Sunday, April 24, 2011
How the Heat let Game 4 slip away
By Kevin Arnovitz
The math is fairly straightforward. Barring quick turnovers and some intentional fouling, a six-point game with about 90 seconds to play will usually yield about three possessions per team.
At that point, it's a skins game. If the team with the lead can score on one of its three possessions, it essentially forces the team that's trailing to run the table, with at least one 3-pointer in the mix.
Conversely, get a stop on any one of those final three possessions, and chances are you can coast to the finish line with a couple of late free throws.
In short, the Miami Heat collapse at the finish of Game 4 was a failure on both ends of the floor.
LeBron James will undoubtedly shoulder the popular blame for his inability to convert on Miami's final meaningful trip downcourt, but the Heat turned in six poor possessions during the game's final minute and a half -- three offensive and three defensive.
Had the Heat executed on any one -- and certainly two -- of the six, they would have likely returned home on Sunday night with nearly a full week to prepare for the conference semifinals.
Here's what happened instead, with the Heat leading 82-76 with 1:35 remaining in the game:
This is the failed play that everyone will talk about, but there was plenty that preceded it.
Evan Turner's runner The Heat are generally a very selective trapping team, but when they fell behind early on Sunday, they ratcheted up their defensive aggressiveness by throwing multiple bodies at the Philadelphia 76ers' ball handlers -- in the backcourt, on pick-and-rolls and particularly when the ball found its way to the sideline.
When traps work, they look unstoppable. After all, there are few human beings walking the earth who can consistently score or make sound plays when two professional basketball players are hounding them in their personal space.
But trapping presents all kinds of hazards, as well. On a pick-and-roll requires, the defense must rotate, which means defenders now have to make judgment calls and multiple decisions. If two defenders are guarding the ball, who's going to pick up the roller? And who's going to pick up the guy the picker-upper left? When the ball handler dishes it off, the second defender has to find the open man before the ball does.
This stuff requires coordination and precision, which is why many coaches (including the Heat's Erik Spoelstra and the Sixers' Doug Collins) generally prefer a strong base defense, sending help only when absolutely necessary.
For most of Sunday afternoon, though, the trap worked wonders for the Heat. So it's a cruel irony that it failed them on a defensive possession that could've sealed the game.
The Sixers have a small lineup on the floor that includes Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Evan Turner, Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, while the Heat counter with Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, James, James Jones and Chris Bosh.
Williams (guarded by Wade) brings the ball up the left side of the floor, with Holiday, Philadelphia's starting point guard, playing off the ball, eventually clearing through to the right side where Brand and Iguodala are situated. Turner (Chalmers' assignment) sets a screen for Williams just to the left of the top of the key.
The Heat have been running traps at Williams regularly in this series, and do so again here. But the defense never fully recovers and Miami pays for it.
Williams is able to move right of the lane, as far as the foul line, where he meets resistance. That's when he pitches the ball off to Holiday way out on the right wing. Holiday, played by LeBron, takes one left-handed dribble toward the paint, but hits heavy traffic. He looks up to see Turner wide open on the left wing.
How wide open is Turner? If you froze the play and drew a straight line down the middle of the floor, nine players would fall to the right side of that demarcation. The 10th is Turner.
Instead of recovering promptly, Chalmers "ball watches" long after he should return to Turner. He's still hanging around the scrum in the middle of the floor once Williams dishes the ball off to Holiday.
The oddest thing, though, is that when it finally occurs to Chalmers that he might want to pick up the rookie scorer on the far side of the court, the route Chalmers takes resembles a parabola.
When Holiday finds Turner on the far side with the pass, Chalmers is so far upcourt, Turner has the baseline all to himself. He takes a single dribble and, with forward momentum, hits the runner. Bosh does an acceptable job of contesting, but it's a long distance and Turner has nothing but free space to work with.
Chalmers has his attributes as an on-ball defender, but this is an atrocious piece of team defense by the third-year guard.
Miami 82, Philadelphia 78
Mario Chalmers' missed 3-pointer
You normally like to see a team get into its offense quickly to ensure that there's a second or third trigger available should the first one fail. But you can understand why Wade takes his time dribbling the ball up the left sideline. The clock is ticking toward one minute and the Heat have possession along with a four-point lead. Why hurry?
