It took 81 minutes but finally a team may have exposed a small chink in the Miami Heat armor. After dismantling the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, the Heat were picking apart the Boston Celtics, leading 90-79 in a game not nearly as close as the score would indicate.
Boston had stayed in the game with torrid three-point shooting from Ray Allen and Keyon Dooling (who finished a combined 10-14 from downtown), and an aggressive Rajon Rondo who drove primarily to score. One of Rondo’s perceived flaws from seasons past was that he tended to be too unselfish at times, with the pass being his first, second and third options when Boston needed more scoring punch. He finished with 15 field goal attempts only eight times during the regular season last year, only tallied more than 15 attempts three times, and didn‘t get to double digit free throws in the regular season.
Well, Rondo went 7-15 from the field against Miami, and 7-11 from the stripe on the heels of his 11-19 field goal shooting, 9-12 free throw shooting performance against the New York Knicks in Boston’s opener. With Paul Pierce and Jeff Green injured, and with the rest of Boston’s roster relatively light on creative shot-making outside of Allen and Kevin Garnett, Rondo clearly understands that he needs to be more of a scorer to put points on the board in Pierce’s absence.
However, while Boston’s offense generated a respectable 107 offensive rating against the Heat, Miami’s new "blitzkrieg" offense overwhelmed the Celtics as the Heat shot an absurd 32-48 until the 2:42 mark of the third quarter. The Heat were criticized for relying too heavily on isolations and screen/rolls for Wade and James, but a bigger reason for Miami’s relatively stagnant offense last year was their tempo.
Consider the Heat’s first seven minutes of the game. The Heat ran 14 halfcourt possessions that consisted of:
- A LeBron corner isolation against Sasha Pavlovic resulting in a made jumper.
- A LeBron post up of Marquis Daniels off a duck-in, resulting in a foul and two made free throws.
- Four Wade isolations on Allen resulting in two of three made field goals, plus one of two free throws for five points. All his shots were from the mid-range on in.
- A Wade isolation on Dooling leading to a blow by and made layup.
- A Wade post up on Daniels that went through Wade’s hands.
- Three Bosh isolations against Jermaine O’Neal leading to a layup, an airball, and one of two free throws.
- A Bosh made three in early offense.
- A Mario Chalmers made catch-and-shoot three after back screening for LeBron.
- A staggered screen/roll for Chalmers leading to a Joel Anthony layup against an ineffective baseline rotation by Sasha Pavlovic.
That’s a total of 22 points in 14 possessions, though 11 of the plays ended in one-on-one moves by the Big Three. You’ll notice far fewer screen/rolls to prevent Boston from trapping, and less of a reliance on the off-ball corner screens the Heat relied on primarily last season, but the offense was effective for Miami’s offense when simply running one-on-one plays. What was the caveat? All but three of those possessions ended with the shot clock in double digits. Miami attacked faster, got into its offense faster, and instead of running perfunctory actions that accomplished little before being forced to attack against a short clock, Miami trimmed the offensive fat running quick-hitters that attacked before Boston could get set. And we haven’t discussed how potent they were in transition.
Miami was only really slowed down when the Celtics switched to a zone late in the third quarter, completely turning the Miami offense on its heels. Gone were the quick attacks, and gone were the abilities for the Big Three to attack in space. Miami had to move the ball to move the zone, the Celtics had their eyes fixed on Miami’s perimeter players allowing them to swarm and defend without fouling, and driving lanes for the Big Three were rarely open.
Charting possessions against the zone, we see a much different spread of how the Heat attacked possessions.
- LeBron posted up Rondo once but missed a fadeaway with the Celtic defense converging on him.
- LeBron isolated Keyon Dooling at the top, but a pass to a cutter was deflected by Dooling for a turnover.
- LeBron cut to the middle but Wade’s pass was over his head.
- LeBron missed a catch-and-shoot jumper.
- LeBron drove before the zone could set up and hit a layup.
