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Prized Possession: Directing Traffic

Think of some of South Beach’s most congested streets. Let’s use Alton Road and Washington Avenue for this example, but any busy urban street will do. When you’re traveling north, dodging taxi cabs and beachgoers, you would typically expect that turning right would be a simple experience. But there’s often someone headed the opposite direction that’s been waiting to turn left for a couple minutes, and when they see you slowing down to turn, they try to thread the needle and hit the one-lane road just ahead of you.

Not that you notice this. Each vehicle stops, they honk, you honk, and other travelers express their general confusion and annoyance over the temporary jam.

On the road, this sort of situation will have you invoking various calamities on your environment, but translate the same situation to the basketball court, and an offense can have a defense doing just the same. That’s just what Erik Spoelstra did against the New Jersey Nets.

One of the easiest ways to pinpoint the progression of Miami’s offensive improvement over the course of last season is to single out the team’s off-ball movement. Before February, the HEAT averaged about six used cuts per game, but once the calendar hit the shortest month of the year, Miami’s cutters used upwards of 8.5 possessions a game, a mark that rose over nine in the playoffs.

Though it’s been clear to most observers just how much more comfortable, and fluid, Miami’s offense appears to be, it’s in part because through nine games in 2011-12, the HEAT are averaging over 10 used cuts per game. This signifies not only improved instincts off the ball, but improved passing awareness of those with the ball to hit those cutters.

But even in a game such as Miami’s double-digit victory over the Nets, where the HEAT used 17 cuts, there’s always cause for more movement. And the easiest way to do that is run bodies off screens, actions that exist explicitly to create greater space to operate.

You can even create the same space for two players, as long as you keep in mind the principles of right of way.

Being such a timing-based attack, there is not much schematically complicated about this set. But what initially catches the eye is that where the HEAT often have shooters spacing the floor in either corner and bigs at the elbows ready to set screens, Chris Bosh is sent to the right corner off a New Jersey basket.

Then you have identical actions on either side, actions that are allowed because each player on the floor is pulling a defender out of the paint. There’s no traffic on the side street.

With LeBron James handling the ball up top, Norris Cole screens down on Kris Humphries, setting up the Bosh curl into the paint.

Watch the timing here, though. As soon as Bosh gets to the screen, Cole turns to cut along the baseline and fill in the far corner, vacated that instant by Shane Battier, who is getting ready to run off a Udonis Haslem screen. If Cole doesn’t take his man away from Bosh’s cut, there’s a small defender sitting in the lane, ready to take a charge. And if Battier is too early on his curl, there’s your traffic jam.

Because Bosh has taken his man to the left block, there is no help defender to deter James’ entry pass, so Battier gets a decent, albeit not great, shot and converts. It’s a good result, but let’s consider the other options this set offers.

There’s Bosh, who in the future could easily get a dunk off the curl or catch a defender sleeping and cut baseline rather than going over the top of the pick. If Cole’s man anticipates a catch and lingers in the lane for a split-second, then Cole will likely be open for three on the left side. If Haslem’s man prevents the entry pass to Battier by jumping the route, then Haslem can sit at the left elbow for a jumper. Or Haslem can force the defense to react again and set a quick pick for James, who could then attack a defense that has already collapsed to the rim.

All from two simple screens, and a little traffic direction.

This is not something Miami does often, however. Possessions used by players running off screens account for 4.5 percent of the HEAT’s offense – 4.3 last season – which is due as much to a lack of necessity than anything else. With dominant scorers capable of drawing extra defenders and creating open looks for teammates, the HEAT don’t usually need to spend valuable time on the shot clock running players off screens just to get an open look, sets that are already vulnerable to a physical defense affecting that precious timing.

When they do mix things up, however, HEAT players score on 46.7 percent of the opportunities they get off screens, more than all but three other teams in the league.