Wade dribbles in place with Holiday in front of him. Chalmers and Bosh are down on the box, while Jones sets up on the weak side perimeter. James lingers around the top of the key, guarded by Iguodala.
It's obvious what's coming:
The vaunted Wade-James pick-and-roll. As the Heat's single most efficient half-court action, it's the right play call here.
A Wade-James pick-and-roll doesn't have a monolithic objective (other than, you know, to score two points). It can be used to get Wade a driving lane, or James on the move diving to the rim, or, as is the case here, to work a mismatch.
James clearly wants to post up Holiday and play bullyball, and the Sixers seem comfortable executing the switch. So now James backs Holiday in to the left elbow, while the lanky Iguodala harasses Wade at the top of the floor.
We sometimes forget Iguodala has a 6-foot-11 wingspan, and that length really bothers Wade here. Even though James is poised for an entry pass, Wade can't execute it over Iguodala's outstretched arms.
With the shot clock ticking down -- 7, 6, 5 -- Wade realizes he needs to cut bait, so he kicks the ball over to Jones, who has a reasonably open look. It's not an infinite look, but it's enough. Yet, Jones passes up the shot. He takes a dribble inside the line, then dishes it off to Chalmers in the right corner, who also has an open look.
With the 24-second clock expiring, Chalmers launches the 3-pointer, but the shot is short.
Jrue Holiday's 3-pointer The Sixers finished the season as the NBA's 17th most efficient offense. As much as Philadelphia can struggle in the half court, it thrives in transition and on the secondary break. It ranks toward the top of the league in transition offense and is very proficient at early jump shots.
After the Sixers secure the rebound off Chalmers' miss, they get the ball to Holiday to push it upcourt. James has been covering Holiday, but he went to the offensive glass and is now trailing the play.
The Heat generally do a nice job of sending enough personnel back to stop a potential break and, sure enough, Wade has already reported downcourt to stop the ball. You can see him motion toward a trailing James to pick up the right sideline, where Turner is streaking down the floor.
Holiday wants to initiate something early here, but Wade meets him at the arc. Just as you think the Sixers are going to settle into a set offense ... BAM. Holiday slinks back over the line and fires a 3-pointer that falls through the net with 46.6 seconds remaining in the game.
Wade afforded Holiday a few feet. Was he right to do so?
"[Holiday] froze me," Wade said. "He got off a shot probably not many people in the arena expected him to shoot."
Holiday took a dribble perpendicular to Wade, then squared up and launched the shot.
"Holiday's was a clean look," Spoesltra said. "it was about as clean a look as you can get normally against us."
Miami 82, Philadelphia 81
Dwyane Wade's missed fadeaway The Heat have done an admirable job in recent weeks choreographing legitimate basketball sets in big situations.
We've seen the emergence of the aforementioned Wade-James pick-and-roll. The Heat have been slaying opponents by running angle screen-and-rolls with Wade and Bosh. When the Heat beat the Sixers late in the regular season, they ran a gorgeous set that compromised Philly's stay-at-home defense. They ran multiple screen actions to get Wade that wide driving lane to beat the Los Angeles Lakers down the stretch last month.
There isn't a shortage of stuff in Spoelstra's playbook the Heat can go to in critical late-game situations. This isn't a team with a single superstar, or a unit with one guy who demands a double-team and a few specialists, when running an isolation or 1-4 flat can be justified. This team, with its diversity of skill sets, should be legally bound to make all five defenders work.
Yet what do the Heat do here?
Wade whittles down the clock opposite Holiday, a capable defender who gave up only 0.82 point per possession in isolation situations during the regular season. James, Chalmers and Jones are planted to the floor standing still counterclockwise around the arc, with Bosh hangs out on the weak side block.
Wade backs Holiday in from the 3-point line to the edge of the paint. After he tries to cross Holiday over, Wade picks up his dribble with :09 left on the shot clock:
James is at the top of the arc with about seven feet between him and his defender, Iguodala. James isn't the most proficient 3-point shooter on his team, but a wide, wide-open 3-point look from the top of the floor is a much higher percentage play than a tightly contested Wade 2-pointer.
Mario Chalmers is also open from 3-point range.
James Jones is absurdly open across the floor in front of the Sixers' bench. At this point, all five Sixers defenders have packed the paint. None is in a position to close out on a 3-point shooter were one to fire up an attempt.
