When LeBron James announced on that infamous July day that he would join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, I’ll admit: I was worried it would just be too easy for them. It hasn’t worked out that way, for lots of reasons we can get into later. If the Heat clinch the title in Game 5 on Thursday night, they will have had to work hard for it — harder, perhaps, than they or anyone else expected two years ago. And that is cool.
Below are a few things to watch as the Heat chase the ring, with a focus beyond the obvious issues we’ve already beaten to death — the “X-factor” role players, Oklahoma City’s late-game yips and Thunder coach Scott Brooks’ decisions about when to go small and which two players to place alongside stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. (He must choose Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison for the big-man spot, and Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher or the forgotten Daequan Cook for the last guard spot.)
• Dealing with LeBron’s post game
Perhaps there really is no better answer than treating Harden like the cow fed to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, but the Thunder must try to find one. If James is allowed to operate in the post as he did in Game 4, surrounded by three-point shooters and with Bosh at times pulling Oklahoma City’s lone big man away from the rim, the Thunder are toast. They could try extending Sefolosha’s minutes and using him as James’ nearly full-time defender, a move that might make things harder for Oklahoma City on the other end because of Sefolosha’s shaky shooting. They could try Durant on James more often and risk foul trouble. They could send hard double teams. They could instruct Brooks to step onto the court, Erik Spoelstra style, and work as an extra defender. They could try a zone, though they rarely used one in the regular season, and the Heat ranked among the league’s most efficient offenses against the zone, per Synergy Sports.
They could also try to make it difficult for Miami to enter the ball to James, perhaps by fronting him. Miami has had no trouble feeding LeBron, even when he has been in relatively crowded spaces far from the hoop.
Sefolosha did attempt to front James at least once in Game 4, and that move forced the Heat into a secondary option:
This is really the year of the front in the NBA, mostly because of how well the Heat have used the tactic in every playoff round; the Knicks are still trying to enter the ball to Carmelo Anthony. But it’s easier said than done. In this clip, for instance, the Heat use the red-hot Shane Battier as the entry passer with Bosh, an elite jump-shooting big man, as the nearby release valve, making it a dicey proposition for Bosh’s defender, Perkins, to help behind James on any potential lob pass. This strategy also requires Russell Westbrook have his jumpy feet under control on the weak side, in case of any quick swing pass to Wade.
Fronting isn’t foolproof, and the Thunder may not feel comfortable doing it in heavy doses. But they’ve got to try something.
• Finding easy offense
The Thunder scored at a very efficient rate in Game 4. But their scoring felt unsustainable, and if they cannot generate easier looks on Thursday, a double-digit loss is not out of the question. The Heat consistently took away Oklahoma City’s preferred options, forcing the Thunder to rely on low-percentage alternatives late in the shot clock. Instead of catch-and-shoot chances, Durant had to drive into a packed mid-range area for brutally difficult floaters and one miracle up-and-under layup. Westbrook had to salvage multiple, “Uh oh, I have the ball with five seconds on the shot clock and everything we tried to run failed” pick-and-rolls with his big men. Sefolosha made a baseline jumper. Ibaka had to do this:
It is a credit to Thunder’s talent and poise that they were able to score enough to stay in the game. Any criticism of their late-game issues must at least mention the maturity they showed in scrapping for points against the best defense they have faced in the playoffs. But the Thunder will need some points to come more easily in Game 5. They have the tools to make that happen, especially if they use their three stars together in the same action. And with Miami consistently foiling those pin-down plays for Durant, perhaps some star-star-star pick-and-rolls might help.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. The Thunder can create decent chances by running pick-and-rolls designed to force help defenders off Durant or Westbrook on the wing, potentially freeing Durant to catch a skip pass, shot an open three-pointer or drive past a defender closing out on him. Harden has been especially good at reading defensive schemes to get Durant some space, though Miami has used its athleticism and speed to snuff out a decent portion of these chances. Here’s Wade, for instance, deflecting that skip pass to an open Durant on the right wing:
And here’s Bosh abandoning the punchless Perkins to draw a charge on one of those Durant drives past a wrong-footed defender:
It could be that Miami’s defense is too good, and that Oklahoma City’s big men (plus the Sefolosha/Fisher pairing) represent such meager offensive threats that Miami help defenders will always be around to trap pick-and-rolls and deter drives. Bosh’s help defense has been one of the three or four most important factors in this series. But the Thunder have gotten some good looks out of this action, including a Durant dunk in Game 3 and a few decent threes, and Westbrook should be able to catch and go by Wade when used off the ball as a kick-out option.
The Thunder also used some funky pick-and-roll combinations in Game 4 that have potential, including staggered two-man screens with Durant as one of the screeners and Harden’s screening for Durant and vice versa. And on one play, they caught Miami by surprise by clearing one side of the floor for a quick-hitting Durant post-up:
Oklahoma City will need to find some of these easy points. And Miami must continue to play clean defense. Let’s not forget that the Heat are only plus-5 overall in this series and that — despite all of Miami’s defensive ferocity — the Thunder have managed nearly 106 points per 100 possessions in four games, the equivalent of a top-five mark. That’s how good this Oklahoma City offense is.
Miami has mostly excised the strange defensive breakdowns that made the Boston series more competitive than it should have been — the botched rotations, miscommunications and inexcusable transition breakdowns that are below a team of this stature. There have been a few lapses, and Udonis Haslem still looks out of sorts as Miami’s second big man, but the Heat have mostly been on a string. They’ll need to be again to close this out.
• Clean up the defense
The Thunder have allowed too many easy pick-and-roll baskets, especially for Bosh, because of unsure help from the corners and so-so defense at the point of attack. Westbrook has to be more aggressive helping off Wade in the weak-side (left) corner on plays like this:
And watch here as Fisher, in that same weak-side corner, takes one fatal mini-slide back toward Mike Miller as Norris Cole fools him with a hesitation dribble:
The Thunder are so close to a 3-1 lead in this series. These little things are killer.
• Surviving without LeBron
Miami is minus-9 in the limited minutes Wade has played without James in the series, according to NBA.com’s stats tool. With a title in sight, James may be ready to go the full 48 on Thursday, even after struggling with cramps late in Game 4. But if he’s not, the Heat will need to survive the few minutes he does sit. Wade’s shot selection in those stretches has been mostly bad — mid-range jumpers, difficult floaters, long pull-up twos (or threes) early in the shot clock. To his credit, Wade has made a few of those tough shots, and the Thunder helped the Heat in one crucial non-LeBron stretch in Game 3 by allowing Wade a transition basket. If the Heat sit LeBron, the Thunder would do well to put up some sort of positive margin in that time.