The Story of Sustainability
Miami's Shooting Could Make Charlotte Change, But They Have Other Ways to Win
Jesse D. Garrabrant
There’s no rational explanation for how well the Miami HEAT are shooting against the Charlotte Hornets. But let’s try anyway.
First, they put up the single most efficient offensive game in franchise history in Game 1, scoring 1.42 points per possession. A great performance, but one ripe for a visit from the Regression Fairy. But instead of coming out in Game 2 shooting like, you know, a normal basketball team, they shoot 74.4 percent in the first half. Through the first two games of any playoff series in any round, the HEAT have the highest effective field-goal percentage (63.4). Ever.
The Regression Fairy must have stopped off to see that Snow White and the Huntsman sequel which doesn’t actually have Snow White in it and nobody really asked for. But we digress.
It’s natural that, in today’s Age of Sports Math, we eventually react to abnormal shooting performances like this with a, ‘Well, they can’t possibly keep this up.’ And that’s fair. If the HEAT continue like this over the course of an entire series, they’re essentially denying gravity its purpose.
“I know and understand that this is fool’s gold,” Joe Johnson said.
We just can’t penalize them for it. Erik Spoelstra’s team isn’t destined for one of the worst shooting nights ever as some sort of comeuppance. They could score at an average rate in Charlotte or fall somewhere on either side of the spectrum. They just can’t expect to continue shooting this well. You have to be able to win in other ways.
“On the road we have to win defensively,” Dwyane Wade said. “We can’t expect to take this same offensive game on the road. If that ever happens, praise God. Thank you. But we can’t expect it at all. We have to win these games with defense, and our defense has to be better.”
We’ll get to that in a moment. First, what this shooting means for the Hornets.
If you followed the HEAT during their four-straight trips to the NBA Finals then at some point you probably heard Spoelstra say, ‘Trust the process’. Usually it was in response to being asked about the team’s defense. Miami would be playing its aggressive brand of ball pressure and they would get beat with ball movement and three pointers. People would say that and think the HEAT needed to change everything they do, their entire defensive identity, in response.
Spoelstra certainly had that option, but instead the team would always come back and try to do what they always do – just better. Judging by the results, it worked out fairly well.
That’s the position Steve Clifford finds himself in now. Like Miami’s current scheme, the Hornets want to keep you away from the rim, out of the paint and shooting as many pullup jumpers as possible. Apart from some breakdowns, many related to the changes they did make to their scheme, in the paint that have let Hassan Whiteside get look after look at the rim, Charlotte is accomplishing most of what its scheme intends to accomplish.
Miami is just making damn near everything. Contested, off the dribble, in generally inefficient zones? It hasn’t mattered.
So does Clifford change things up? He explained, quite politely, after the game.
“Not to be disrespectful,” Clifford said. “But you guys, you watch these games and come up like something’s got to change. Sometimes you just have to do the basic things better. Which is what basketball is. It kills me. Jeff Van Gundy always used to say, ‘Writers like to say they made an adjustment.’ Sometimes the adjustment is one guy who went 1-for-8 went 6-for-8.
“We’ve got to keep the ball out of the middle. We’ve got to be cleaner with our basic coverages. We’ve got to make [sure] that we’re not turning the ball over and stay organized on offense. It’s not all these great ideas or things that have to change or this plan is terribly wrong. Sometimes a team just makes shots. That’s really what’s going on.”
Like Spoelstra in past years and many, many other successful coaches, Clifford is probably right. It’s not to say Charlotte won’t make changes, just that Miami’s results don’t necessitate that they do. To further illustrate his point, Clifford offered up some of the shotmaking of Goran Dragic.
In order to keep the ball out of the paint and induce jumpers off the dribble, the Hornets will often have the guard being screened go underneath that pick and then recover to the ball – a different look than Miami’s defenders fighting over and through screens. With Dragic, Charlotte is well aware that he’s one of the best attacking and finishing guards in the league (65.3 percent at the rim) – and that he’s also shot just 29.4 percent (20-of-68) on pullup threes this season. Logically, you want him shooting off the dribble.
