Doug Collins was certain that Dwyane Wade would get the ball down the stretch. He was right.
The Heat won a somewhat inelegant, but hard-fought test in Game 1 vs. the Sixers, 97-89. A few of the more interesting developments:
Andre Iguodala gets the call on Dwyane Wade
One of the most revealing moments of the afternoon came in the game's closing minutes with the Sixers knocking on the door. After guarding LeBron James for most of the game, Andre Iguodala shifted over to Dwyane Wade down the stretch.
Sixers head coach Doug Collins, in his postgame news conference, was asked about the decision and answered very matter-of-factly. "Wade is going to have the ball," Collins said with an air of certainty. "We had planned on that coming in, that if it came down to crunch time at the end of the game, we wanted our best individual defender on Wade because when Miami really took off this year, they put the ball in Wade's hands."
Considering that Erik Spoelstra has remained adamant that no such designation exists for the Heat, Collins' certitude speaks volumes. Is Spoelstra bluffing when he said, rather petulantly, "I think that's probably so overstated," in regard to the notion that Wade is his closer?
It's possible that both Collins and Spoelstra have legitimate points. If you're Collins, you can do a lot worse than sticking one of the game's most capable perimeter defenders on Wade. In turn, Spoelstra has a point. While Wade has certainly seen his share of the ball in crucial possessions recently, much of the action has been run as a two-man game, with Chris Bosh and the spot-up shooters in prime position to wreak havoc. It's almost unthinkable to believe that James won't be taking crucial shots this spring inside of two minutes.
Still, Collins' position raises an eyebrow. He's a basketball lifer with sharp instincts, and doesn't make defensive assignments without serious consideration.
Philadelphia's first quarter
The Sixers finished the regular season as the 17th-ranked offense in the league, but you wouldn't have known it from their 31 points on 21 first-quarter possessions (a 147.6 efficiency rating if you're scoring at home). The Sixers picked up a few buckets in transition and early offense, as well as a handful of second-chance points, but the bulk of their production came in the half court, a place they usually don't prosper. Overall, they shot 64.7 percent from the field in the first quarter.
How did the Sixers accomplish that? They did it the way efficient teams do -- by getting players the ball where they're most effective. Elton Brand converted five of Philadelphia's 14 field goals in the quarter. After the game, Brand's defender in the first quarter, Bosh, confessed that he was outwitted and put up less resistance than he should have. "There were a couple times he caught me off-guard, and he ducked in and that was my mistake," Bosh said.
The play Bosh is referring to came at about the 6:15 mark of the first quarter. Brand is working on the left block as a screener. First he sets a pindown for Andre Iguodala to free him up to catch the ball up top, then another one for Jodie Meeks who spots up on the left side. Meanwhile, Jrue Holiday sets up on the right side, where Iguodala delivers him the ball. Holiday gets a nice side screen from Spencer Hawes, then moves baseline. Bosh begins to cheat off Brand. Though Holiday almost coughs the ball up, Brand is already a free man. Once Holiday reclaims the ball, Brand simply cuts behind Bosh along the baseline. Holiday finds him underneath, where Brand slams it home -- picking up the foul from Wade, who tries to help.
Brand has his way on the block, but the Sixers also get some nice movement from his teammates. When Holiday penetrates off a side screen from Brand, the Heat defense drops to the level of the ball. Hawes simply flashes into the paint, where Holiday finds him with a bounce pass in traffic.
The Heat ultimately adjust their defense, first with a matchup zone (discussed below), but also by denying the Sixers the ball in their favorite spots. Brand isn't really a factor after the first period. Bosh explains why: "I tried to front him in the post, work him off the block a little bit. I wanted to take away his easy touches. ... I knew that eventually he'd try to move into his sweet spot and try to get good position."
Those sweet spots are the key for Philly, and many of those easy touches Bosh spoke of originate because Holiday is aggressive. After the first quarter, Holiday didn't attack as fiercely. Part of that was a function of the Heat's intensified defense, but some of it wasn't.
Miami's second-quarter zone
After hemorrhaging in the first quarter, the Heat went to a 2-3 zone to start the second quarter. "I had to try something," Spoelstra said. "We've been working on it. It's not something I want to do a steady diet [of] for a whole game, but certainly to try to break their rhythm."
Specifically, what about the Heat's zone disrupted the Sixers? First off, the pairing of Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony is the Heat's best defensive combination at the point guard and center, respectively. Both guys are rangy and have quick feet. In a scheme that requires quick lateral movement, decisiveness and the ability to shift direction with the movement of the ball, you couldn't cast a better tandem than Chalmers and Anthony. On the very first possession in the zone, a tentative Evan Turner penetrates. Chalmers challenges him at the top of the circle, but Anthony awaits in the paint and swats Turner's floater away.
