In the fourth quarter of the Heat's series clincher against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, LeBron James dribbled around Chris Andersen after the big man came up high to set the pick-and-roll. Over in the left corner, Ray Allen hid in his favorite spot while James penetrated the Bucks' defense toward the paint.
James gained steam, and Allen waited in the corner. If this were chess, the Heat just called “check.”
Do you collapse into the paint and help create a human shield in front of the rim? Or do you stick on Allen in the corner and hope for the best with James barreling toward the basket? Which door do you choose?
This is what the Heat try to accomplish on every possession: force the defense to make difficult decisions. And this one might be the most vexing problem of all to solve. Sure enough, Monta Ellis opted for the first door: Ellis shaded toward the paint and left Allen open briefly in the corner.
James hit Allen, Allen hit the shot.
The corner 3 may be the most important shot in the game, ranking right up there with a typical layup in terms of efficiency. It yields a similar payoff to a point-blank shot, and research shows that corner 3 attempts correlate more strongly with successful offenses than layups do. At its best, the Heat's offense pressures the opposition in such a way that the defense must pick their poison between stopping James’ penetration or preventing his passes to the corner.
This quandary is why SportVU’s 3-D tracking cameras found that James' drives, which produced 1.68 points per drive, were more efficient than those of any other NBA player this season. Stopping a driving James is the basketball equivalent of slowing down an armored tank that’s equipped with passes that dart like homing missiles.
The Bucks couldn’t solve that problem at any point in their first-round series with Miami, and as a result they lost every game by double digits. Led by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s system, predicated on movement and space, the Heat have found the precious corner 3 more than any other team in the playoffs, firing up 44 corner 3 attempts for an average diet of 11 shots per game. No other team has shot more than nine per game.
But do you want to know which team defends the corner 3 better than anyone?
The Chicago Bulls. Yes, the team that is one win over the Brooklyn Nets away from facing the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
During the regular season, coach Tom Thibodeau’s defense held opponents to just 3.6 corner 3 attempts per game, by far the lowest number in the league according to NBA.com/stats. What makes the Bulls so tough is that they wield a strongside defense that loads up on the ball and simultaneously protects the corners. In other words, it is perfectly geared to take away the Heat’s strongest weapon.
Remember when the Bulls ended the Heat’s 27-game win streak back in March? The Heat could get off only five corner 3s in that game, almost half their league-leading average of 8.8 shots from the corner pocket. Thibodeau won that chess match as the Bulls’ nasty defense took away the Heat’s most dangerous attack, resulting in the Heat’s only loss in nearly three months in which James has played.
Sure, the potential return of Derrick Rose will grab the headlines as the primary reason why the Heat want the Nets to prevail over the Bulls. No doubt the upcoming commentary will also hammer home how the Heat were undefeated in the regular season against Brooklyn in three games, crushing them with an average win margin of 17.7 points. It’s also true that the longer the Nets-Bulls series goes, the longer Dwyane Wade gets to rest his banged-up right knee.
Yes, there are several reasons why the Heat should be Brooklyn’s biggest cheerleader on Monday night and potentially beyond. But as long as Thibodeau is on the sidelines orchestrating the defense and Joakim Noah is out there plugging the pick-and-roll, James and the Heat will always have trouble putting the Bulls into “check.” With the way the Heat have been mowing down opponents over the past few months, it may not matter who they face in the next round. But we know which team has the best chance to take down King James.