelstra doesn’t have his team running the most fundamental defensive scheme. There is risk built into what the HEAT are supposed to do, everything is predicated on being aggressive on pick-and-rolls and delving deep into layers of help rotations. Spoelstra wants to put pressure on the other team, and as committed as the team is to process and forcing tough shots, there’s something to be said for injecting a dose of unpredictability into things to take full advantage of that pressure.
“We want our guys being aggressive,” Spoelstra said. “They’re playmakers. Sometimes you’ll get exposed by that, but when you’re doing it properly, it’s a calculated gamble rather than an unnecessary half-hearted gamble that leads to a broken down defense.”
Then again, if Wade doesn’t make the gamble that leads to the Mayo three, are the HEAT still down three in the final minute of the game – and does he still need to double Nowitzki?
We’re still years away from fully understanding how defense works. We’re going to keep learning as more teams adopt the STATS SportVU cameras – which use missile-tracking technology – and eventually that information might be able to tell us Wade’s success rate in jumping a little out of position, and also tell Wade which defensive context offers him the best odds. For now, we know that you probably can’t have five players on the floor flying around out of position and that positional defense is the safe percentage-based play.
Maybe someday we’ll discover that there is a different ideal, that installing an Agent of Chaos amid four other fundamental defenders leads to more efficient process. Until then, though, we’re left to appreciate Wade’s top-tier instincts, and occasionally scratch our heads.