After last night’s loss to the New York Knicks, Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra was asked why his team wasn’t able to contain the Knicks’ pick-and-roll game. Spoelstra gave a fairly typical coach-speak answer: “They just started to knock down some shots. That always changes things. When they knock down shots, everything gets a little tougher.”
Pressed further, specifically about how the Knicks were able to find creases in Miami’s defense due to slow or nonexistent second and third rotations after trapping the ball coming around screens, Spoelstra said “We’re an aggressive defensive team. Those are the challenges. We know who we are. They know who we are. The league knows who we are. We still have to be committed to that identity. It takes a great deal of energy. They executed well down the stretch and they made shots.”
It’s true. Everyone knows how this Miami Heat teams plays defense. They’ve been doing it the same way for three and a half years now. The Heat blitz the ball handler on nearly every pick-and-roll. The only way to combat this aggressive trap is by making multiple quick-hit passes to find a small seam. Even if you are able to do that, though, Miami is confident that its outrageously long and quick athletes can make up enough ground to prevent or contest a shot.
Most of the time, they’re able to do just that. Too often last night against the Knicks, they were not. Take this first quarter sequence for example.
Raymond Felton carries the ball over half court and passes to Iman Shumpert on the right wing, then receives a dribble hand-off from Shumpert while moving toward the baseline. Felton then wheels around and dribbles back toward the top of the key off a screen from Andrea Bargnani, and this is the scene he sees.
Rashard Lewis has jumped out into Felton’s dribbling lane, abandoning Bargnani along the baseline. He’s forced Felton to give the ball up to a rolling Bargnani. The Heat are counting on this exact sequence of events happening, and will happily bet that LeBron James can rotate over from his position along the baseline to cut off Bargnani’s lane to the basket, forcing another pass. But that’s not what happens.
James gets to Bargnani a half-second too late, allowing him to drive baseline. The responsibility to contest Bargnani’s shot at the rim now falls on Bosh, who has rotated down from his perch at the elbow. But again, Bosh does not get there in time. The result is a (seriously) reverse dunk for Bargnani.
While Miami was able to thwart some New York pick-and-rolls throughout the rest of the first half, late rotations like these became increasingly prevalent after halftime.
Let’s take a look at a similar possession from early in the third quarter. Felton once again receives a screen from Bargnani, who again rolls to the baseline. Lewis again blitzes the ball, leaving Bargnani open. Here’s what Felton sees as he comes around the screen.
It’s basically a mirror image of the play from above. This time, though, instead of wheeling around and finding Bargnani along the baseline, Felton shorts the pick-and-roll, throwing it across the court to Carmelo Anthony on the wing.
Before the Heat can even fully rotate to Anthony, Kenyon Martin sets a killer screen on Dwyane Wade, freeing Iman Shumpert for a corner three.
Once again, it was not the first rotation that came back to bite the Heat, but the second. When you aggressively trap the ball at the point of attack like the Heat do, multiple rotations are almost always going to be necessary to prevent or contest a shot. Far too often last night, those second and third rotations came late or not at all.
Even when those rotations did get there in time, as is the case in the video above where Lewis closes out on Bargnani in the corner, they were often sloppy. Lewis jumps out too high and opens his stance, clearing the way for Bargnani to take the ball baseline. Chris Andersen is in position to slide over to contest Bargnani’s pull-up jumper, but declines to jump when he gets to the opposite side of the lane.
Here, the Knicks try to get Anthony a post-up on the right block, but when LeBron fronts him, they transition into a pick-and-roll between Felton and Stoudemire. Andersen aggressively blitzes Felton as he comes around the screen, while Wade goes underneath the pick to cut off Felton’s lane to the point. They are effectively double-teaming Felton, which means James has to slide down to tag Stoudemire on his roll to the rim in order to prevent a pass for an easy bucket.
That opens up Anthony on the wing, and when Felton passes him the ball, James shuffles off Stoudemire and back to his own man. Nobody; not Wade, nor Andersen, nor Ray Allen or Chris Bosh on the weak side, picks up Stoudemire under the rim. Anthony fires a quick pass his way, Amar’e catches with both feet inside the paint, and gets fouled by both Allen and Andersen on his way up.
One particular set that gave the Heat a whole lot of trouble was a double screen that had Anthony and Stoudemire setting picks for Felton moving left to right from the wing. That’s the set that netted Bargnani the baseline drive in the video above, but the Knicks also generated a catch-and-shoot chance for Anthony out of it earlier in the quarter, and another late in the fourth.
Here’s Felton coming around the first screen, from Anthony.
And here he is coming around the second screen, from Stoudemire. Notice how far off of Antony James has sunk. He’s nearly got a foot in the paint, and as Stoudemire continues his roll to the rim, James leans too far in his direction, eventually leaving Anthony open for too long and letting up a catch and shoot three.
The Knicks went back to the same set late in the fourth quarter and got the exact same result. This three from Anthony essentially put the game away.
LeBron again drops down just a bit too far, for a beat too long, to deter Stoudemire’s roll to the rim, and Anthony ends up with what turns out to be a game-icing three.
The Heat have been playing this style of pick-and-roll defense for a while now, and sometimes teams can take advantage of their prior knowledge of the system by beating them with quick-hit passes ahead of the second and third rotation. The Knicks were able to do that consistently last night, particularly in the second half, and it went a long way toward helping them secure the fourth victory in their last five games.