HEAT-Bobcats Preview: Keep Away

Fronting the Post and the Al Jefferson Alternatives

Al Jefferson
Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

These days, Al Jefferson is the Post Premier. He’s got hook shots, scoop shots, up-and-unders, spin moves, spin fakes – and he scores with all of them. He has the most deceiving shoulders in the league, shoulders that belie the true intentions of his hands and feet as he shakes you off. His is an arsenal fit for the league two decades ago, when so many teams were built around pounding the ball into the paint. Jefferson is a walking manifestation of basketball history, and he’s the best at what he does.

But the thing about scoring is you need the ball to do it.

With apologies to Kemba Walker and his effective field-goal percentage of 41.7 in his last eight games against Miami, Jefferson is the Charlotte Bobcats’ offense. He uses about 30 percent of the team’s possessions, and more than half of those possessions start in the post. According to SportVU data, he is the only member of the Bobcats with more paint touches this season than Dwyane Wade (137), who missed 28 games and is fourth on the HEAT in that category. Nobody else on the team has a Player Efficiency Rating higher than 20. Nobody else on the team scores more than 20 points per 36 minutes.

If you take Jefferson out of the equation, either by putting him on the bench or if he’s out with an injury, then the Bobcats, in the playoffs largely on the strength of their 6th-ranked defense, score at a rate just a tick above that of the Philadelphia 76ers. The HEAT want to take Jefferson out of the equation even when he’s on the floor.

So, as they started to do two years ago to a New York Knicks team that was highly dependent on Carmelo Anthony’s scoring – and as they’ve done to many teams ever since – the HEAT will most likely front the post. They, meaning Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh more so than Chris Andersen and Greg Oden, will deny the ball from Al Jefferson for as long as physically possible. They will complicate all the uncomplicated entry passes that Charlotte may take for granted against the rest of the league.

“People aren’t used to it,” Bosh says. “You watch 90-95 percent of the games in the league, they let guys catch it. I don’t understand why they do that – why they let Al Jefferson catch it 10-feet from the basket. [If that happens], you’re a dead man. He’s going to score on you nine times out of ten.

“We just want to push him out, make it more aggressive, change up the rhythm on him and make them throw it over the top so he can’t just get a continual rhythm in his wheelhouse.”

The reasons for the post front go beyond keeping the ball away from Jefferson. It also introduces a little chaos into Charlotte’s bread-and-butter plays. In part because they rely so heavily on the post, the Bobcats turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. More importantly, they commit the fewest live-ball turnovers – the steals that lead to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade running out in transition. Erik Spoelstra could have his team sit back and let Charlotte run their offense, but his style is a more proactive one. Don’t wait for mistakes to happen. Force them.

If the Bobcats want to get the ball to Jefferson against the front, make them throw a tough lob with a baseline defender ready to swarm.

“When you’re doing that, everyone has to work together,” Wade said. “You have to have great ball pressure. You have to have guys on the backside always prepared and ready to help you because you open yourself up to the lob over the top.

“It’s not an easy game to [play]. It’s not anything that you can be perfect at for six months out of the year but hopefully for two months we can be pretty good at it.”

The HEAT weren’t very good at it, which Bosh readily admits to, in their last game against Charlotte when Jefferson scored 38 points. But in the other two matchups that Jefferson played in, Bobcats coach Steve Clifford had to adjust the way the team plays. If the left block wasn’t there, Jefferson would seek space elsewhere.

THE POST ALTERNATIVES

As most teams tend to do with their big men, the Bobcats will run high pick-and-rolls with Jefferson, hoping he can get a catch in the middle of the floor after Miami commits two players to the ball. Just as the HEAT have done with the Tyson Chandlers, Kevin Garnetts and Roy Hibberts of the world in the past, the onus falls on the wing players to chuck that player off his roll and get back to the shooter on the perimeter. Shane Battier will demonstrate:

Then the Bobcats will try to feed Jefferson from the free-throw line, with Josh McRoberts facilitating. It’s the sort of high-low action that Memphis and their Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol pairing has had success with against the HEAT, catching shorter help defenders off guard mid-rotation. But it’s also a tougher angle to pass from, and the pass itself requires more precise timing. The risk of a turnover grows.

The most common post-alternative that you’ll likely see Charlotte run late in games, based on previous matchups, will be the Jefferson side pick-and-roll. The closer you get to the end of a game, the less you can afford to waste valuable seconds. And the HEAT force more teams to work into the last four seconds of the shot clock than anyone, a period in which the Bobcats score .729 points per possession, simply by taking away the simple passes. In order to get Jefferson the ball with time to spare, Clifford has his team overload the weakside of the floor – pulling Miami’s baseline help far from the ball – and has his big man set a screen free-throw line extended, along the sideline.

When the HEAT commit two players to the ball off the pick, Jefferson slips into space for the catch. If the HEAT apply enough pressure, the pass isn’t there. Even if they don’t, Kemba Walker or another ballhandler still has to make a pressured pass just to find Jefferson.

It’s nothing overly complicated, but aside from the usual variety of cross-screens to free up the post, the Bobcats will likely run these plays over and over to put Jefferson in position to score. And with good reason, too. In Charlotte’s 43 wins, Jefferson had PER of 25.3. In their 39 losses, that mark fell to 19.97. The Bobcats – a team that struggles from the perimeter (tied for 25th in catch-and-shoot scoring) despite the additions of Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour around the trade deadline – need Jefferson to pace their offense. The tougher Miami makes it for him to get the ball and the more pick-and-rolls they force, the more turnovers they’ll create.

MIAMI WITH THE BALL

Turnovers will be at a premium in this series, not only because the Bobcats typically don’t cough the ball up but since they’ve also been one of the better transition defensive teams around. Like the HEAT, the Bobcats have sacrificed a significant chunk of second-chance opportunities, emphasizing the in-between game as three or more defenders retreat to the other end of the floor when a shot goes up. Miami will try to run off misses, but the opportunity will come off steals.

In the half-court, Charlotte runs a scheme you’ll recognize from watching Chicago and Indiana. Whereas the HEAT force the highest rate of turnovers in the league, Charlotte ranks 26th because they typically sit back in the paint, protect the corners and try to make the defense shoot over the top. They don’t have a Joakim Noah or Roy Hibbert protecting the paint when a James or Wade turns the corner off a pick, but the Bobcats know their scheme and execute it with consistency.

Which is exactly why we haven’t and won’t spend much time talking about Miami’s offense in this preview. Barring any dramatic changes, the Bobcats don’t do anything that the HEAT aren’t very familiar with. The HEAT know what sort of shots they should be able to get, and if the perimeter shots aren’t falling then James and Wade know how to attack the half-zone out of the post.

Instead, the series will be decided on the other end of the floor. With a game of keep away.

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