Playoffs 2020 | East Finals: (3) Celtics vs. (5) Heat
Film Study: Miami Heat's offense continues to be a handful for playoff defenses
Up 3-1, Heat are finding creative ways to score against Celtics
When we notice energy and effort on the basketball court, it’s usually on the defensive end of the floor. A chase-down block. A move-your-feet, one-on-one stop. A deflection and save. Multiple rotations on the same possession.
But energy and effort can be just as critical on the other side of the ball. And it was clearly visible in the Miami Heat’s offense in their 112-109 victory in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Rookie Tyler Herro was the star as the Heat took a 3-1 series lead, scoring 37 points on 14-for-21 shooting off the bench. And this wasn’t a Klay Thompson, catch-and-shoot performance; Eight of Herro’s 14 field goals were unassisted, with the highlights being a transition drive past Jayson Tatum and a deep, step-back 3 over Marcus Smart.
But Herro was less an offense to himself and more an outstanding cog in a system that wears a defense down and eventually creates open shots, lanes to the basket, or mismatches than can be taken advantage of.
Much has been made (including once, twice in this space) about the Celtics’ ups and downs against the Miami zone. Game 4 saw the most zone of the series thus far (the Heat used it for almost the entire second half), and Boston’s 19 turnovers were a significant issue in the loss.
But the Celtics have scored more efficiently in three of their four games in this series than they did in all but one of their seven games against the Toronto Raptors. Lament Jayson Tatum’s scoreless first half or Marcus Smart shooting 1-for-8 from 3-point range, but 109 points on 96 possessions should be enough to win a playoff game for a team with a top-five defense. The issue is that top-five defense can’t keep up with the opponent.
Before the series started, Celtics coach Brad Stevens didn’t just acknowledge that Miami would be tougher to defend than the Raptors, who were a possession or two away from beating Boston in the conference semifinals. Stevens put the Heat in elite company.
“This is probably the closest team in the East that we’ve seen to the Warriors,” Stevens said, “with regard to their cutting and shooting.”
With changes in the starting lineup — Kendrick Nunn and Meyers Leonard out, Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder in — there’s been more cutting and shooting in the playoffs than there was in the regular season, when the Heat ranked seventh offensively, scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions. They’ve only scored 1.1 more per 100 in the postseason (113.0), but they’ve done it against three of the league’s top six defenses.
In the first round, the Heat scored 5.2 more points per 100 possessions than the Indiana Pacers’ sixth-ranked defense allowed in the regular season. In the conference semifinals, the Heat scored 11.1 more points per 100 possessions than the Milwaukee Bucks’ top-ranked defense allowed in the first round. And in this series, the Heat have scored 13.1 more points per 100 possessions than the Celtics’ fourth-ranked defense allowed in the conference semis.
This is a difficult team to defend, even for the league’s best defenses. Herro may have had a huge game on Wednesday, but there’s no trying to take away one option against the Heat. Through four games, six guys on the Heat are averaging double-figures, with four averaging between 18.8 and 21.8 points per contest.
Guarding the hub
Bam Adebayo is one of those four, but he’s also the hub around which the other Heat scorers move. He leads the postseason with 10.5 elbow touches per game and by a rough count, Adebayo either set a ball screen or executed a dribble hand-off on about 50 of the 80 offensive possessions for which he was on the floor in Game 4. There were times when he did both…
And there were times when he handed the ball off to Duncan Robinson three times in the span of five seconds…
So one of the Celtics’ biggest challenges is determining how to defend those pick-and-rolls and DHOs. They don’t have to worry about Adebayo as a pick-and-pop shooting threat (he averages less than a point per game from outside the paint), but four games into the series, they’ve yet to really figure it out.
“They do a really good job of trying to set those screens,” Stevens said. “I think a lot of times you want to blitz or switch. They do a good job of getting out of the switches or setting the switches low. Specifically on those hand-backs, the minute you jump it, he fakes it, dunks it. Puts you in a real bind.”
They Celtics have tried just about everything, different coverages and different defenders. But the Heat have found ways to score against all of it.
First, there’s the standard coverage, with Adebayo’s defender dropping back and the other defender chasing his man around the screen. Jaylen Brown did a heck of a job the first two times in the three-hand-off example above, but then got flatted by the third screen. Smart had to leave Goran Dragic to help on Robinson, and Dragic got an open three from the wing.
Here are some more examples of how the Heat took advantage of standard coverage in Game 4…
Play 1: Adebayo sets a screen for Dragic to get to the middle of the floor with his strong hand. Kemba Walker goes over the screen, Daniel Theis has to stop Dragic’s drive, and Adebayo has a clean roll to the rim, with Brown staying attached to Jimmy Butler (fewer than one made three per game in the playoffs) in the right corner.
Play 2: After almost committing an offensive foul on a drive, Adebayo gets the ball back in the post. He kicks it out to Herro and sets a screen along the left sideline. Brown goes over the screen, Theis retreats, and Herro hits a he’s-feeling-it-tonight runner off the glass.
Play 3: Late in the shot clock, Robinson pitches the ball to Adebayo, takes a hand-off, and slams the brakes. Walker goes over the screen and fouls Robinson as he shoots a 3.
