Will LeBron James have enough energy to fuel Miami's high-flying brand of basketball in Game 5?
MIAMI -- Whatever happened to "pace-and-space"?
That's the rhyming catchphrase Heat coach Erik Spoelstra utilized to dub the high-speed, low-control offense he developed in the offseason. Inspired by a lockout visit with Oregon football coach Chip Kelly, Spoelstra implemented the fast-paced offense to leverage the athletic talents of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and to emphasize floor spacing with sharpshooters.
The hands-off approach worked for a while. But after a blazing start to the season, the Heat haven't been running teams out of the gym; instead, they have utilized a slower, more methodical brand of basketball. Against Indiana's stifling half-court defense anchored by 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, the pace-and-space approach could theoretically be Miami's greatest weapon and a potential game-changer in a series tied at 2-2.
So six months after its debut, is Spoelstra still emphasizing pace-and-space?
"Yeah, he’s still preaching it," Wade said at Heat's practice on Monday. "But we have to get stops."
James echoed Wade's sentiment about the importance of defense.
“That’s what it’s about," James said. "When we get stops, we have to attack. We do some of our best basketball when we get a defensive stop and we get out on a run."
A bullet is useless without a trigger. In the absence of turnovers and defensive rebounds, any team will struggle to sprint like the Heat did earlier in the season. The team opened the season as the fastest-paced team in the league over the first 10 games in the season, but over the final 10 games the Heat ranked 25th in possessions per game. Moreover, they averaged the second-most fast-break points in the opening weeks, but ranked dead last in fast-break points in the final 10 games of the regular season.
So is Duckball dead, or is it due for a rude awakening?
The playoffs certainly haven't helped. Postseason basketball typically slows down as the value of each possession becomes more important, but the Heat pressed on the gas in their Game 4 win in Indiana. The Heat doubled their fast-break points from Game 3 to Game 4 (eight points to 16) and reached triple-digit scoring after mustering just 75 points in each of the previous two games.
The key to the spike? Believing that the best offense is a good defense.
"When we defend or rebound the ball, we’ll get opportunities in the open court," Spoelstra said. "That could make a big difference in a series like this. When LeBron gets those defensive rebounds like [he did in Game 4], that’s when we’re at our fastest. He was relentless."
James tallied a season-high 18 rebounds in Game 4, using many of those to propel the Heat's open-floor attack. That's the beauty of having a top rebounder doubling as a point guard; no outlet pass is necessary to ignite a break. During Wade and James' barrage of 38 consecutive points, the Heat throttled the Pacers in chaotic spurts, thriving on transition plays and improvisation.
The "space" part of the equation had been missing too. The Heat weren't able to capitalize on floor-spacing shooters in the first three games; they shot a pathetic 12 percent on 3-pointers in the series before Sunday. But shooting 41.7 percent from downtown in Game 4 helped to free up the driving lanes for James and Wade. The Heat can't get what they want unless Shane Battier and Mike Miller fulfill their floor-spacing duties.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty
Can Erik Spoelstra rely on LeBron James to rebound and run?
But perhaps most importantly, the pace-and-space attack neutralizes the lumbering Hibbert as a paint protector.
"They obviously have a big guy that sits in the middle a lot," Wade said. "Hibbert is very good defensively, especially protecting the rim, so we have to do a better job of getting points in the paint in transition, not just in the half court. We have to get him in the move a little bit so he’s not just sitting, waiting for us to come down into the paint."
Attacking Hibbert on the move also achieves the Heat's second priority: getting the Pacers' big man in foul trouble. It's no coincidence that the Heat outscored the Pacers by a decisive eight points with Hibbert sitting on the bench with foul trouble. He and David West finished with five fouls apiece.
But it's not as simple as flipping the switch and suddenly deciding to play high-octane basketball. Playing at that speed is exhausting, too, especially after a lockout-shortened season. At Monday's practice, James was asked whether he had any energy after his monster Game 4, and he responded with an exasperated grin.
"Don't have any," James said on Monday. "It’s definitely going to be a recovery and mental day for me to prepare for [Tuesday].”
That's the obvious downside, of course. Throughout the season, this was the overarching question with the Heat: Will they have enough energy in the postseason to play the same kind of pace-and-space brand of basketball that they beat teams with early on?
Wade wasn't so sure.
"Obviously, it’s different now than the regular season," Wade said. "Possessions matter a lot more now. There might be sometimes where they might miss and you might not run. Early on in the regular season, we were just going. It was just ‘pace-and-space’ and we were attacking.
"But that was a long time ago. We’ve got a lot of miles on our legs now from that."
James wouldn't say that fatigue was going to slow the Heat down, but it might make it harder to assert their athleticism.
“Fatigue is part of the playoffs," James said. "I’m just trying to catch my second and third wind out there. You have to just push through it.”
It's no secret that the Heat will look to run at every opportunity, and Pacers coach Frank Vogel has stressed the importance of keeping the fast-break triggers to a minimum. Since Chris Bosh is sidelined with an abdominal strain, the Heat might have no choice but to go all-in on James and Wade's athleticism, and swarm the Pacers as Miami did earlier in the regular season.
“It's that attack mentality," Spoelstra said. "We’re trying to figure ourselves out on the fly with Bosh out. It’s changed the dynamic of the team.”
With the series in the balance ahead of Game 5, channeling an excellent pace-and-space effort might be the dynamic the Heat need to tilt the series in their favor.
“They know what they need and we know what we need," Wade said. "Two sides collide and we’ll see who comes out.”