Paint Invaders, Paint Protectors

The Winning Zone of HEAT vs. Nets Game 1

Chris Bosh
Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

Control the paint, control the game.

This has been true in every era of the NBA, from before the merger with the ABA, to after the addition of the three-point line and later the legalization of zone defense. Even as teams become more and more enamored with the triple shot, the paint remains the most crucial zone on the floor for the simple fact that it houses the rim. Whatever your offensive strategy, you’ll always have to prevent layups on one end and, if not earn layups on the other, use the threat of the most efficient shot possible to manipulate the defense to your advantage.

Going into Game 1 of Miami and Brooklyn’s Second Round matchup the storyline of the Nets sweeping the HEAT, 4-0, during the regular season was ubiquitous. But by the end of Miami’s 21-point victory, there was no skirting the subject of the painted area. The Nets, a team that already generates nearly the fewest shots at the rim in the league, tied their season low with just 12 attempts in the restricted area. The HEAT? They took 29 shots at the rim and enjoyed a 24-point scoring advantage in the paint.

Jason Kidd’s team may have made over 40 percent of its threes, but it didn’t matter as Miami stormed the paint on one end and built a fortress around it on the other.

“During the whole game, we couldn’t keep them out of the paint,” Kidd said. “That’s something we got to look at and get better at.”

We’ll take a look, too, and see how the HEAT did what they did. Because if they keep doing it, if they refuse to surrender the paint to a team that has fully embraced smaller lineups, then this will become the dominant theme of the series.

TICK. TICK. TICK.

These two teams approach paint protection in very different ways. While the Nets will sit back against pick-and-rolls, stock up help defenders in the paint and play the passing lanes from there, Erik Spoelstra is willing to have his team create a whirlwind of help rotations all over the floor. If one link in the chain is just a second too late or a step in the wrong direction, the paint is left open for business.

But when the chaos is properly targeted, teams have to work deeper and deeper into their possessions in search of opportunity. And the more time you spend, the less time you have.

“We extended the shot clock for them in a lot more possessions, and when you extend the shot clock rim shots tend to go down, “ Shane Battier, freshly inserted into the starting lineup, said. “Versus when you attack earlier in the shot clock rim shots tend to go up.

There’s a correlation between shot-clock usage and shooting percentage. The longer we can extend possessions for them, the more it favors the defense.”

Naturally, Battier knows what he is talking about. Even the best teams at converting in the last four seconds of the shot clock – the HEAT and San Antonio Spurs – score at a rate dramatically below that of the league’s worst offenses when their backs are to time’s wall. The Nets, like most teams, are even less efficient, scoring .79 points per such possessions according to Synergy Sports. The HEAT force more late-clock possessions than any team, and Tuesday night was no different.

The Nets scored 14 points on 15 possessions that dipped into the final four seconds, and if you take out Deron Williams’ two last-second out-of-nowhere threes then that rate crumbles to eight points in 13 possessions. As the clock ticks away, efficiency becomes less of a priority. Eventually, you just have to get a shot-up.

Did the HEAT do anything special to keep Brooklyn from scoring at the rim? Not really. They did just what they’re always supposed to do. Last Sunday, before Brooklyn topped the Toronto Raptors in a Game 7, Spoelstra called for an early practice. It didn’t matter that the HEAT didn’t know who they would be playing because they knew that no matter their opponent, the majority of their defensive approach isn’t opponent specific.

So while in the above animation you see Battier denying Joe Johnson on the wing, they’re mindful of the same principles that came with fronting Al Jefferson in the post last week. Deny the ball, be ready to help and, as James showed above, pressure the passer.

Keep the ball away from comfortable scoring zones for long enough, and you shorten the shot clock. Shorten the shot clock enough and, as Battier says, rim shots go down.

“We were just giving help, showing bodies,” Chris Bosh said. “That’s a part of their game, the catch-and-go game. They’re fantastic three-point shooters. They get you into situations where you don’t want to be sometimes. They go by you – that’s when they get into the paint, getting sprays (assists) and getting layups. We wanted to really try to take that away.”

Normal ball denial on Johnson. Normal pick-and-roll defense on Deron Williams. Normal help from Battier on the rolling Plumlee. Normal closeouts from James and Battier. Then, when Johnson tries to put the ball on the floor, James and Chris Andersen sink into his field of vision.

