“Yeah, the short roll is a dangerous play. Because any defense, the best way to attack a defense is to get the ball to the middle of the floor. And when you’re aggressive on the pick-and-roll defense against a non-threat especially, where they are looking to pass, you give up the short roll. And then depending on the player, they have a menu of things they can do. They can take one dribble and they are at the rim, they can kick to three-point shooters. And it puts unnecessary pressure on your defense.” – Shane Battier to Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick in March.
Shane Battier, 13 year-veteran and two-time NBA All-Defensive team honoree, perfectly understands the potential benefits and shortcomings of Miami’s aggressive defensive scheme. Destructive as the Heat’s frenetic style can be when they’re fully engaged and their opponent uncomfortable, it can be equally porous if they lack energy and the offense is well-versed in attacking them.
The Pacers were just such an outfit in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, taking advantage of the Heat’s tentative, listless defense en route to their first hundred-point game of the playoffs. Worse, Indy’s 26 assists were the most its recorded against Miami since November 2010, and the Heat allowed the Pacers to shoot better than 50% from the field in a playoff matchup for the first time in the LeBron James era. This was an offensive clinic by a seemingly reborn Indiana, basically, the likes of which we thought was far beyond its present means.
There’s no one aspect that doomed Heat yesterday – they were beaten off the dribble, bullied in the post, and frequently late on routine rotations. But the head of the snake was the Pacers’ high pick-and-roll, and the strategy that Battier describes above – referred to as the “short roll” (video) – is what Miami failed, failed, and failed again to cut off.
In the second quarter still above, David West prepares to set a high ball-screen for Lance Stephenson. LeBron James trails slightly behind West as Norris Cole’s head turns to see the screen arriving. Given Miami’s well-established style and the personnel involved, we know what’s coming here – a hard hedge from James to stop the ball and hopefully corral Stephenson into a trap with Cole.
The hedge from James is adequate; Cole, though, is fooled by a Stephenson jab and gets caught up on West as a result. The Pacers are already ahead here, even without employing the benefit of foresight. Stephenson and West have a plan, and Cole’s slight misstep will make it ever easy for them to execute it.
After effectively walling off Cole with a solid screen, West slowly retreats to just below the arc, beginning his “short roll.” In a perfect world, the Heat might be in good shape – Cole would be farther up the floor on James’ level, making Stephenson’s next move far more difficult. After all, Lance is dribbling dangerously close to the backcourt. But instead, Cole is almost 10-feet from the ball, and LeBron – knowing it’s too late to trap but wanting to dissuade Stephenson from turning the corner – is hesitant to recover back to West.
Meanwhile, Miami’s help defenders on the back-side are barely there. Mario Chalmers is something close to lurking off of George Hill, Chris Bosh is attached to Roy Hibbert, and Dwyane Wade is several feet outside of the paint. Miami is reactionary rather than anticipatory; that’s a losing proposition when playing its preferred style of defense.
By this point, Stephenson’s pass to a waiting West is already in the air. James makes a weak attempt to deflect it, but that’s a last-ditch effort. The Heat have badly mismanaged their pick-and-roll defense – there’s no pressure on the ball to ensure a frazzled decision, help defenders are late, and Indy is about to play 4-on-3 from 15-feet because of it. Making matters worse is the Pacers’ spacing. Hill and George wait patiently in either corner and Hibbert stays on the right block as West – an equally adept shooter or playmaker from this distance – prepares to catch.
West, with James and Cole out of the play and the Heat’s remaining defenders puzzlingly absent, will have ample room to exploit that numbers advantage once he does. The Pacers are guaranteed a good shot from here. The question now is which one West decides is the team’s best option.
This is the benefit of a “short roll” in a nutshell. A longer, more traditional “roll” would not only make Stephenson’s pass more difficult, but also muck things up closer to the basket and ensure Miami of a solid contest. And a classic “pop” – of which West has made a killing his entire career, it should be noted – would likely yield an open shot, but one with less expected efficiency than those Indy has at its disposal from this spot on the floor.
West ultimately elects to shoot, easily finishing over the outstretched arms of Bosh with a lefty hook after a ball fake. But he had other options – a quick dump to Hibbert or drive-and-kick to the shooter awaiting in the corners. The reluctance of Chalmers and Wade to crash hard on the ball makes more sense given context; Hill and George were a combined 5-6 from three-point range at this juncture. But the kind of activity those rotations take is that for which the Heat’s scheme and this specific possession call. Wade and Chalmers, though, elect to take the easiest route before its too late.
The effectiveness of Indy’s Game 1 “short rolls” weren’t limited to West. That the plodding Hibbert was able to easily execute a successful one later in the game speaks to just how broken Miami was when defending this play.
The scariest thing for the Heat isn’t that Hibbert makes this catch and sets his feet completely unencumbered. Rather, it’s that Wade realizes his necessary rotation so late in this game within the game that Hibbert – doing his best Blake Griffin impression – has time to make a simple wraparound pass to West for an easy layup. If Miami were engaged, Wade would crash down to prevent that eventual pass and scurry back to the corner to contest a shot should the ball find its way to George. But, like his teammates earlier in the possession, Wade is lazy.
The “short roll” isn’t all that beat Miami yesterday; the Heat’s total lack of defensive intensity and commitment did them in more than anything else. That surprising development was felt most often in high ball-screen situations, though, and the Pacers came prepared to feast on Miami there whether the defense was completely engaged or not.
The Heat will obviously adjust going forward. But Game 1 is a stark reminder of just how well Indy matches up with the two-time defending champions, and the fruits of when unique talent and excellent preparation meet in the middle.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com
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