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Anytime Erik Spoelstra is asked to qualify his team’s struggles, he explains that what the Heat are undertaking during the early part of their schedule is a process. There’s a little bit of spinmeistering in Spoelstra’s response, but it's not altogether insincere. Spoelstra rose through the basketball operations ranks as a video coordinator, scouting director and an assistant charged with developing the team's playbook during his 16 seasons with the Heat. For Spoelstra, cracking the code with his talented roster is a procedural task, a matter of mastering systems and better understanding tactical schemes through scientific method. The motivational piece is important, but ultimately the bugs in Miami's operation wil be fixed through problem-solving.
The Heat's 6-4 record after 10 games is a source of disappointment, although it's neither fatal nor uncorrectable -- and it's also a little bit deceptive. Miami ranks third in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The latter rating has slipped in recent days and defense ranks as the top item on Spoelstra's current agenda. But there's a lot to like, even if the product on the court resembles a sketch more than a finished portrait. There are also causes for concern, places where the Heat should be further along than they are.
Today, we'll look at three areas where the Heat are excelling -- and on Tuesday, we'll examine three facets of the game where the Heat need improvement.
Creating clean looks for weakside shooters
The presence of both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the half court presents nearly impossible choices for defenses (that was the point, right?). Do opponents double the Heat's perimeter superstars or play them straight up one-on-one? And if they place two defenders on the ball when James and Wade have it -- which is often the case -- where does the help come from? We saw Orlando -- and to a good extent, New Orleans -- pack the paint against Miami when James and Wade had the ball on the right side, where many of the Heat's initial pick-and-rolls originate. Both the Magic and Hornets (the two best defenses in the league right now) covered the first pick-and-roll exceptionally well. They show or switch decisively, but most importantly, they situate their other big man in the paint between James or Wade and the rim, just in case there's a blow-by. What's happening on the weak side? Two defenders are now responsible for three Heaters, and that zone can stand up against playmakers like James and Wade for only so long.
Here's an example: With the Magic and Heat tied 35-35 in the second quarter of their Oct. 29 meeting, we see a picture-perfect illustration of how the Heat benefit when Wade becomes a willing passer against an air-tight pick-and-roll defense. Off the screen from Chris Bosh, Wade draws Rashard Lewis on the switch. Normally, this would be an advantageous mismatch for Wade to slice his way past Lewis to the rack, but Gortat is ready and waiting in the paint. Meanwhile, the Magic's two weakside defenders (Chris Duhon and Vince Carter) straddle the key on the far side. Wade sees the advantage on the weak side, and hurls an overhead pass to Carlos Arroyo along the perimeter. Both Duhon and Carter shift high, while Arroyo immediately shuttles the ball over to James Jones, who has plenty of space to launch a wide-open 3-pointer. The Magic simply ran out of defenders.
Given how curious we were to see various permutations of James, Wade and Bosh run the pick-and-roll, it's a little ironic that the Heat's most effective play out of these sets is often a kickout to the corner. This season, Jones has been assisted by James 10 times, Wade 10 times and Bosh four times.
Know who else has been pretty effective in his capacity as a weakside option? Mr. Arroyo. During Arroyo's previous three seasons, he was assisted on 24, 24 and 38 percent of his field goals. So far this season, the Heat's starting point guard has been assisted on 75 percent of his field goals, which tells us that he's frequently open and that his teammates are recognizing this. He's also posting a career-high true shooting percentage of 56.7 percent, grabbing rebounds at a decent rate and, believe it or not, ranks as the Heat's leader in offensive rating (points per possession while the player is on court). Arroyo might not be the Heat's long-term solution at point guard, but he has been effective early in games as the recipient of James' draw-and-kicks and as a weakside threat from midrange on the Heat's "swing" reversal.
The pick-and-pop game
The same dynamics which allow the Heat to get space for their shooters on the weak side have enabled big men like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Udonis Haslem and -- yes -- Chris Bosh to succeed popping off screens as shooters. These three bigs all have the capacity to drain midrange jumpers in space. When James or Wade operates as the ball handler on the pick-and-roll, defenses often double the ball, leaving the screen man wide open. One of James' most unheralded skills is his ability to deliver that pass above, through or behind the double-team to his screener. He and Ilgauskas have formed one of the most lethal combinations over the past several years, a ballet that was on full display Saturday night against Toronto, when Ilgauskas logged 30 minutes in his first game as a starter. Against Boston, James assisted Haslem on three pick-and-pops. And Bosh has been consistently proficient in this capacity as well (possibly too comfortable, as it's high time he leverage that space for some more aggressive dribble-drives and easy trips to the stripe).
Pick-and-pop actions that draw double-teams to the ball handler require the defense to send help to the popper on the rotation. Everyone in the building knows what's coming when Ilgauskas, Haslem or Bosh moves off a screen, so what's enabling these guys to get all that space?
