LeBron James got things started in the fourth quarter by exploiting Austin Daye one-on-one.
The Heat's most successful stint of their win over Detroit on Wednesday came over a 10-possession spurt during the first six minutes of the fourth quarter. Down eight points entering the period, the Heat ran off a 15-0 run. The lineup during the vast majority of that stretch? A very perimeter-heavy unit of Eddie House, Mike Miller, James Jones, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
The Heat immediately sniffed out a mismatch they liked a lot -- LeBron James against Austin Daye. While the Heat got solid contributions from everyone on both ends of the floor during the run, this was undoubtedly LeBron Time.
Virtually every single point scored -- from free throws emanating from illegal defense calls, to James' dribble drives, to the kickouts for open 3-pointers -- came about because James was applying pressure on a defense with a limited capacity to absorb it.
This was almost a Cavs-era LeBron performance. The Heat didn't run anything particularly novel and the components on the floor definitely had their limitations. But like so many Cleveland wins during LeBron's last few years there, there was a stripped-down simplicity to each possession -- like a tight album from a really smart garage band, one track delivering you to the next.
The post-up/mismatch game
There's nothing overly inventive about what the Heat ran during these first few possessions of the quarter. You won't find any choreographed sets or a whole lot of motion. Instead, James posted up Daye four consecutive times with his Heat teammates fanned out around him.
On the first instance, James bullied his way to the rim for his first field goal of the second half. On the second, this time on the right side, Jason Maxiell thought a second too long about lending help and got called for a defensive three-second violation. On the third, James returned to the left side where he again backed down Daye. Seeing his teammate struggling to defend LeBron one-on-one, Stuckey dropped to help out but got whistled for a reach-in. Then on the fourth, we have yet another defensive three-second call when Charlie Villanueva got caught hanging out in the paint anticipating a James bulldozing job.
Right off the bat, the Heat generated four easy points over two possessions by doing nothing more than isolating LeBron against Daye, and forcing the Pistons to respond. Isolating LeBron is certainly not a blueprint the Heat want to use for 40 minutes per night, but sometimes the path of least resistance is so obvious and well-trod, you'd be a fool not to take it. In this case, the mismatch was too potentially profitable not to exploit. After this series, the Pistons ultimately adjusted. John Kuester assigned Rodney Stuckey the task of guarding James.
The mismatch worked both ways, as we saw at the 9:27 mark of the quarter when the Heat's possession broke down a bit. James and Bosh tried an angle pick-and-roll, but the Pistons defended it well (they didn't trap LeBron, but relied instead on a hard show by Maxiell). This allowed the Pistons' rotation enough time to recover. The ball worked its way around the half court, but no one was open. So with six ticks remaining on the shot clock, the rock went back up top for LeBron to make lemonade.
It was really good lemonade, too. Jones (who's guarded by Villanueva) set a screen on Stuckey's right shoulder. LeBron darted left where he encountered a backpedaling Villanueva. From there, it was all over. James blew by Villanueva and Daye offered little resistance at the rim. The Heat established their first lead since the first quarter and wouldn't trail again.
James Jones has been a sullen figure for the past month or so. Ever since Mike Miller has been fully integrated into the rotation and Chris Bosh returned from his leg injury, Jones hasn't played many meaningful minutes. Jones has never been a smiler, though he's a willing conversationalist and happy to share thoughts and observation -- and will even engage in a civil debate when you insist that a lineup with LeBron at the 4 is "small."
Despite being a workmanlike professional, it's obvious Jones yearns for minutes in more meaningful contexts than blowouts over Sacramento or Atlanta. On Wednesday night with the Heat trailing, he got the call to be part of Erik Spoelstra's makeshift unit. Sure enough, Jones was back in his familiar spot -- playing off one of the Heat's two superstar slashers, poised and ready for a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
The first came on a simple, efficient, middle pick-and-roll with James and Bosh. With an undersized Stuckey covering James, the Pistons elected to trap LeBron with both Stuckey and Bosh's man, Maxiell. LeBron went left around the trap, which meant that Villanueva was the lucky weakside rotator who must meet LeBron in the paint. But that left Jones wide open on the perimeter.
This is where LeBron's size and vision can create points all over the floor. Sure, it's an obvious pass to the open man on the perimeter, but LeBron hurled the ball through three defenders -- and there simply aren't a lot of people on the planet who can do that and hit the shooter with a nearly perfect pass.
LeBron did, and Jones drained the 3-pointer to bring the Heat within a point.
A little more than two minutes later, with the Heat now leading, here we go again: Another James-Bosh pick-and-roll with Jones, Miller and House spread along the arc. The Pistons trapped; Daye (now on Jones) rotated; Jones was left open; James made the pass; Jones launched. This time, the shot is off the mark, but Daye fouled Jones in the act. Jones headed to the stripe where he converted two of three.
Enabling Chris Bosh
That middle pick-and-roll between James and Bosh is working wonders, particularly when Bosh is as hungry for the rim as he is right now. The next trip down following Jones' free throw attempts, the Heat went to it again. Dwyane Wade had checked into the game for House -- so he manned the right corner on this set -- and the Pistons' starters had re-entered the game, as well.
Miller set a cross-screen for Bosh at the elbow, which released Bosh to set that screen for LeBron up top. It's a smart little wrinkle, because that interference by Miller means that Maxiell is a little behind Bosh the rest of the play. The Pistons defended the action the way they had most of the night -- trapping LeBron, then sending a rotator to pick up Bosh as he rolls to the rim. That rotator -- Tracy McGrady -- didn't have a prayer as Bosh tore down the gut of the lane and, on the move, caught the bullet from LeBron. Easy layup. Had McGrady collapsed more aggressively, chances are LeBron hits Jones (McGrady's man), who would've been all alone in the left corner.