Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, daughter and dog. He blogs about the NBA and related topics at WhereOffenseHappens.com. His work can also be found at Hickory-High.com and ESPN’s ClipperBlog.com, where he is a regular contributor. Seth can be reached on twitter @WhrOffnsHppns.
In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, San Antonio’s offense operated at an otherworldly level in the first half. Simply looking at shooting statistics where the Spurs set a Finals record by shooting 75.8% from the floor over the first two quarters. Combining blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ball movement with accurate and at times incredible shotmaking, the Spurs had only to fend off a single Miami run in the third quarter to comfortably take a 2-1 series lead.
But Miami was more than complicit in their own demise. One of the first rules of defensive basketball is to contain the ball. Mostly this is used in reference to a perimeter defender staying in front of his man to prevent a dribble-drive which, through either allowing a layup or requiring help to the ball and rotation to newly open players, compromises the defense. However, Miami failed to contain the ball in another fashion completely. The Heat continuously allowed San Antonio freedom to pass wherever they wanted.
This freedom to pass included both leaving open passing lanes to enter the ball to the post, as well as allowed the ball to swing rapidly from one side of the court to another. The last is particularly dangerous to the Heat, who at their best represent the embodiment of modern NBA defense in terms of overloading the strong side of the floor before rotating and recovering to the weakside as the ball moves.
To illustrate what I mean by Heat allowing easy ball reversal, here’s part of San Antonio’s second possession of the game:
It looks simple enough, the Spurs are simply passing the ball around the perimeter, what’s the problem? The issue is that as the ball swings, multiple Heat players are suddenly in poor defensive position according to fundamental “ball-you-man” principles.
For example, Rashard Lewis is in decent enough position to deny Boris Diaw good post position on the left side of the floor. Dwyane Wade is also well-positioned to deny Danny Green a shot.,
but as the ball moves from the left wing to the top to the right he has to adjust to continue this ball denial:
And similarly, Wade is now in a much less advantageous position to deny Green the ball, as he has to navigate multiple screens to contest a catch at the top of the arc:
Given time, both Wade and Lewis can reposition relatively simply, but in this case as the adage goes, the ball moves faster than they can run. If Miami can slow down this ball reversal just a little, or make Kawhi Leonard catch the ball just a little further out on the floor, this defensive repositioning becomes much simpler. So instead of conceding the pass from Duncan to Leonard, LeBron James could pressure the passing lane just a little:
For example, look how the Spurs slowed Miami’s ball movement and forced the Heat offense farther from the basket by applying resistance to these swing passes:
This is a fairly extreme example, involving at least one switch by San Antonio off the ball, but compare where Wade is receiving the ball and where he is facing to Leonard in the above example from the Spurs:
Leonard is not only in a position to catch and shoot or drive aggressively, he’s also able to see the entire floor to make the next pass. Wade is neither a threat himself, nor does he have vision or passing angles to deliver the ball to a teammate in a threatening position even if another Heat player were open in such a spot.
According to John Schumann of NBA.com, the Spurs were able to get this sort of ball reversal on 30 of their 44 first half possessions. The effect of this was that Heat defenders were always in situations where they were scrambling to recover and close small gaps.
Small errors in the angles and timing of these rotations led to numerous easy baskets for the Spurs. For example, after rapid ball movement by San Antonio, and fearing Green’s 3 point catch-and-shoot ability, Ray Allen takes an overly aggressive angle on a closeout, allowing Green to drive to the basket to his dominant hand:
In addition to getting better ball denial on passes around the perimeter to at least slow and deter these (as described frequently by Jeff Van Gundy) “habit passes,” the Heat are going to need better pressure on the ball-handler as well. For example, even though Duncan misses the layup here, Allen and Chris Andersen do nothing to block Manu Ginobili’s line of vision and allow him to throw a bullet pass to Duncan rolling down the lane:
As Ginobili comes off the pick-and-slip, Allen and Andersen are giving too much space and have their hands down. Manu could deliver the ball to any Spur who came open at this moment:
Miami was much better at pressuring both the ball and the passing lanes in the second half, but the deficit was so large and the Spurs continued to execute sufficiently well to keep scoring enough to prevent the Heat from closing the margin to the point where the outcome was in doubt.
Obviously the Spurs deserve a great deal of credit for moving the ball as they did, as well as for the incredible shotmaking efficiency. But the Heat were more than complicit in handing San Antonio the knife with which Miami’s defense was sliced to ribbons in the first half.