The Sixers are a team particularly susceptible to the zone because they can't stretch you out with knockdown perimeter shooters. Meeks is the only Sixer shooting anywhere close to 40 percent, and he isn't on the floor for the start of the stretch (though he returns after four disastrous possessions). As a result, the Heat have less ground to cover, and cover it they do. One of the steadfast rules to beating the zone is attack it in the middle. That's what Thad Young tries to do on the next possession -- but there's Anthony again, dashing to foul line the instant Young flashes. Young initiates his left-handed drive, but Anthony is with him the whole way. Young's flip shot isn't close.
On possession No. 3, the ball meanders around the perimeter. When Andres Nocioni finally feeds a flashing Hawes, the Heat knock the ball away -- another turnover. The ball never even crosses the arc on possession No. 4, as Turner and Nocioni play hot potato. Nocioni ultimately settles for a contested jumper.
"The zone kind of keeps everyone out on the perimeter, and it just caught them off-guard," James said. "The few possessions we went to the zone allowed us to get back into the game."
Over the seven possessions the Heat countered the Sixers with the zone in the second quarter, Philadelphia scored only twice. When the Heat experimented again with the zone in the fourth quarter, the Sixers failed to score in two possessions.
Chris Bosh as offensive decongestant
Bosh isn't a screener in the Kendrick Perkins or Tyson Chandler mold. He's not going to paste the opposing point guard or give his teammate a swath of open space the size of Saint Peter's Square. But over the past several weeks, Bosh's screening action has been vital to the Heat's offensive resurgence.
For most of the night, the Sixers did a superb job of containing the Heat's first option. The Heat would run their bread-and-butter elbow sets, clear their point guard to the corner, where he'd set a screen for Wade. But for much of the night, nothing much materialized. The Sixers, as is their modus operandi, chased Miami's shooters off the line. They did a nice job converging on Wade in the paint. And they bumped cutters and bodied up on James.
What opened up the Sixers' defense that was clogging the Heat in the half court?
Bosh in motion.
Simply put, when Bosh dives to the hole, with or without the ball, it scrambles the defense and invariably opens up space. Those angle pick-and-rolls he orchestrates with Wade are producing prolific results. More times than not, Bosh finishes. But even when he doesn't, his presence compromises the defense so much that other opportunities arise. Take a possession in the first quarter. It's a familiar action -- an angle screen-roll with Wade and Bosh. Philadelphia chooses to double Wade, which leaves the weakside big man, Hawes, to pick up Bosh on the roll. Bosh's close-range shot falls off the front lip of the rim, but because Hawes had to help, Zydrunas Ilgauskas has set up shop under the backboard for the easy putback.
We marvel at the Wade-James pick-and-roll, and for good reason -- it's unstoppable. But a Wade (or James) and Bosh combination offers another benefit. When Bosh moves to the perimeter for a stepup screen, he drags the opponent's best big defender out to the perimeter with him. If the defense chooses to trap -- often a good idea if Wade or James have the ball in their hands -- someone has to pick up Bosh. And now you're playing 4-on-3 or, if the defense rotates promptly to Bosh, 3-on-2.
For a defense like Philadelphia's that places a premium on orderliness, staying at home and individual base defense, Bosh on the move with the ball in Wade's hand presents a real problem.
The Heat's traps
Miami's pick-and-roll coverage is one of its defensive calling cards. Given the Heat's personnel, they tend to opt for a "hard show," with their big man jumping out on at the ball handler at the point of attack, then recovering to his original assignment (or, if the other big man has picked up that assignment on the rotation, the other big man).
Many teams choose to trap the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, but the Heat deploy that tactic very selectively. Spoelstra will rarely call for the trap if the roll man can hurt you from distance with a pop. Furthermore, big men like Ilgauskas, Dampier and (when he plays) Magloire aren't very good candidates to trap. With Joel Anthony, Spoelstra has a bit more leeway because Anthony can smother a guard 25 feet from the basket and quickly drop back to the paint if the play demands it. Spoelstra is most likely to call for the trap when he wants to pry the ball from a specific point guard's hands. The Heat ran traps at Russell Westbrook, for instance, but most nights call for a straight-up show.
On Saturday, we saw a surprising number of traps on Philadelphia pick-and-rolls. The Sixers run a steady stream of side pick-and-rolls, and more times than not, the Heat would try to pin Holiday against the sideline with the ball by trapping -- even if it means leaving Brand at the foul line extended on the strong side. But even Lou Williams encountered a trap from Mikes Bibby & Miller after a high screen at the top of the floor from Young, then again in the fourth. In the third quarter, Bibby and Ilgauskas trapped Holiday 30 feet from the basket. And Andre Iguodala encountered a trap from James Jones and Anthony as the Sixers were rallying in the fourth quarter.
Spoelstra seems to be varying his pick-and-roll coverage quite a bit, and it will be interesting to see if this is just a Philly thing, or if he plans to continue throwing traps at whomever the Heat confront in the playoffs. With potentially Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose on deck, could the Heat become -- gasp -- a born-again trapping team?