The Thunder flipped the Western Conference finals after Game 2 with some defensive adjustments that helped turn San Antonio, the NBA’s best offensive team, into something close to league average over the the final four games.
The most obvious adjustment was having shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha defend point guard Tony Parker. But the Thunder in general amped up their help defense, packing the paint earlier and more aggressively against the Spurs’ pick-and-rolls. The strategy left holes in other places, but it was aimed at forcing San Antonio away form its first option and toward those second, third and fourth options — openings the Thunder were confident they could close well enough with their elite athleticism.
The Heat are a much different offensive team than San Antonio. Miami runs its fair share of high pick-and-rolls, but those players are not quite the centerpiece of the offense, and Miami cannot space the floor with the same level of three-point shooting always lurking around the perimeter for the Spurs. Miami’s half-court offense is increasingly built around LeBron James’ post game and various corner-based sets designed to get James and Dwyane Wade the ball on the move below the foul line.
And yet, in Game 3 of the Finals, the Thunder made a similar decision on defense to pack in more aggressively than they had in Games 1 and 2. If they replicate that strategy on Tuesday in Game 4 — and they probably should — Miami will have to respond by cutting away from the ball and spacing the floor properly, so that James has the best chance at creating a clean passing lane and an open jumper for a role player.
When the Heat cleared one side of the floor for James, with his four teammates stationed on the opposite side, the Thunder would have one player abandon his one-on-one assignment and jog over to LeBron’s side of the court, deterring a drive. In this second-quarter play, watch Oklahoma Cit point guard Derek Fisher ditch Heat rookie point guard Norris Cole (No. 30), a player to whom Thunder defenders generally appear allergic:
But freeze the play, and you see that this defense amounts to more than Fisher’s ignoring poor Cole. Look how far James Harden has drifted from Wade at the top of the arc:
Wade tries to make himself dangerous by slashing toward the hoop, but Sefolosha, who seems to have Spalding magnets in his hands, deflects LeBron’s pass.
Spacing the floor is tough when a team bunches four players together on one half of the floor. But the Heat should still be able to get some open looks if they work at it, especially if James can get just a bit of penetration into the middle. Sending two defenders at one player on one side of the floor forces the remaining three defenders to play something like a zone on the weak side. A wing defender in that situation has to position himself as best he can in between two passing lanes, so that he can at least appear like a threat to jump into either one upon LeBron’s drive to the basket.
But maintaining that perfect positioning is hard, especially when Miami’s off-ball players move around at least a little. On this second-quarter possession, Fisher abandons point guard Mario Chalmers to collapse on James, who is able to create a great look at a corner three for Chalmers:
Two little things to note here:
• James’ drive gets far enough that the Thunder defenders have to sink in an extra step, allowing him to leap and pass over them.
• Watch Miami swingman James Jones. He shifts from the right corner to the top of the arc, a basic NBA cut that allows Chalmers to take the corner alone, gives James another possible target and has the potential to drag a defender out of an easier passing lane in Chalmers’ direction.
Look how open Chalmers is in the left corner on this fourth-quarter possession, which is nearly the mirror image of the above possession, except that Wade is the last player to leave James’ side of the floor. That means Wade’s defender, Sefolosha, is responsible for the immediate help on James, and that another Thunder player must account for Wade as he clears away from LeBron:
You can see how tight the spacing is, even as Wade cuts out of the way. Four Miami players are very close to each other as James begins his drive:
And yet even so, Wade gets a decent look at a layup by making himself available at the rim, and Chalmers is wide open on the weak side. I’m telling you: Don’t be surprised if Chalmers hits for 15 or more points in Game 4.
The Thunder used this aggressive and early help on other kind of plays beyond these glorified isolations for James. Look at Fisher in the paint here, far from Chalmers in the left corner, as Chris Bosh dribbles at the right elbow before ultimately working a dribble hand-off with Wade:
And here’s Harden scurrying away from Chalmers in the left corner and into the center of the paint as Wade drives on Russell Westbrook in the right corner (video of the play here):
And on this play, Harden drifts far from Wade in the left corner to deny an initial entry pass to James in the post:
Ignoring Wade like this seems brash, but stepping up the paint-packing looks like the right call in this series for Oklahoma City — just as it proved to be against the Spurs. The Heat are a shaky jump-shooting team, James is brutalizing Oklahoma City in the post and Miami doesn’t space the floor as well as the Spurs. The Thunder almost seem better and more engaged defensively when coach Scott Brooks has them running around more, and they don’t have to do quite as much running as they did against San Antonio. The Heat scored only 100.7 points per 100 possessions in Game 3, a below-average mark and easily their lowest of the series.
But the strategy doesn’t come without risk, especially given James’ passing ability. The Heat role players outside of Cole are all good to very good three-point shooters, and Wade will watch the film of Game 3 and realize that he has to be an even more aggressive cutter than usual.
Let’s see what adjustments both sides have in store for a monster Game 4.