Miami won Game 4 at Indiana on Sunday for a ton of reasons. Among them:
• LeBron James and Dwayne Wade played to the level of the two best players in the league, and beyond.
• Simultaneous foul trouble to power forward David West and center Roy Hibbert made the Pacers easier to guard on offense and far less intimidating on defense. Those foul issues also forced coach Frank Vogel to deal with several rotation-related dilemmas at once, including how long to sit his big men and whether/when he should use a small lineup with only one of the Tyler Hansbrough/Lou Amundson backup duo that has been shaky all season.
• Late in the game, the Heat leaned on a nicely designed pick-and-pop play involving Udonis Haslem as the screener and designated shooter. The play is simple at its core and at times can reduce James or Wade to spectator status, but coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff deserve credit for tweaking the set in two ways that made it more effective.
First, they had Haslem set the screen farther out beyond the three-point line than usual, forcing his defender, West, to come out more than he’d prefer and giving James/Wade a head of steam off the dribble. And second, Joel Anthony, Hibbert’s man, usually cleared way out to the wing so that Indiana’s 7-foot-2 center could not camp out in the paint and await the ball-handler. Anthony is obviously no threat more than an arm’s length away from the hoop, but the defensive three-second rule prevents Hibbert from sitting in the paint when no offensive player is near enough for him to reach.
Hibbert can still slide in and out, of course, but ball-handlers like James and Wade are good at timing their drives to start when a big man like Hibbert begins his slide out of the paint. Miami used a similar strategy on earlier pick-and-rolls involving Shane Battier as the screener in smaller lineups, and those plays both confused Indiana’s defense and got Wade going.
All of those things were crucial and make for fun day-after analysis. But on a simpler level, the Heat won because they re-injected some chaos into the proceedings. That chaos came in two forms, often related:
1. The Heat pushed the pace more after Indiana misses and turnovers, and the Pacers provided a bundle of each. The Heat had 94 possessions in this game, up from 86 and 89 in the previous two games of this series, according to Hoopdata. This was a call back to Miami’s blazing start, when it ran at every opportunity and had Spoelstra talking happily about how he had adopted the Oregon football team’s ultra-speedy style. “Pace and space” became a feared catch phrase around the league. But the Heat inevitably slowed as the season progressed, and their half-court offense went through some stagnant droughts.
2. James and Wade were much more active than usual as off-ball cutters. When they play that way, defenses have to scramble to account for them, and the Heat become much harder to defend.
These factors came together during Sunday’s game-turning, third-quarter run, starting with this Wade basket:
Credit James here for probing right from the start, putting point guard Mario Chalmers in position to attack a backpedaling Pacers defense that did not have time to find the right individual matchups. Credit Chalmers for sensing his chance, driving past Danny Granger on the baseline and drawing the attention of Indiana’s weak-side defenders, including Paul George, Wade’s man. And then credit Wade for understanding what Chalmers had done and reacting with a looping cut from the corner, a cut aided in part by Battier’s nudging George toward the baseline as Wade goes by.
On their next possession, the Heat again push off a miss:
Note the challenge from James on Hibbert, a gritty bit of defense that starts this. Wade understands he’s well ahead of both Indiana big men, so he doesn’t rush. Instead, he slows to size up point guard George Hill (not his normal defender) and await a transition screen from Ronny Turiaf, who provided valuable energy in this stretch. Hill is dead meat, and Wade dunks before Hibbert and West can really enter the picture.
On the next possession, Miami put together the chaos and the cutting to spectacular effect:
This really doesn’t look all that chaotic, but it is, and in a way shows the importance of James’ ability to act as rebounder and point guard in one — a massive thing during this run. LeBron rushes the ball up court and runs his man (Granger) into a perfect Turiaf screen. With Hibbert in the middle, James kicks the ball to Wade, and only then to do we see the value of James’ initial push: No one guards the world’s best player. The initial Turiaf screen forced Granger to switch off James, and LeBron then cut unguarded to an area along the right baseline in which Hibbert is the only Pacer nearby:
And when Wade gets into the lane on a pick-and-roll, James takes advantage of his solitude by cutting toward the paint, making himself an available target and dunking the ball.
This isn’t rocket science, which is what makes it frustrating when Miami’s offense devolves into stagnant one-on-one play and “your turn, my turn” pick-and-rolls — the larger issue that doomed Miami during its Game 2 loss. It doesn’t take all that much off-the-ball activity from Wade and James to compromise a defense.
Take the game’s most sensational highlight:
This a ho-hum Wade pick-and-roll that turns deadly because James acts as an active release valve on the right wing. He sees his man, Granger, sink down to deal with Haslem when Wade kicks the ball to the Miami big man along the baseline, and in that moment, LeBron flashes aggressively toward a spot higher on the floor. The little cut puts some space between Haslem and James, and in turn forces Granger to rush out hard at LeBron. This gives James an easy chance to blow by him. And Wade, instead of clearing out to the corner, lurks around the rim and flashes to open space for an easy basket.
Two years in, I think we know the Heat stars aren’t going to commit to playing with this ferocity off the ball consistently. Whether it’s a matter of fatigue, coaching or the overlapping skill sets (and limitations) of James and Wade, Miami’s half-court offense is going to fall into funks of non-activity against good defenses. James and Wade are used to working with the ball, and neither is a good enough outside shooter to be of any use running around screens like Ray Allen or Kyle Korver. But all three Miami stars (including Chris Bosh when he’s healthy) and the team’s coaching staff know how to goose the half-court offense with creative motion, screening and cutting. We’ve seen it plenty with Bosh, and we even saw it out of timeouts during Miami’s Game 2 loss. It’s not there consistently, but Sunday was a reminder that the Heat can find it, even without the team’s only reliable big man.
Game 4 was also a reminder that when they can’t quite find “it” in the half-court, they have the ability to generate points through pace. I’ve left out one basket from the Heat’s pivotal third-quarter stretch, only because it so simple as to require no analysis. Sometimes the game is as simple as one team having the best guy:
Indiana will have to do better in these chaos situations — better at matching up, stopping the ball and making sure every Heat player is accounted for, even if the matchups aren’t perfect. But the Heat would do well to push the pace again, because in chaos, talent wins out.