- Wade isolated Dooling twice and Brandon Bass once, missing three jumpers.
- Wade drove quickly against the zone and hit a runner.
- Wade drove away from a Bosh screen and missed a runner.
- A Wade/Bosh screen/roll led to a Norris Cole missed jumper.
- Bosh either rolled or cut (the cameras didn’t catch the full play coming out of a timeout) and sank a layup.
- Shane Battier missed a pindown three.
- Norris Cole had five catch-and-shoots, or catch-pull-and-shoots and hit three jumpers.
- Cole drove against the zone and missed both his attempts, plus Haslem missed a putback.
- A Cole/Haslem screen/roll led to a missed runner.
- Udonis Haslem cut twice leading to a pair of unsuccessful possessions.
- Haslem also missed a catch-and-shoot.
Tally up the plays and the Heat scored only 12 points on 24 zone possessions, an awful ratio. Also, only half of the possessions ended with Wade, James, or Bosh making the deciding play of the possession. While Cole responded with several big shots down the stretch, having the Big Three play a small offensive role is a success for the defense. The zone forced the Heat to use more shot clock with 11 possessions ending with the shot clock in single digits.
Finally, the zone kept Wade, Bosh, and James off the line. The trio combined for 23 free throws in the game—none on a zone possession.
Here’s a look at how the Heat operated against man-to-man versus zone.
The Heat bring the ball out with four players above the free throw line. Bosh is at the strong elbow, Chalmers the top of the key, and Anthony the weak elbow.
Anthony moves way out beyond the three point line while Chalmers cuts off him to the weak corner. Bosh opens at the top of the key. Notice how the action draws Garnett away from the play, leaving Boston’s backcourt responsible for rotations to the paint.
Bosh spins to the middle of the paint, Boston is spread too far to provide adequate help, and O’Neal fouls Bosh. He stepped to the line and made 1-2 free throws. Notice how much time came off the clock: two seconds. Here's the play full speed:
Next, we see Wade bring the ball up after a make.
Wade is just bringing the ball up, but he makes a move to Allen’s right.
Wade then crosses over and attacks the basket. Chris Wilcox sees what’s happening and tries to rotate, but he’s on the other side of the paint.
Wilcox meets Wade under the basket, which is far too deep.
In typical Wade fashion, he makes the basket and winds up on the floor. Again, notice the shot clock. There are still 16 seconds left. If Wade doesn’t like his chances, he can pull out and the Heat can set up a play. By attacking quickly though, he puts extreme pressure on opposing bigs to be constantly in position to help, even after a made basket. Here's the play at full speed:
Meanwhile, contrast that to how the Heat attacked the zone.
LeBron sees the zone and immediately looks to center the ball.
The ball ends up swung to Battier without a lot of movement on Miami’s end.
Battier centers the ball, Haslem cuts through, while LeBron flashes to the middle. After Battier dribbles to the center, he passes to Cole on the wing. The ball hasn’t crossed the three-point line yet.
LeBron flashes to the strong elbow but Rondo is shaded over preventing an entry pass. Should LeBron catch a pass, he’ll be surrounded by at least four Celtics.
Another perimeter pass to Battier. The ball hasn’t touched LeBron’s hands since he made the first pass to trigger the set, and the ball hasn’t crossed the three-point line.
Battier skips the ball to Haslem in the corner and cuts through. The dribble-drive and post up game of LeBron has been neutralized by the zone.
Haslem kicks the ball out to Cole. The shot clock is now in single digits and the Heat haven’t gotten into any action which can see them attack the basket.
LeBron pops out to receive a pass while Battier drifts behind a Haslem down screen for a three-pointer.
Battier IS open for the shot, but the zone takes the air out of the ball for Miami, keeps the ball out of the paint, and uses up clock. Most importantly, it forces somebody other than LeBron to beat them which on this play…
…does not happen as Battier's three is short. Here's the video.
This set had only one member of the Big Three on the court. However, with multiple stars, the effects were similar.