If there's a counterfactual of this play, it has James making a basket cut from his perch on the arc down the gut of the lane to collect a pass from Wade. We can only hypothesize how many points the Heat would score if we brought this scenario to life ten times from the frozen screen, but you'd have to think it's somewhere in the 12-15 range, with a highly probable result being a foul call.
Instead, Wade pivots with his right foot, spins left to find more space, then falls away as he launches an off-balanced jumper.
"I got a good turnaround, it just didn't go in," Wade said.
Sure, it's a shot Wade has hit a couple hundred times before and will hit a couple hundred times again before he retires. But on this team with this personnel at your disposal, you can't in good conscience classify Wade's attempt as "good."
Lou Williams' 3-pointer With about two seconds separating the shot and the game clocks, Williams bringing the ball up the right side.
Even though this is a hold-for-the-last shot situation, the Sixers are well aware they have trouble creating shots in a half-court set. So rather than wait, Brand immediately sets a hard screen that pastes Wade and allows Williams to move left with the ball.
Bosh does tremendous work here jumping out on the perimeter, ceding no space to a gunslinger like Williams. Even though he's eager to get back to Brand, who has drifted into the paint, Bosh wisely stays with Williams until Wade, who slips while trying to recover, can get back into the play.
Williams can't find any room, so he pitches the ball off to Turner along the left sideline, about 29 feet from the basket.
Very little is materializing for the Sixers. Holiday, who is on the right side, is calling for a reversal. Williams moves in front of Turner toward Chalmers' left shoulder as if he's going to screen for him, but instead flares back to the top of the floor. Turner returns the ball to Williams as the Sixers reset.
So now it's Williams versus Wade, with everyone else at home. With Wade just inside the 3-point line, Williams takes one dribble from about 30 feet. Wade now comes out, just as Williams stops and pops a 27-footer with 10 seconds on the game clock.
He buries it.
"The [3-pointer] there with Williams, that was highly contested," Spoelstra said. "[Dwyane] got a hand-to-ball contest."
Though Wade confessed he was caught off-guard by Holiday's shot, he agreed with Spoelstra's assessment.
"I got a great contest on that shot," Wade said. "I couldn't defend it any better when it comes to playing both the drive and the shot, I got a good contest. He hit a good shot."
Philadelphia 84, Miami 82
LeBron James' missed layup
The Heat have 8.1 seconds and a two-point deficit. James Jones is the inbounder on the left sideline, with all four teammates lined up in front of him. The ball finds its way to James at the top of the floor. His trip there was easy, as he zipped up from the low block, rubbing Iguodala off Wade.
Iguodala catches up to James at the top of the floor, and James goes to work immediately. He drives along the right edge of the lane with Iguodala squarely in front of him. Chalmers and Jones remained along the left side of the arc, while Bosh sets up underneath and Wade trails the play, looking for a potential putback.
Brand doesn't bother himself a bit with Bosh, and why should he? By virtue of making this an obvious isolation drive for James, the Heat absolve the Sixers from having to defend anyone else on the floor. Brand eagerly leaves Bosh beneath the basket and rises in unison with James, his big right hand brushing the ball, which caroms off the corner of the backboard.
The Sixers collect the miss, and Wade is forced to foul Turner, who ices the game with a couple of free throws.
"There were a couple different triggers to it," Spoesltra said of the play. "That was the first trigger. [James was] able to put the ball on the floor, but we weren't able to get anything out of it."
What if the Heat had run this with, say, Bosh setting a step-up screen? Chances are the Sixers trap LeBron in that situation, but would that double-team have presented any greater resistance to LeBron than Iguodala primed in isolation and Brand essentially acting as a goalie? Maybe Iguodala gets hung up and LeBron finds the seam he's looking for? Maybe a helper has to collapse from the perimeter and a shooter is left wide open? Maybe Bosh floats to 15 feet because Brand is trapping James and there's no one available to rotate? At this point, would you prefer LeBron against the world or a wide-open look for Bosh at the right elbow?
There are a million variables put into motion when an offense pressures a defense by moving players around on a court. I don't believe for a second that isolations for LeBron James are less than a 20 percent proposition.
But I do know that, since the 5-game losing streak ended in early March, the Heat have scored their most impressive buckets in the most critical situations when they were at their most creative.