Jumper. Miss.

The Nets weren’t kept out of the paint entirely, of course. That’s nearly impossible to do. But the HEAT kept pushing the ball away from the rim with help on every paint touch, turning a five-foot shot into an eight-foot shot. According to SportVU tracking data, the Nets had 20 touches within 12 feet of the rim while the HEAT had just one more. But the Nets took 16 shots in the paint yet outside of the restricted area around the rim, and while Miami’s players scored 1.19 points per close touch, the Nets earned just .35 in the same situations.

Because whenever two feet threatened the middle of the floor, the HEAT swarmed the ball, pressured the pass and, as Andersen does here, trusts that the help behind him (Ray Allen) will be there.

Brooklyn is still capable of executing the beautiful game on offense, but when you have to be perfect in order to consistently generate open looks, when you need five precise passes off the dribble to beat the rotations and find Johnson in the corner, it can wear a team down. That’s how you end up with a team using 17 isolation possessions when it averaged 11 per game during the regular season.

Miami’s defense was enough for a win Tuesday night, but it wasn’t enough for a 21-point win. On the other end of the floor, they had to avoid the regular-season trap.

WEB OF STAGNATION

“The four games we played in the regular season were low energy games,” Battier said. “We tried to finesse those wins and that doesn’t get it done against these guys. They’re too savvy. You have to play a high motor, high energy game.

“You don’t win in the playoffs by being cool.”

To paraphrase Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs, the only true currency in the playoffs is how you play when you’re uncool. And there was nothing cool about Miami’s offense in Game 1. Few people are going to pat LeBron James on the back from setting a solid corner screen, or Norris Cole for cutting through the lane or Chris Bosh for slipping a pick at the right time. But when everyone on the floor is willing to be uncool, someone is going to end up looking pretty good.

Whether it’s James after his teammates set up a cutting lane for him…

Or Allen after James and Chalmers tilt the defense and Battier willingly gives up his precious corner spot to Allen before the ball swings around the court…

“We really moved the ball well on the perimeter, which is tough to do against this team because they slow you down with the switching,” Battier said. “It becomes very easy to get lazy on offense, but we did a good job of staying focused, moving the ball, moving bodies and when we do that guys get shots.”

There’s no immunity idol for Brooklyn’s grind-it-down defense. The HEAT were still pushed into the last four seconds of the clock 23 times, but from those possessions they emerged with 27 points. They made quick decisions on the fly, taking the open shots when they were there, driving the lane against a particularly advantageous switch or, as you’ll see below, trusting the offense.

When Bosh catches the ball here with seven seconds left, he could have launched a shot off the dribble over Kevin Garnett. He could have entered the ball to Battier and let him deal with it. He could have done the same with Chalmers, getting the hot potato out of his hands.

Instead, Bosh trusts Chalmers and the floor spacing, and is rewarded with a dunk.

“They’ll try to flatten you out all the time,” Bosh said. “We kind of fell into that web during the season. That was a point of emphasis, to really move the ball and not let them get set. Once they’re set we started taking a lot of contested jumpers and that’s not good.”

Much of what we’ve discussed so far can change from game to game. The HEAT could let the Nets force them into stagnation. The Nets could get into the paint more, or they could simply score more out of isolations. The HEAT tied a season-low with four steals and the Nets came out of the game with just one more – meaning Miami’s fundamental defense was there but some turnover-based runs may be on the horizon.

“That’s good for us. We like to make homerun plays, but singles and doubles are OK, too,” Battier said of the lack of defensive gambling.

But what that last Bosh animation illustrated is an issue Miami’s small-ball lineups have dealt with, with more success than not, and one the Nets now have to handle.

Once the ball gets behind the only big man on the floor, when he is defending a pick-and-roll or helping on someone else, then the primary help defender at the rim is going to be Paul Pierce or Joe Johnson or Deron Williams or Shaun Livingston. Just like Miami’s out-of-position big men, those players will swipe at the ball, draw charges and attack the passing lane, but it’s very difficult to consistently control the paint when you’re consistently undersized.

The HEAT found a way to do it en route to two titles, and they again controlled the paint in Game 1. Brooklyn will keep taking and making jumpers in this series, but how they respond at the rim may decide who holds the power throughout.

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