Adjusting Miami's Pick-and-Stop
What Did and Didn't Change in Game 2
“It seemed like they could pretty much score at any time. Our defense was unacceptable.”
That’s Chris Bosh telling the tale of Game 1, but it could have been any member of the Miami HEAT speaking those words. To a man, every player knew and was upfront about just how poor the team performed on the defensive end to open the Eastern Conference Finals. As Erik Spoelstra put it, the defense was as bad as it’s been since the team was put together. Four years ago.
If they were going to avoid taking a 0-2 series deficit into the three-day break before Game 3, something would have to change.
When a team loses a playoff game, everything falls under the lens of a microscope. Lineups. Scheme. Strategy. Nothing is safe from scrutiny after a loss, though not everything deserves it. Change offers hope, particularly to observers, but hope carries little value on the court. Making alterations just for the sake of it doesn’t help anyone. You don’t cut the sleeves off your favorite shirt just because someone didn’t like the color. There has to be purpose.
The obvious change Spoelstra made headed into Game 2 was to substitute Udonis Haslem for Shane Battier in the starting lineup, which had the side effect of allowing LeBron James to stay on Indiana’s perimeter players and focus on both help defense and turnover generation while removing some responsibilities in defending the pick-and-roll. While the starters were still outscored as a group, the rotational trickle-down effect helped the next six most-used lineups all stay in the positive.
There’s something to each player being in a more traditional defensive role, even if the HEAT are well-versed in just about every defensive alignment imaginable, but ascribing too much value to a lineup change misses the point on just why Miami struggled so much in Game 1. It wasn’t a personnel issue, it was an execution issue.
The main reason for the HEAT shaving 18.1 points off their defensive-efficiency rating between the first two games of the series? They didn’t change much at all. They just did the same thing, but better.
“There's certainly a better disposition, a better commitment to that end,” Spoelstra said. “[The Pacers] present some different challenges for our defense, but we have to be who we are, and we have to do it in ways that aren't totally predictable.”
While still throwing in enough different looks to keep things fresh, the HEAT have been relatively conservative in their pick-and-roll coverage thus far – as they were during much of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Rather than their usual blitz-barrage, with big defenders frequently jumping out on ballhandlers to disrupt the action and force tough passes, Spoelstra has his big men showing flat coverage, staying lateral with the screen and tracking the ballhandler. It’s not Indiana’s brand, with big men setting up shop in the paint well behind the action, but the focus at the point-of-attack has been more on containment vs. on chaos.
In Game 1 that containment was constantly and consistently broken.
The idea behind this type of coverage, we can estimate, is partially to limit the impact of Indiana’s size on the move and combat the related slip-screens that take advantage of the HEAT temporarily putting two players on the ball. While Miami’s help defense can be deadly precise, if overextended even the proper rotation can result in a guard attempting to prevent a big target from catching the ball at the rim. And if the rotation is late, coupled with sub-desirable ball pressure, then you’re giving up free catches right at the rim.
Flat pick-and-roll coverage, when working properly, reduces the passing window for the ballhandler to hit the roll man. More arms in the way, more help coming from the backside and less time to complete the combo. The HEAT can still trap, it’s just a more organic trap that the ballhandler has to dribble into as opposed to forcing the action at the ball.
It doesn’t work if the HEAT aren’t stopping dribble penetration, but no coverage works if you can’t do that. In that respect, Miami was a much improved team in Game 2, and in not allowing the simple things to beat them, their coverage du jour was able to do its job.
“We allowed them in Game 1 to dictate what our defense did, and that's not us,” LeBron James said. “They had us on our heels the whole game, and that's not how we play basketball. Every time we lose, that's the first thing that we can see.
“Defensively, we came out with an aggressive mindset. Even if we made mistakes, guys had to cover for one another, and I think we did that for 48 minutes.”
Everything that hadn’t been there, was there. Whether it was containment…
…the work was done. And as James said, when a mistake was made or multiple rotations induced, players covered for one another. All while Norris Cole, undersized for the assignment, took on Lance Stephenson (23 points through three periods) to just two points and three shots attempts in the final quarter.
The Pacers had three fewer makes in the restricted area and took ten more mid-range jumpers than they took in Game 1, but thanks to SportVU player tracking technology we can also quantify some of Miami’s defensive cleaning-up.
- SportVU logs a ‘Close Touch’ as any catch made within twelve feet of the basket, therefore it doesn’t count a dribble drive into the paint. In Game 1, the Pacers had 27 close touches and they scored .85 points for every one of those touches. In Game 2, Indiana had 23 close touches but scored just .39 points for each one.
- After scoring .94 points-per-drive on 18 drives in Game 1, Indiana scored just .53 points-per on 17 drives in Game 2.
With the quick actions not coming as easily, the Pacers had to work deeper into possessions, going into the last four seconds of the shot clock 26 times in Game 2 (they averaged 13.5 such possessions during the regular season). And eventually, making them work harder and longer made the offense stagnate as Indiana had just two assists on five baskets in the first eleven minutes of the fourth quarter.
As for the pick-and-rolls? The Pacers score well over a point-per-possession using screens in Game 1, and that number dropped closer to their average in Game 2.
“Our defense,” Udonis Haslem said. “was definitely better.”
Better, yes. Perfect, no, especially in yielding 16 offensive rebounds to Indiana. But it was a massive improvement on their Game 1 performance, and not one born out some big, dramatic change. Spoelstra simply held true to the adjustments he made coming into the series – adjustments that still allow the team to hold true to its aggressive identity – while finding a way to make them work better.
Better. Smarter. Harder. Those who follow the HEAT throughout the season probably roll their eyes at hearing those words. But they’re the best adjustments the team has ever made.
Statistical supports for this article provided by NBA.com, STATS LLC and Synergy Sports