Big Three's brilliance gives Heat extra gear few teams can match
There is no other team in the NBA like the Heat, insofar as there is no combination of stars akin to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The challenge of contending with those three -- in either a well-spaced offense or scrambling defense -- is strange and often devastating, as even formidable opponents fall victim to the crushing surges of which Miami is capable. The Heat's 19-point victory in Game 2 was earned by those very means, as it took a mere eight minutes of demonstrative play for the defending champions to tie the series at 1-1.
On the surface, theirs would seem a phenomenal and physical dominance, if not proof of a higher state of basketball being. But occasions like Thursday's Game 4 -- in which the Heat plugged away to earn a 109-93 win -- demonstrate above all else that Miami's vaunted "extra gear" is far more mechanical than mystical. Their underlying principles aren't so different from those that guide San Antonio or any other successful NBA team; the raw materials are simply more brilliant, and the process itself more charged by extension.
Make no mistake: This is a team that can be schemed against and beaten, and also one that can be tinkered with and fixed following disappointing losses. The latter is precisely what Erik Spoelstra and his team set out to accomplish going into Game 4, and they did so with but a few technical adjustments and a better sustained engine.
As the Heat grew frustrated with their fits of stifled scoring in the first three games of the series, they occasionally reverted to some basic high pick-and-roll sequences that the Spurs easily sniffed out and countered. San Antonio's defenders disregarded Wade to focus on the ball, lined the paint to sop up space and guarded the rim brilliantly. The result: 9-for-35 (25.7 percent) shooting for James outside the restricted area.
Game 4 was a departure from that standard in most every regard. Not only did James actually make a far greater cut (60 percent) of his shots away from the rim on Thursday, but he was able to get to the basket far more often by better leveraging his abilities as a ball handler in the open court. James has made a habit of swooping in for hustle rebounds over the last two series, but in Game 4 he finally got back to using those boards as an opportunity to test the Spurs in transition:
James didn't play for contact or wait for a driving lane to present itself on that sequence. He simply drove directly by Kawhi Leonard and to the rim for an amazingly simple finish. San Antonio has generally done a fantastic job in this series of denying James the ability to create easy shots -- open layups, open three-pointers, etc. -- for both himself and his teammates, but there's little that any defense can do in the fleeting seconds it takes James to launch himself upcourt and toward the basket on a possession like this one. The defensive degree of difficulty only increases off of a turnover:
Only four teams forced their opponents into a turnover on a greater percentage of their possessions in the regular season, and in Game 4 the Heat returned to that form with impeccable defensive preemption, which in turn led to even more opportunities to run the floor:
In total, Miami registered 23 of its points off of Spurs turnovers, up from the 14.7 they averaged in the first three games of the series. The Heat made it a point to target the ball security and judgment of San Antonio's bigs out of the pick-and-roll. Tiago Splitter (who shot 0-for-3 from the field and committed three turnovers in 14 minutes) made for a common victim:
When the Heat are so consistently able to rotate in time to either strip or block a potential finisher, their game-turning runs come fast and furious. Opponents tend to seize up in their pick-and-roll execution when that kind of precedent is set, in this case allowing Miami's perimeter defenders to better focus on Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili without as much fear of being exploited via pass. That frustration (coupled with the Heat's fast break points) can also encourage impatient opponents to hoist up early, contested threes, which often result in long rebounds, further facilitating Miami's transition game.
The Heat made changes in their halfcourt offense as well, largely by moving away from the three-point line. Rather than have Wade and James execute from the top of the floor, Spoelstra re-routed much of Miami's basic offense through the elbow -- tighter quarters for the two-man game, but a means to accelerate the threat that players such as Wade present.
Part of the problem with initiating plays so far from the basket is that it encourages opponents to go under screens and give James and Wade a cushion -- thus better protecting the basket and encouraging some of the most potent drivers in the league to settle for a mid-range jumper. By initiating the play from just outside the paint, the threat level presented by Miami's ball handlers is stark and immediate. James and Wade could easily rise up for a layup or dunk from just a step or two inside the paint, and as a result the Spurs had to impede their progress immediately while leaving Bosh unattended:
In this setting, San Antonio's window for help and recovery (and by extension, their margin for error) shrinks considerably. One wrong step cedes an open lane to the rim. A sensible overcommitment gives up a layup or open three. Every mistake is so easily exploitable, and so often yields shots of the highest efficiency. Miami still must make the right reads in cramped space, but has a lot to work with in the chemistry between James, Wade and Bosh.
Plus, this serves as an easy means of attacking a particularly odd mismatch. In order to preserve the size of his lineups, Gregg Popovich has periodically matched up either Splitter or Boris Diaw against the struggling Wade over the last two games. That's a ridiculous notion in principle, but one that Miami initially failed to exploit on a consistent basis. Without Wade converting mid-range jumpers or surging around his defender toward the rim, that matchup bogged down Miami's offense and allowed San antonio to help against James even more easily.
Yet by sliding to the elbow and executing quick pick-and-rolls with Bosh, Wade was able feed Bosh before Diaw and Tim Duncan could fully recover:
Wade even set up Bosh with a nice post lob when the Spurs tried to switch those low screens:
The first clip, in particular, is just an outstanding pass by Wade -- proof of the confluence of talent and execution necessary to make a tweak like this stick.
Miami is making technical changes to address the Spurs' own tactical moves. Yet this particular device would hardly be manageable with anything less than an exceptional pick-and-roll practitioner -- of which the Heat have two. That luxury does make this something more than a simple, mechanical adjustment.
The Heat can reposition James to feature him more frequently in the post (which they also did in Game 4 to augment the above strategies), shift him to the elbow, or park him behind the three-point line. They can lay back a bit defensively when things get too dicey, or amp up the pressure if the situation calls for it. Bosh can be directed to roll rather than pop off of screens, or the rotation could be tweaked to offer more perimeter shooting. Behind the extra gear that propels Miami on scoring sprints are these very interchangeable parts -- flexible enough to create a daunting range of possibilities.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.