The Heart of the Swarm

Energizing Miami's Crucial and Abstract Core Concept

LeBron Wade
Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

What is the Swarm?

If you see it, you know it. If you close your eyes, you’ll hear it when it happens. Bodies fly from point to point. A pass finds its target, but the ball sticks. No movement. There’s a trap. The crowd smells blood in the water. A murmur builds. The ball is poked loose. Scatter. Scatter. Regroup. Run. The murmur builds to a crescendo. Everyone senses the inevitable. And it happens. You had a few seconds to prepare a celebration, but you’re yelling words that aren’t words anyways. Just like everyone else.

Sometimes all you get is that quick burst of top-shelf defense. At other times, and it’s been a rare occurrence this season, it sustains. You get the Omega Swarm.

But why? How?

Those have always been difficult questions to answer when it comes to the Miami HEAT, even for those directly involved. You hear about energy and disposition and getting to their game and imposing a style, but those aren’t answers so much as they are attempts at putting a finger on something abstract. You just know when it’s there, and when it isn’t.

For the first time in these playoffs, and one of the few times this season, the swarm was there for more than half of a game as Miami took a 2-1 series lead over the Indiana Pacers. Through 18 minutes, the Pacers were shooting 57 percent as they led by 15 points. Over the final 30 minutes, the Pacers shot 41 percent and turned the ball over 12 times. Over the final 30 minutes, the HEAT outscored their opponent by 27 points.

This time, Ray Allen found the source of the swarm.

“It’s LeBron [James], his engine, when he plays with it. Dwyane [Wade], he has an engine that’s unpredictable. The way both of them play,” Allen said.

“They just always get to something that . . . it’s not written. It’s not diagrammed. They just go out and they play and they play above the rim. We follow their lead. Just energy – the energy of how they play. It changes, it turns everything over. We feed on it. The crowd feeds on it.”

After one of their worst defensive performances in recent memory in Game 1, the HEAT were better on that end in Game 2, but their main achievement on that end was simply not losing containment on the ball. They stopped getting beat by the simple things, and that was enough to grind out a win.

The first quarter was proof that good enough wasn’t going to cut it in Game 3. The HEAT needed something more, so James and Wade started giving it to them.

“We have to do a better job of being more conscious of that, knowing that guys feed off of us,” James said. “We can’t come out with such low motor and feel the game out. I’m one of those guys. I kind of feel the game out to start the game, but maybe I need to be a little bit different in this series, because it’s not gotten us out to a great start.”

With the start of the game done and over with, James began picking up Lance Stephenson full-court – and effectively. There was no overplay. James got in his stance and locked in, slowing the ball down at every reasonable opportunity. At one point, with James in the way, Stephenson didn’t even begin to initiate offense until there were fewer than 15 seconds left on the shot clock.

In slowing the game down, the HEAT want the Pacers to speed up. The less time you have to get a shot off, the quicker you have to run through your various options. And when you’re a team like Indiana that struggles with bouts of turnover-itis, especially when guards get into foul trouble, being rushed is never a good thing.

“More than anything we wanted to speed the game up,” said Rashard Lewis, who we’ll get to later. “Especially full court . . . try to take some time off the shot clock so they’re rushing to their offense. A couple of times we were able to come up with some traps, make them speed up, play a little faster and we was able to get the ball and go back with it the other way. But it’s all about trying to take some time off their shot clock to make them take a tough shot on the offensive end.”

As we went over after Game 2, the traps Lewis is talking about aren’t quite the traps you’re used to seeing from the HEAT. With some exceptions – wings defending the screen – Erik Spoelstra has kept his team in flat coverage on the pick-and-roll. This series isn’t about blitz-blitz-blitz, it’s about organic traps. Just as Miami wants Indiana to work against itself with a short clock, they want the Pacers to lead the ball to trouble.

“We didn’t manage their picking up their defensive intensity well,” Frank Vogel said.

“I think that their pressure took us out of it, forced us into some turnovers,” David West added. “We just weren’t handling it well enough.”

It’s focused intensity. It’s guided, controlled pressure. Tight rotations. Containment. Everything we saw in Game 2. Everything that needs to be there in order for James and Wade to take them to the next level, where chaos comes from all angles.

When both players fully engaged over the final six minutes of the second quarter, the Pacers committed six turnovers as the HEAT went on a 16-5 run. In those six minutes, Indiana took just four shots, making one.