Play 4: Adebayo sets a high screen for Herro. Brown gets caught in the screen and Robert Williams is just chillin’ at the free throw line, so Herro steps into a pull-up 3.
Play 5: On a sideline out-of-bounds play that the Heat ran often on Wednesday, Herro takes a hand-off from Adebayo with an empty corner. Walker goes over the screen and, with nobody to tag Adebayo’s roll, Theis retreats, allowing Herro to drain another 3 from the top of the arc.
Taking advantage of the switch
By switching ball screens and DHOs, the Celtics can seemingly flatten the Heat out. Adebayo’s defender can switch to the ball and (theoretically) prevent a shot or drive, and the other defender can stay attached to Adebayo on his roll to the rim.
The Celtics switched some Adebayo actions in Game 4, both with Theis and with smaller defenders guarding the Heat’s center. They had trouble in either case. Here are a few examples…
Play 1: After Dragic rejects an Adebayo screen and Theis recovers to the roll, Adebayo runs a DHO with Butler on the left side of the floor. Tatum gets caught in the screen, so Theis switches onto the ball-handler. But Butler pulls up from the foul line before Theis can get there.
Play 2: Adebayo sets a pin-down screen for Butler and then turns around for a ball-screen. Theis switches to contest Butler’s step-back jumper and Gordon Hayward can’t handle Adebayo on the glass, committing a loose-ball foul (one of the 10 fouls that Adebayo drew in Game 4).
Play 3: The Celtics had Theis guarding Andre Iguodala in the fourth quarter, perhaps so they can better switch Adebayo screen actions. Here, the Heat run that same sideline-out-of-bounds, empty-corner DHO. Hayward switches the hand-off to Butler, but Adebayo out-muscles Brown for the rebound, putting it back for two of the Heat’s 21 second-chance points (their high for the postseason).
Play 4: Another sideline out-of-bounds play, another empty-corner DHO. Hayward jumps out to prevent a Herro 3, but then gets beat off the dribble. Theis helps off Iguodala, who gets an open 3 … that he doesn’t shoot. He does get Dragic an open shot and then chases down the rebound.
Passing away from the blitz
The Celtics also tried blitzing the ball-handler at times on Wednesday. But that just gave left somebody open. Here are a few examples…
Play 1: After the Celtics cover simultaneous cuts to the rim from Butler and Robinson, Adebayo hands off to Dragic, who gets trapped by Brown and Walker. Theis leaves Jae Crowder to tag Adebayo’s roll and Crowder gets a wide-open 3 from the right wing.
Play 2: Theis blitzes a Butler-Adebayo pick-and-roll. Adebayo flashes back to the ball and gets a friendly roll on a short pull-up before Theis can recover.
Play 3: Tatum and Hayward trap Herro after a hand-off. Herro finds the Adebayo in the paint and, with the Celtics playing their best-five lineup, the only weak-side help is that of Walker. Adebayo drops in an easy jump hook over the 6-foot guard.
Play 4: Hayward and Tatum trap another Butler-Adebayo pick-and-roll. Butler quickly gets the ball to the big man at the foul line, forcing Brown to step up. Adebayo drops the ball off to Iguodala on the baseline, Smart rotates down, and Dragic gets a wide-open 3 in the left corner.
Stevens was right about the Heat looking like the Warriors, except that Jimmy Butler isn’t Stephen Curry in regard to needing to prevent him from shooting pull-up 3s.
Much of playoff basketball is finding ways to score when the defense takes away the primary option(s) in your offense. Questionable traps of Butler aside, the Celtics are a great defensive team. Though they had some focus and effort issues in Game 1, they’ve done the work to take away as many of those hand-off actions as they can.
But, for the most part, the Heat just don’t stop moving. When they do, they struggle. You can see it in select possessions, you can see it in their isolation stats (just 24 points on 29 isolation possessions in the series), and you can see it in the game-to-game tracking data.
The Heat’s one loss in this series was their one sub-par offensive game (106 points on 100 possessions). Not coincidentally, it was also the game in which they didn’t move as much offensively. They’ve averaged 11.2 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession in their three wins, but only traveled 10.1 per 24 in Game 3.
All that movement takes energy, and the energy isn’t just required of the Heat’s shooters running off dozens of hand-offs. Adebayo matches his teammates’ tireless movement with his willingness to set multiple screens on almost every possession. If the first one doesn’t work out, he’ll come back and try again.
The 23-year-old big man scored 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting in Game 4. He was also credited with four assists, two secondary assists and eight screen assists. The eight screen assists were more than every other player in the game combined.
We may appreciate the rapid development of Robinson and marvel at Herro scoring 37 points in the conference finals at just 20 years of age. We may note the effect of Smart guarding Dragic and debate whether or not Butler needs to take over late in games. But the Heat offense revolves around Bam Adebayo. In these playoffs, they’ve scored 21.7 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (117.1) than they have with him off the floor (95.4).
So the left arm injury he suffered late in the fourth quarter on Wednesday is concerning. A 3-1 series lead suggests room for error, but the results of the games do not. The Heat’s three wins have come by a total of 11 points and they’ve been outscored by 29 in Adebayo’s 40 minutes on the bench.
So they can only hope that he’s on the floor for Game 5. Whether it’s by three points or thirty, one more win gets them to The Finals.
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