The Heat blitzed the Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday for a number of reasons, the two most important being:
1. Boston, a bad offensive team, could not produce consistent offense against a top-five defense, which is no surprise. Coach Doc Rivers stretched the playbook pretty far, especially in his team’s 35-point second quarter, and he found some interesting ways to generate spacing even though the Heat were barely defending point guard Rajon Rondo on the perimeter. But Miami mostly foiled all of that with stellar individual defense, aggressive rotations, solid coaching adjustments (having Dwyane Wade defend Rondo and rove off him) and sound scheming away from Boston’s weaker shooters (Rondo, Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling).
2. Miami has the two best players in the series — and perhaps in the league — and they are on an incredible run of crazy shot-making. Wade and LeBron James have each shot 50 percent or better from the floor in four straight games, and Wade has cracked 55 percent in all four. They are hitting shots off motion offense, high pick-and-rolls (using forward Shane Battier as a screener for Wade has given both Indiana and now Boston problems) and on those isolation plays in which coach Erik Spoelstra clears one side of the floor for one of his stars. Those plays are brutally simple and use the defensive three-second rule to create space for star attackers to go one-on-one.
Both players have hit some ridiculously tough shots out of those isolation sets — floaters in the lane, fadeaways from the post, tricky runners. There will be games when those shots fall only a quarter of the time instead of half the time, and in those games the Heat will either keep going in hopes of the math turning their way or lean more heavily on other things.
One thing they can increasingly lean on: LeBron’s active cutting away from the ball. This isn’t entirely new. James has improved this part of his game gradually since signing with the Heat. He didn’t really have a choice after joining Wade, another ball-dominant player without the kind of deadly outside shot that allows for Ray Allen- or Kyle Korver-style off-ball movement. The Heat have long used scripted sets that involve two of their stars doing something active away from the ball, often in cooperation, while the third holds the ball elsewhere.
What has been encouraging since the injury to power forward Chris Bosh is how comfortable James — and Wade — has looked working improvised cuts away from the ball. The trend ratcheted up during the second half of the Pacers series and continued on Monday, when James did things like this in the third quarter:
I’ve written before how the Heat thrive amid chaos. That used to simply mean that Miami did very well in transition, especially off turnovers. But it increasingly means that James and Wade have a good sense of when they have a defense scrambled in delayed transition — and an understanding of how to take advantage. That’s the case here, when Miami pushes hard off a Boston miss and Boston small forward Paul Pierce picks up Wade under the rim:
That leaves Boston guards Mickael Pietrus and Rondo unsure about which one should take James, and when LeBron registers this confusion, he darts right to the rim and lurks there until Wade can find him.
James scored off a similar cut in the first quarter after seeing his defender, Pierce, turn to focus on Joel Anthony rolling to the rim as Battier held the ball in the corner:
This is the exact kind of play everyone has been screaming for James and Wade to make more often over the last two seasons. It’s an antidote to the “your turn, my turn” stagnancy that still infects the Heat at times, even when they are generally scoring well.
It’s not just the unscripted stuff, either. In Bosh’s absence, LeBron has been working as the screener on pick-and-roll plays more often, including on this nice bit of synchronized James/Wade action on opposite sides of the floor:
James and point guard Mario Chalmers run a pick-and-roll on the right side as Wade prepares to curl off a double screen on the left side, an action designed to distract a potential help defender (Brandon Bass in this case) while James (near the top of the key) rolls to the rim:
Bass mostly ignores the Wade stuff to focus on James, but LeBron rolls anyway, goes up strong and draws a shooting foul.
There were other examples, but I’ll spare Boston fans the gory details of LeBron’s cutting backdoor in the post for an alley-oop, or his screening for Wade underneath the basket. The latter action didn’t yield much on Monday but holds some promise, especially with Boston shooting guard Ray Allen hurting badly.
James deserved much of the criticism he received for The Decision. The television special showed very little self-awareness, or any awareness at all of how his free-agent announcement might come off in Cleveland — and to fans of other teams who have watched superstars walk. That lack of self-awareness has continued to plague the Heat, whether it was how James and Wade mocked Dallas power forward Dirk Nowitzki’s illness during the Finals last season or how the star players showed no understanding of why the team’s smoke-machine free-agency celebration in July 2010 — which featured talk of a half-dozen titles and Wade’s saying that Miami’s three stars could emerge as “the greatest trio” in basketball history — turned off so many fans. The Twitter masses rightfully scolded Wade two weeks ago for suggesting that the Pacers celebrated too much after their Game 2 win in Miami, pointing out that the Heat are the last franchise that should allege hubris from others.
But on the court, James has slowly developed into a different kind of player than he was in Cleveland — a much different player, actually, and the sort of player Miami needs him to be. He plays power forward almost full time now with Bosh out, though Battier saves him some of the burden of guarding power forwards. He is one of the game’s best all-around defenders, capable of guarding every position, mucking up passing lanes, closing on shooters and generally adapting to the opposing personnel.
And on offense, he has learned to work without the ball in a way that helps Miami avoid those fatal stagnant droughts. It isn’t there on every possession or in every game, but it’s there, if you care to look. Miami’s half-court offense is still its weakest link, the one thing that could hold it back against an elite opponent and under Finals-level pressure. But the offense is in a better state than it was at this time a year ago, thanks in good measure to James’ evolution.