Bosh swings the ball to the right wing and cuts through the paint.
A pass to Battier centers the ball as Wade flashes in the middle.
Battier swings it back to Cole, but the pass to Wade in the middle is cut off.
The ball gets swung to Bosh. He looks like he wants to make a one-on-one move against Bass, but Wade flashes to the strong side clogging the area. Bosh kicks the ball back out. Bosh skips the ball across the court and follows by flashing to the strong side. Wade replaces on the weak side, while Battier will do the same basket cut and weak side fan he did in the first clip. Cole can’t get the ball to Bosh, the shot clock is in single digits, and the Heat still haven’t performed any sort of meaningful attacking action.
Cole kicks it to Wade who is open for a split second. However, Wade doesn’t want to attempt a spot-up three.
He tries to drive left on Dooling, but big bad Brandon Bass has the baseline cut off. Battier is open in the corner if Wade chooses.
Instead of making the pass, Wade gets impatient and attempts everybody’s most efficient shot—the contested step back jumper a foot inside the three-point arc. There are five seconds on the shot clock and Wade is kept out of the paint.
While Wade can make some spectacular shots, this attempt misses and there are nobody but Celtics there to collect the rebound. Here's the full clip:
The Heat could have tried to simply shoot the Celtics out of the zone, but it isn’t in Battier’s nature to attempt quick threes, and if Wade and LeBron are attempting long contested jump shots, the defense has succeeded. James Jones perhaps could have shot the Celtics out of their zone, but he had all sorts of trouble defending Allen on his baseline curls.
Instead, with the Celtics fielding five fluid defenders, choking off the paint, and keeping their eyes on Wade and James on the perimeter or middle of the court, the Heat offense finally looked mortal. It will be interesting to see how the Heat adjust to the expected bevy of zone they’ll see over the next few days, but few defenses can cover the interior range the Celtics can with Garnett and a quick Brandon Bass patrolling the bottom of the zone.
What other nuggets can be taken away from the game?
Sasha Pavolic [Warning, obvious statement upcoming] couldn’t guard LeBron James (duh!), but he also made a poor decision to skip a pass with LeBron on the weak side, and provided weak help on a baseline rotation. Considering he was expected to be the fourth small forward on the Celtics depth chart behind Pierce, Daniels, and Jeff Green, Pavlovic isn’t the worst fourth-string small forward in the game, but the drop off from him and LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, and Luol Deng is incredible.
Jermaine O’Neal provided nothing. He was abused by Bosh one-on-one, only took one shot on 22 minutes, and grabbed just one rebound.
The Celtics killed Miami when running curl/fades for Allen and a big man. Miami chased over the curls to start the game, but Allen routinely popped open for long jumpers. They adjusted by having the screen defender blitz Allen when he popped out, but that usually left Brandon Bass open for mid-range jumpers. When the Heat pinched the curl from the top, the Heat were strung out and unprepared when the Celtics ran their continuity with Rondo drives or screen/rolls.
Battier set a solid transition screen for a second straight game (he left Jason Terry on the floor in the game against Dallas allowing a three-point-play opportunity for Cole), allowing Norris Cole to hit a transition runner. I’m an unabashed Battier homer and when you see him generate two points out of nothing simply by laying the wood in transition you notice why he’s the subject of New York Times Magazine articles.
The Celtics playing as well as they have in two rough road games without arguably their best player makes me rethink the Eastern Conference pecking order. It’s still early and the grind of the season may still overwhelm their older roster, but Boston has looked like a contender early on considering the Pierce injury. Ken Berger certainly thinks so.
However, while the Heat clearly look like the best team in the league, the zone troubles against the Celtics were similar to their offensive struggles against the Dallas Mavericks during last season’s Finals. Let’s see how they solve those woes going forward. If they can find ways to keep LeBron and Wade attacking quickly, they should be prepared for anything opponents throw at them. If they can’t though, the Heat may spend another postseason with their fourth quarter offense lost in the twilight zone.