Searching For Miami's Defense

Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

Sometimes, what you’re looking for is right in front of you.

Before Saturday’s contest against the Brooklyn Nets, the Miami HEAT were a below-average defensive team – at least, they were according to the numbers. The team’s defensive efficiency numbers had them among teams struggling to stay in the playoff picture in November and naturally this led most observers to wonder what had happened. Something must have been wrong for an organization that cares so deeply about defense to allow teams to score with such ease.

Over the last couple of weeks, Erik Spoelstra maintained that the defense he was seeking was there, and that all the team needed was to be consistent. While it’s tough to make sense of that when the team was giving up over a point-per-possession to below-average offensive teams – including a Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers squad – coaches think about their teams differently than a fan might. Spolestra is process-oriented, as in he doesn’t care much whether or not a shot goes in as long as the shot was defended well. So as teams were hitting threes at a remarkably high rate against the HEAT, Spoelstra just wanted his team to get back to making timely, smart help rotations.

Fortunately, he also had a nice batch of results to lean on in case he ever needed to prove a point.

For comparison’s sake, after coming back from a double-digit deficit against the Nets the HEAT are giving up 102.8 points per 100 possessions, good for a ranking of 19. But when it came down to clutch, late-game, LeBron James-to-Ray Allen, Goonies never say die, once more unto the breach time – last five minutes, up or down five points – opponents had a league-worst efficiency rating of 79.4. In other words, when it came down to getting stops or losing, the team was performing at other-worldly levels.

Those numbers weren’t and aren’t sustainable over the course of the entire season, but in that 41-minute sample size the defense that won Miami a championship was on display. Rotations were on points, guys were talking, helpers were helping, shooters were being run off the three-point line and the baseline was a death-trap. Supporters of the team naturally want it to live up to the standards set in those stretches, but over the course of an 82-game regular season that’s asking too much. The defense didn’t have to be as good as it had been late in games, it just couldn’t be as inconsistent as it had been in the first 43 minutes.

Against the Nets, the HEAT found the balance.

“Yes. Its slim pickings this year,” Chris Bosh said when asked if this was the team’s best sustained defensive effort.

“We were talking as a group about making a better effort. It was time for us to really start seeing some differences. We wanted to really take that challenge and play better defensive basketball. I think today that’s kind of the way we want to play. Getting stops, getting out in the open court and I think we’re best when we’re doing that.”

In some respects, the HEAT are never going to have the most fundamentally sound defense. Spoelstra pushes the team to achieve that level of total defensive consciousness, but as Bosh mentioned the offense feasts on live-ball turnovers created by defenders taking risks and creating chaos. But until that opportunity to take a risk shows itself, there’s a course to follow. More often than not, the defense will look shaky simply because players deviate too often from the system. When they strike the balance, you can have entire halves like Miami did against Brooklyn.

The Nets scored 30 total points in the second half, including a mere 11 in the fourth quarter, and if you expand those numbers over the course of an entire game that translates to about 64 points in a 100 possession game. In college, that’s the equivalent of a top team shutting down a pre-conference opponent. In the NBA, that’s the equivalent of building a moat around the three-point line populated by mutant sea bass with laser beams attached to their heads.

But even in the first half, according to Spoelstra, when the team appeared to be getting torched, the process was still there.

“There were some very good possessions in the first half,” Spoelstra said. “What I liked was the communication was probably at an all-time high in the first half.”

Can you tell the difference in quality between these three Gerald Wallace jumpers, made possible because James was helping off Wallace to swarm Williams and the Heat apparently schemed not to give James help given that Wallace makes less than a quarter of his above-the-break threes?

The make, on the left, was in the first half. The next two misses were in the second half. That’s process over results. Sometimes guys hit shots, and the league is full of players who can hit well-defended shots. What Spoelstra didn’t like about that half was that the team was playing 22 seconds of solid defense and then ruining it with an unnecessary foul or by giving up an offense rebound because of a missed box-out assignment.

The HEAT didn’t have to change their rotation patterns to find a remedy, they had to hold themselves accountable and just play better.

“We don’t talk about our offense much; we talk about defense,” Dwyane Wade said. “We’ve got guys who are willing to do it. It’s just about guys getting that continuity down, that unity down and understanding our defense is about helping each other. We’re not the biggest team. We don’t have shot blockers. We’ve got to do it harder.”

If doing it harder gets you to a shooter half-a-step quicker, then that’s what the HEAT did, with Norris Cole playing a big role in not only pestering both Deron Williams and C.J. Watson but helping out wherever necessary.

Take a look at this possession, otherwise known as Norris Cole’s Omega Swarm:

Cole is assigned to one of the best point guards in the league, but the moment the Nets swing the ball to the weakside it becomes his responsibility to affect the interior passing lane with Bosh drawn higher up the floor. So Cole gets into the paint, waits for Ray Allen to sink down and upon that release Cole gets back out on Williams to meet him on the catch. Then he’s off to the other side of the floor to help the helper, in this case covering the shooter that Mike Miller had to leave in order to defend the ball – but notice that Cole only closes out when it becomes his responsibility to do so.

A few possessions later we see the balance between the system and the chaos.

First, Cole doesn’t cheat even though he knows the screen is coming. Williams takes a quick dribble back towards the middle in case Cole was to jump over the top of the pick, but with Cole playing straight-up, Williams goes back towards the screen.

The HEAT get perfect coverage here, even though the Nets don’t challenge as much as they could have. Bosh hedges on the screen, keeps Williams from turning the corner and with Cole recovering Williams has to pass. Meanwhile, Wade slides over to cover Andray Blatche for Bosh and then quickly gets back to Jerry Stackhouse as Bosh runs back to his original assignment.

So far, so fundamental. Now Joe Johnson has Miller in isolation – the Nets likely didn’t post Johnson up much because of Miller’s size – and James makes his move. It’s important to recognize that this requires James to trust that Bosh will cover two men on the other side of the paint, but that’s part of taking a risk. In this case, James gets the loose ball and Bosh stays in position to defend the desperation three.

And just for good measure, the team’s transition defense was solid throughout, giving up just eight fast-break points and only two in the second half, largely because Deron Williams was running into formations like this when attempting to run off misses:

These are just a few examples, but the HEAT’s defense reached the point where the Nets were going to have to be exceptional in the half-court in order to get a good shot off. In the first half, Brooklyn’s ball movement was smart and snappy, but it eventually deteriorated into predictable perimeter passes and quick or unassisted shots. Just as a it takes a great defense to consistently stop great offense, Miami’s defense at its finest demands near-perfection from opponents, and as the night wears on that can be difficult to maintain.

Notice, too, who is on the floor for Miami in all of these possessions. You’ve got Cole on Williams, Miller on Johnson and Ray Allen on the floor at all times. While Allen has not been strong in one-one-one situations this year and has had his +/- numbers suffer as a result, he’s also played in all of the aforementioned clutch minutes that have featured excellent Miami defensive results.

The point is not that Allen has been an exceptional defender, but that the team is capable of playing exceptional defense with Allen, or anyone else, on the floor. All they need to do is stick to the system until the time comes not to – and if they aren’t defending well, do it better. The defense you want is right there in front of you, in the numbers and on the tape. It won’t be like that all the time, but its there, and for now that should be enough.