Let's go back to the Heat's prolific first half against Utah, when all seemed bright on Biscayne Bay. James rumbles downcourt off a Jazz miss looking to push, but Utah's strong transition defense stunts the break, as Andrei Kirilenko gets back and meets James at the arc. Bosh doesn't waste any time before he offers a screen on Kirilenko for James to move right, which he does. Both Kirilenko and Paul Millsap pursue James. But nobody shades Bosh, who simply moves left to the top of the key. So who's available for the rotation? Well, the Heat have placed Arroyo in the right corner and Joel Anthony on the right block -- quite some distance away from Bosh. Neither of their men (Deron Williams and Al Jefferson, respectively) is a true candidate, particularly with James making his incursion into the paint on that side of the floor. Who's on the left side? Dwyane Wade, with only Raja Bell in close proximity. Bell is essentially zoned up against both Bosh and Wade. As James makes the quick pass to Bosh, Millsap, who has been staying between James (who has the ball) and the basket, tries to recover onto Bosh. Bell makes a less decisive move -- and you can't blame him because if he leaves, Bosh would happily keep the ball moving over to a wide-open Wade with all kinds of space. With plenty of time, Bosh rises for his smooth left-handed jumper.
We often think of good spacing as a perfect symmetry of shooters fanned along the perimeter, but here the Heat tilt the floor to the right and leave Wade alone on the left side. By doing so, they put Utah in a pickle: Leave Wade alone, leave Bosh alone, or take your chances with a thin line of defense against LeBron James. There's no satisfying choice.
Protecting the paint
The Heat have fallen off considerably since the night they allowed only seven shots in the basket area to the Magic, but they're still a tough team to score against down low. Opponents shoot less than 57 percent in the basket area against Miami (third best) and convert fewer than 12 field goals per game (also third). When we think about teams who do a good job keeping opponents away from the rim, we generally envision an imposing big man and swarming shot-blockers. The Heat don't have that kind of personnel. When they're operating on all cylinders, the Miami defense protects the interior not with size, but with speed and pressure on the perimeter. In order to get shots in the paint, an offense has to feed scorers on the block, either with entry passes or a well-crafted pick-and-roll, or it needs dribble penetration.
After getting bludgeoned by Boston's rotating actions for much of the night on Thursday, the Heat showed elements of their active, quick-reacting defense during their mini-run in the fourth quarter -- and they did it with their hybrid lineup (going smallish up front with Bosh and Haslem, but long on the perimeter with Wade, James and Jones). Wade draws the assignment of guarding Rajon Rondo. This is a patented Celtics set, with Ray Allen curling counterclockwise around a high screen from Shaquille O'Neal at the top of the key, then along the baseline from right to left, where he gets another screen from Kevin Garnett at the left block. James Jones is in close pursuit but like 1,000 defenders before him, he gets slowed by the Garnett screen. This frees up Allen on the right side for the pass from Rondo, but Wade has anticipated this from the outset. Allen catches the pass, but is immediately smothered by Wade and has no room to trigger his quick release, so he returns the ball to Rondo. Since Wade has moved off Rondo, the Celtics' point guard gobbles up the space in front of him for a drive, but Wade recovers beautifully once Jones catches up to the play and challenges Rondo's floater, which barely grazes the front of the rim. Equally as important, James meticulously stays between Rondo and Paul Pierce, who has been lurking along the perimeter, poised for the kickout.
The very next possession, the Heat induce a three-second violation on Garnett, as they deny everything, starting with the initial pass way up top above the 3-point line from Garnett to Pierce -- the kind of table-setting pass most defenses won't even bother to challenge. When the ball goes back to Rondo, he orchestrates a slip-screen with Garnett, as Bosh aggressively jumps way out onto Rondo's left shoulder. This leaves Garnett with a swath of space on the left block, where Rondo finds him with a lob pass -- but Haslem quickly rotates over while the ball is in the air. Garnett spins baseline, but this allows Haslem to tighten the vise even further. Garnett has nowhere to go. Rondo reads this and slashes down the lane where he gets the pass from Garnett, but the Celtics are whistled for a 3-second call (Garnett). What's notable when you watch this play is the deliberate and staggered manner of Boston's normally fluid movement.
Let's not give Miami too much credit. These were arguably the two best possessions in a game that required far more than what the Heat extended defensively. But when the Heat have put their minds to it this season, they have been a tough team to exploit. James and Wade are relentlessly busy defenders. James, in particular, uses his combination of muscle, speed and intuition to deny passes, to body up on physical opponents, and to swarm the block with double-teams -- knowing he's fast and instinctive enough to close out on his original assignment if need be. Wade executes the kind of two-step recovery that he performed on Allen and Rondo as well as any guard in the league not named Rondo. The bigs aren't overly physical, but they're smart and quick on the power forward-center rotation (the awful efforts against Emeka Okafor and Paul Millsap, notwithstanding).
Practice makes perfect, and the Heat are still in the infant stages of their education as a defensive unit. Even with the short circuits against Team Millsap, Boston and at New Orleans, they rank third in overall defensive efficiency. Once they tighten their transition defense and identify some of the breakdowns that are occurring on the back line, they could very well reclaim their status as the toughest team in the league to score against.