Anatomy of a Miami Heat Fast Break
Some things are easy to take for granted. You can see LeBron James and Dwyane Wade flying down the court and through the air night after night after year and eventually it becomes something you expect. Over two years ago, Wade corralled a rebound on a February evening in Indiana and decided to launch a full-court pass to James, who caught, shot and finished quicker than you or I could put one foot in front of the other. It was a singularly magnificent moment in time, deservedly heralded for days and weeks afterwards.
It also not only set the bar for Miami HEAT highlights, but delicately placed the bar on top of Mount Olympus.
Now in Year Three with the current core, the incredible is a regular occurrence. The HEAT have one of the Top-40 or so offenses – and a Top-5 shooting season – in league history, James might be having the best season by any player ever and while we don’t quite get a 90-foot alley oop every night, almost every game features multiple sequences of speed and ball movement punctuated by James’ power. It happens so often that its easy to just clap, make a witty remark and move on but every year there are teams that go an entire season without the highlights the HEAT regularly put up in a single game.
Behind those moments, behind the league’s second-most efficient transition offense – in a constant battle of leap-frog with the Oklahoma City Thunder – is execution that often borders on perfection. There is also improvisation (like this tip-save James used to kick start a fast break) but beneath all the creativity there are boring old fundamentals that, while they may make you stop reading right here, make it all possible. And it all comes down to spacing and angles.
Take this fast-break mid-way through the first quarter of the double-overtime win over Sacramento. Chris Bosh tips a pass and gains possession along the right baseline and the HEAT are off to the races – but nobody just runs down the court willy nilly. There are lanes to fill, so Wade spreads out wide on the opposite side of the floor to pull the second defender farther away from the ball as James sprints ahead to fill the middle lane ahead of Haslem*, creating a triangle.
*While James would beat Haslem up the court in a foot race, Haslem keeps his pace at a jog and cedes the lane to James. Haslem knows that in this situation he’s most valuable coming in late to clean up any possible mess.
Triangles are an important theme here. Just as it’s easier to enter the ball into the post from the wing than it is from the top of the key, it’s far simpler to create and use passing lanes in the diagonal. This is especially true when you have a man advantage, as its common sense that two players can defend three bodies the closer those bodies are to one another.
That only covers Bosh and Wade on the wing, however. What makes this formation a triangle and not a line is James controlling his pace in the middle of the floor. If James sprints full speed ahead and brings himself even with Bosh then Tyreke Evans and Jason Thompson are going to adhere to James, in effect mucking up the center of the court and making it more difficult for Bosh to come up with a high-percentage look in a situation the HEAT score almost 120 points per 100 possessions. By maintaining his pace, James not only makes himself an easier target for Bosh, he creates uncertainty with the defense. And the longer the defense can’t commit, the easier it will be to converge upon the high-percentage zone around the rim.
Think about it like a Bruce Lee movie (Fists of Fury, but that’s beside the point), only if Lee were trying to stop a fast-break instead of break femur bones. If Lee is outmatched 3-to-1 by evildoers, is it easier for him to deal with them in hand-to-hand combat if they approach him in a triangle formation, or in a straight line? Lee is the star of the movie, so you aren’t going to get him anyway, but at least in a triangle you’re giving your martial artists the space to maneuver without giving Lee a single target to focus on.
In hoops, we have the ball, and in the fast-break triangle here Bosh has the option to pass backwards in order to facilitate forward movement.
Bosh waits for Thompson to square his body to the ball and at least partially commit before passing back to James, leaving Evans as the only defender in position to defend an attack from the middle lane. Evans commits after the pass, and because Wade is slightly ahead of James and starting a cut to the rim, all James has to do is drop a lead pass and double-check to make sure the ball goes through the rim.
This is elementary stuff, of course. Most high-school coaches running players through a three-man weave drill will take a moment to educate on the benefit of running wide on the break and not bunching up. But at every level of basketball players still manage to forget about these simple principles and ruin some of the best scoring chances you can ever hope to have. Just last week in a game against the HEAT, the Chicago Bulls managed just nine points on 12 transition possessions, in part because they lack great finisher without Derrick Rose but also because the players involved ran too tight and the HEAT were able to affect the outcome of the play.
Let’s look a few more possessions where the HEAT properly executed a fast-break, like this one where Mario Chalmers forces Wade into an over-the-shoulder pass because he’s not ahead of the ball.
There’s nothing selfish going on here. Wade passes off once Isaiah Thomas commits to the ball, Chalmers tosses back to Wade when the same thing happens to him and James actually slows his pace on the wing because he’s already pulled Evans so far from the ball, James only attacking the rim when the lane opens up.
Or there’s this possession where James actually gets caught filling the same lane as Wade, ahead of the ball, so he gets out of the way by running even farther ahead and getting behind the defense. It’s an awkward route to take in transition, but it works because James is using empty space, and the lack of defenders in the area, to his advantage. As long as he can get in front of the play and not slow anything down, the defense is eventually going to have to decide between him and the ball, which happens to be in the hands of Wade.
All the while, Chalmers runs straight to his spot in the corner as the ideal second or third option.
On this next one, the spacing is a little more difficult because the Kings have three defenders back, but again the HEAT open up options not by taking a direct route to the rim but by being conscious of how their presence and actions affects the possession as a whole.
I’ll readily admit that I’m not fluent in the intricacies of soccer tactics, but with a little investigation the principles on display on HEAT fast-breaks (and any ideal basketball transition play) are the same employed by FC Barcelona and their Tiki-Taka* style of play. The foundation of Barcelona’s offense for the last decade has been triangles, pace, space and passing. Passing back to create an angle for a better forward pass, running to the goal after passing wide, filling space to force a reaction from the defense, it’s the same on the pitch as on the court, all with some of the world’s best athletes often resisting the urge to go all out, instead picking their spots to shift into high gear.
*Highly recommend watching this video on Tiki-Taka.
This could be someone with a casual interest in soccer reading too much into things, but a possession like the following could probably play out just the same with James and Wade as it would with Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta.
None of this may seem very spectacular, but it’s what makes the spectacular possible. No matter how athletic or talented you are, every player, from high school junior varsity to All-NBA players, has to both these instincts, and trust in ways to positively affect the game without the ball in their hands.