And in the 29 minutes James and Wade shared on the court Saturday, the Pacers turned the ball over on 23.4 percent of their possessions, leading to a defensive rating of 84.7 for the pair even after the slow start.

At their best, James and Wade toe a very thin line between calculated aggression and overly-ambitious gambles that leave their teammates out to dry. One half-step too slow, and they might be the reason a teammate winds up getting dunked on. Go for the steal at the wrong time, and you’re picking up a foul and giving the other team free points. Chaos is a skill, it’s just one of the more unstable ones in the game.

And it’s a heck of a lot easier to harness that skill when the rest of the defense enables risk by covering up for mistakes.

What is the swarm? It’s turning a physically demanding defense into a low-risk affair with precision, trust and energy. It’s a thousand violent sumo hands, all striking the same point.

“When we’re both locked in defensively, bringing that energy, we’re getting other guys involved as well as ourselves,” Wade said. “It’s a great game to play. We put a lot on ourselves as leaders, especially this time of year, to really bring that. If we don’t, we put it on ourselves and say, ‘Sorry, guys, we’ll have it next time’. We always feel like we can do better, especially coming off a loss, because we know the team goes as we go.”

That’s what the HEAT are about. We can dig through the numbers and watch film and talk adjustments and matchups and lineups all day, but nothing matters more to Miami than the swarm. It’s who they are.

SUPPLY vs. DEMAND

From a viewer’s standpoint, the scheme can be frustrating. While many of the en-vogue defensive schemes of today’s NBA slowly choke off all semblance of efficiency over the course of a game, the HEAT’s strikes come at a furious pace. The swarm is unlike anything else in the league, and as such it’s very clear when it isn’t there. It gives you a taste of the incredible, and then it leaves you wanting more.

But more isn’t always on the menu.

Take it from a player that has won championships with two teams and two aggressive schemes, energy can be tough to come by.

“You just have to always know how to summon it,” Ray Allen said. “Especially in the regular season when you’re on a back-to-back . . . our fault was playing teams below .500, their crowd didn’t have energy and [we] didn’t have confidence that they could beat us so we would play down to their level. Now we know what the stakes are. We know where we are. It’s that time of the year. Now is the point where you can’t wait because small little things can affect the outcome.”

So you pool your resources and save them up for the playoffs, right? It doesn’t work that way.

“Obviously God hasn’t made one person that can do it for 48 minutes and not be tired or not have a bad stretch,” Wade said. “But we have to figure it out for the majority of the time, to be able to do it, be able to make an impact for four-minute, five-minute, six-minute bursts.”

Can we predict the energy surge? It’s not like those five-minute bursts are scheduled. You come to expect them during high-pressure situations, but what isn’t a high-pressure situation in May and June?

The approach during the regular season was that the HEAT’s defense was in fine shape as long as they continued to show that they were capable of hitting Omega levels. After a few weeks, we got that reminder in the playoffs. The question on the minds of many is whether it will be enough. The only answer to that is that it’s only enough until it isn’t. We can’t predict the rest.

Maybe Norris Cole, again an on-ball terror in Game 3, has the right idea.

“Every game is different,” Cole said. “It’s funny, I don’t know. It’s something you really can’t explain, but we understand that in order to win and win how we want to win, we have to have [energy] on a consistent basis.”

THE STATLESS WONDER

“Winning basketball”.

That’s how LeBron James described Rashard Lewis’ performance in Game 3 – a performance that included one block, two shot attempts and a line of donuts. But in his 17 minutes, the HEAT outscored the Pacers by 21 points, something James made sure to mention.

The raw plus-minus statistic in the box score is incredibly finicky. Using it as anything but a loose guide can get you into trouble, but it can also point you in the direction of positive or negative. If you allow it to, plus-minus can help you find context. It can help you realize that Lewis played 15 minutes of lockdown defense on David West.

In those 15 minutes that the two shared the court in Game 3 – Lewis’ first action of the series – West scored four points, taking three shots. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

“I just wanted to make it tough for him to score and limit his easy baskets,” Lewis said. “If he did make a shot, make it a tough shot and not give him easy baskets. I just wanted to try to keep a body on him and force him out away from the basket because he has a great touch around the rim.”

James and Wade may be the heart of the swarm, but the blood has to flow somewhere productive. In Lewis, that production didn’t put up many numbers, but it contributed to a playoff win nonetheless.

Statistical supports for this article provided by NBA.com, STATS LLC and Synergy Sports