So, with Charlotte going under screens, Dragic shot the shots their defense wants him to take. And made them anyways.
“You can’t take away everything,” Clifford said. “My point would be this, that’s not their strength. Is Dragic a guy that’s capable of making threes? Yes he is. Is that what you want him doing versus driving the ball to the basket? Yes it is. On the nights when he makes 3-for-3, they’re probably going to win. That’s the way basketball works.”
The issue for Charlotte was that, while trusting your process and your scheme makes a ton of sense from game-to-game, when a player is draining threes on you – including back-to-back shots in the second period – it’s remarkably tough to keep doing the same thing in the moment.
Charlotte changed. It’s not clear whether it was a coaching move or something the players started doing, but as soon as Dragic hit those back-to-back threes, the defenders started going over the top of his screens.
“Dragic hit three threes tonight, all against the under, all step-back threes,” Clifford said. “And then we started going over the top. When you go over the top he’s in the paint more. If you look at him as a three-point shooter from above the break, you go into most games saying if he’s going to shoot step-back jumpers from above the break you can live with that. When he makes two and he’s got it going, you have to change.”
And that change eventually opened things up even more for Dragic. With defenders going over the top and effectively chasing Dragic from behind, he was afforded gaps to get to the rim…
Or, if help had to come over on the drive, Dragic made the read for an open three.
“What we talked about at halftime is this, you can’t overreact,” Clifford said. “You have to stay disciplined to what they’re doing. Dragic make three threes against the under, and then all the sudden we’re overextended and giving up driving gaps.”
Whether or not it was a team-wide decision to change the coverage or if players just naturally reacted to the shots Dragic was hitting, this is the ultimate benefit of Miami’s extraordinary shooting performances (aside from the wins, which are nice for them). The HEAT have done something so well, and so against type, that the Hornets now have to spend two days questioning what has been so successful for them this year.
They might know that the HEAT aren’t going to keep shooting this well, but it’s impossible to really know. Like the rest of us, they have to make as educated a guess as possible. There may be no correct answer, but they have to find the best one for them.
In the meantime, the HEAT unveiled a look late in Game 2 that may be just as important as their shooting has to date. As Wade said earlier, they’ll eventually have to win a game with their defense – a defense that has so far given up 106.7 points per 100 possessions in each of the first two games.
“You have to win games in different ways in the playoffs,” Spoelstra said. “When we move up to Charlotte, we have to expect to try and win it and compete in a different way.
“That doesn’t have to be our model,” he added later. “Look, it’s great if we’re making threes, but that’s not what we tried to build our offense around.”
Despite the HEAT’s offensive special effects the Hornets were hanging around throughout Game 2. Kemba Walker was a terror in the pick-and-roll and Al Jefferson was doing Al Jefferson things to the max in the post. Even with Marvin Williams struggling and Nicolas Batum eventually leaving the game with an ankle injury, the Hornets were showing why they were one of the league’s better offenses.
Miami kept its opponent at bay long enough to when Charlotte, 1-of-16 from three as the Hornets were again far below their averages not just for makes but for attempts, was going to have to start hitting from deep in order to eat chunks out of the lead. So Clifford inserted Spencer Hawes at center to spread the floor as much as possible.
Here’s where we mention that even though the HEAT have a fairly conservative base defense – while still fighting through screens – with their big men involved, they have a number of highly versatile defenders on the perimeter. Which means if they so choose they have the ability to switch everything with those players and keep the ball in front and stationary – a defensive tactic that took Golden State to the Promised Land last year.
With Charlotte relying a fair amount on pick-and-pop threes for Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminksky and, when he plays, Hawes, Miami can just switch those actions to shut them down entirely.
“They’re switching and they switch on Marvin and Frank’s pick-and-rolls which is their primary way to get shots,” Clifford said.
While the Hornets consider whether to change things up to counter Miami's shooting, the HEAT can go ahead and preemptively change the way they can win.