When Chicago Cut Off the Corner

The Miami HEAT’s issue du jour is the offensive rebounds and second-chance possessions they are allowing opponents to obtain, and it’s something that needs to be fixed. It’s not a fix that requires drastic change, however, only the simple – and for observers, slightly boring – acceptance that the players on the floor can do things better than they are already doing. Just as every player is capable of making smart, timely help rotations on defense, every player of every shape and size is capable of boxing out.

As Erik Spoelstra said after the loss, those missed box-outs were the primary cause of the Miami’s record-altering evening, but the HEAT didn’t just beat themselves. They were defeated by math.

The Chicago Bulls are a wonderful defensive team, composed of players capable of executing Tom Thibodeau’s brilliant defensive scheme. But much of what makes his scheme so effective isn’t all that complex. Thibodeau recognizes what sectors of the offensive side of the floor are the most efficient for teams to shoot from, and he strives to close off those sectors with a moat, a wall and some really prickly shrubbery.

As expertly explained by ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh this week, the most efficient of those sectors is the corner three. No shot is worth more points and because the distance to the rim in the corner is shorter than above the break in the three-point arc, no high-value shot is easier to hit. Miami has one of the league’s most efficient offenses this season largely because they take, and make, more corner threes than any other team.

In short, the corner three is the best non-dunk shot possible and it makes Miami successful. Thibodeau knows this, and he wants Miami to fail.

So, when you see Shane Battier passing up seemingly wide-open threes in the last five minutes of a close game, it isn’t because the twelve-year veteran suddenly developed a phobia of shooting. It’s a collision of the minds.

Miami doesn’t just walk up the floor and casually pass the ball to the corner to earn their efficiency. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have to attack the middle of the floor, bodies have to move, the defense has to react, and multiple players have to make smart, snappy passes to the next player down the chain. Over and over this season, James has driven the lane after turning the corner on a pick-and-roll, the defense shifts, he finds an open wing player and the ball is conveyed to the corner.

Friday night, the Bulls took that away.

“We’ve had that so much this year. It was kind of shocking to not get it tonight,” Battier said.

On the first possession, Miami is down six with just over four minutes to play. Coming down in transition, Wade probes the middle of the floor, meets resistance and flees to the wing where James meets him with a screen. The pair of HEAT players are met by four Bulls defenders, and Wade sees the floor as such:

Battier is open and makes his openness known with a raised hand, so Wade hits him with a tough, fading jump-pass. Only Jimmy Butler is left on the weakside of the floor to make a closeout. The HEAT, essentially, have a two-on-one.

In part because it’s human nature to chase the ball, in part because this is the way defenses have long operated, most teams would – and have – close out on Battier here. He is wide open, he is a good three-point shooter, and Chicago can’t afford to give up threes with a two-possession lead.

But Battier, a career .383 three-point shooter, is less efficient from that spot – like the rest of the world. He shoots 41.4 percent in the corners but just 34.9 above the break. And that’s Ray Allen sitting in the left corner – where he shoots 43.6 percent – ready and waiting for the shot that Battier calls the most efficient in league history. Battier’s instincts are to calculate efficiency, and he makes the move to pass to the efficient spot.

Instead, Thibodeau uses Battier’s brain against him.

Butler doesn’t close out on the open shooter. He tracks the ball in the air and shifts immediately to cover the Allen in the corner. This isn’t the case of a second-year player acting on his own. This is the result of planning and preparation. Thibodeau has trained his players to attack the corners, and for that the players allow the fewest corner-three attempts in the league.

In this case, Butler’s movement freezes Battier, who is caught pulling back on the pass, off balance with his momentum move in the direction of the intended pass. He may be open for another moment, but this is no longer a good shot – go find a hoop and try it for yourself, catching, faking a hard pass in one direction and then setting yourself to shoot.

“That’s what messed me up,” Battier said. “We’ve had so many times where there is attention on LeBron, Chris and Dwyane that the weakside is usually open. So when I caught the ball, I tied to swing the corner right away and Ray wasn’t open. So after that my rhythm was off. That’s a bad shot for me to take, not in rhythm.”

A few minutes later, the same thing happened again. Battier finds himself on the wing, open, with Miami down five.

Kirk Hinrich isn’t even pretending to be ready to help off of Allen. The Bulls are conceding a huge chunk of space in the middle of the floor – they’re allowed to do this in large part because Joakim Noah can cover so much ground – just so Allen doesn’t get to take the shot that has buried so many teams this season.

But Battier’s instincts get the better of him, and again he makes the catch and torques his body for the swing pass in one movement.

By the time Battier, who doesn’t have the quickest shot release, recoils and gets back on balance, Noah has completed the closeout. Battier is fighting the unselfish, efficient fight, but Friday night his TI-83 Plus was trumped when Thibodeau showed up with a T-1000.

The good news for the HEAT is that this isn’t likely to catch Battier or the rest of the team off guard again, as Battier agreed that in a playoff series, with time allotted for scouting and watching video of this very game, he would likely be prepared enough to just take the open shots as it comes to him. The offensive boards allowed by Miami is another, entirely fixable, issue, but Thibodeau won a few key possessions Friday night, and for that you can do nothing but tip your cap and calculate another day.

Statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com