Dwyane Wade's attack will put a ton of pressure on the Sixers' disciplined defense.
Transition could tilt everything
“If they force a turnover, forget about it. It’s a dunk on the other end. They’re as fast as any team I’ve seen this year -- other than us.”
Those are the words of Erik Spoelstra, but they just as well could have been the words of Doug Collins, the coach on the other end of the sidelines. These two teams love getting out in the open court, and they do it better than anybody else. Spoelstra will tell you the Heat are a running team. He has said this all season. And yet, despite Spoelstra’s insistence, the Heat rarely put their foot on the gas. Just 13.1 percent of the Heat’s offense this season has come out of transition, ranking them 13th in the NBA in transition frequency. Looking at pace factor -- the number of possessions per 48 minutes -- the Heat rank as the 10th-slowest team in the NBA. They don’t play fast.
So what is Spoelstra talking about? He’s referring to the team’s strength, not frequency. The Heat are lethal when they decide to run, posting the best efficiency in the NBA when they get out in the open floor in transition, scoring 1.224 points per play (the Sixers rank second). But getting into transition is always the hard part. Zoom back to the second quarter of the last Heat-Sixers game, when the Heat went on a 22-3 run, and you’ll see how destructive the Heat can be when they poke the ball away. With the rubber-band-stretchy lineup of Mike Bibby, Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller< LeBron James and Chris Bosh, the Heat were relentless on defense, causing turnovers and scoring at will in transition. As LeBron James and Wade barreled down the middle of the court, the Sixers were defenseless against them.
But here’s the issue: The Sixers are the least turnover-prone team in the NBA. If the Heat want to go up 1-0 in the series, they have to put on the pressure and exert their athleticism on the Sixers -- without rest. If the Heat get their skirmishes in front of their home crowd, this one could get out of reach early.
Dwyane Wade's opportunities ... and challenges
It seems like an eternity ago when Wade was practicing his post game against Jerry Stackhouse at the far end of the Heat's practice court. After that workout session, a sweaty Wade confessed that, at 28, he'd started to realize it was about time to supplement his aggressive attack game with a post-up game, the sort of evolution Kobe Bryant has undertaken over the past several seasons.
We've seen traces of that commitment from Wade over the course of the season, but in the Heat's previous meeting against Philadelphia on March 25, Wade looked to post up Sixers guard Jodie Meeks at every opportunity. Collins is very reluctant to send double-teams, but Wade's deep position and command over Meeks down low forced Philly's hand. Wade often would pass out against a scrambling Sixers defense. It's a scheme both Wade and Spoelstra like a lot. Will Wade spend considerable time in the post versus Meeks? "No question," Wade said.
While Meeks might have vulnerabilities against Wade as a defender, the Sixers sharpshooter presents a certain challenge for Wade, who has a tendency to slough off his man to help, sometimes unnecessarily, in the paint. Meeks drained three of seven shots from beyond the arc in the teams' previous meeting, and if Wade isn't more selective, Meeks has the potential to burn him again.
How LeBron can beat Iguodala
LeBron James is familiar with Andre Iguodala’s game. Maybe too familiar. Talking after the Heat’s practice Friday, James rambled off this factoid offhand: “Besides myself, he’s the only one in the league this season to average 14 points, six assists and five rebounds.” Impressive.
After going head to head against Iguodala over the years and playing with him on the USA teams, James calls Iguodala one of his toughest defenders. And the Heat know how to get the upper hand in the matchup: by not having Iguodala guard James at all. To accomplish this objective, the Heat like to have Bibby set ball screens while James is dribbling out on the perimeter. Bibby is one of the most underrated screeners in the game because he gets his elbows out and discretely grabs the other player's jersey at the point of contact. It’s not legal by any means, but he’s been getting away with it for years and it works. After Bibby sets the screen, James forces the mismatch on Bibby’s man, either Jrue Holiday or Lou Williams, and pounds the ball in the post.
At practice, Spoelstra said we should expect the Heat to employ this strategy (Bibby screening for James) more often in the playoff opener, but he also expressed some discipline. “That’s part of our game right now, so I don’t think we have to go out of our way to do it,” Spoelstra said. “We’ll try to exploit a lot of those different things without overdoing it when [the Sixers] get into a rhythm.”
There’s a thin line between doing it and overdoing it. But keep a close eye on the creativity that the Heat use in getting James mismatches. In the last meeting between these two teams, the Heat had Bibby set down screens on James’ man to free the two-time MVP up to do his work on someone else. ESPN Stats and Information tells us that James has shot 25.0 percent (3-for-12) when guarded by Iguodala and 56.3 percent (18-for-32) when guarded by every other Sixer. If Miami can get James matched up against someone other than Iguodala, the Heat will look to capitalize. Moreso now than ever, each advantage counts.
Turning the tables on the Sixers' strong defense
After the last meeting, we discussed how the Heat were able to take advantage of Philadelphia's disciplined defensive scheme. Collins has instilled a stay-at-home philosophy. He demands strong one-on-one base defense from his guys, and will send help and double-teams if absolutely necessary. Furthermore, Collins is adamant that his team take away its opponent's 3-point shot.
The Heat leveraged this strategy by forcing the issue in the middle of the floor. What did Miami do? It went to its small lineup, which spaced the floor and allowed Wade and James and, to some extent, Bosh to attack the Sixers off the dribble. This aggressiveness forced the Sixers into a series of bad choices. The Sixers, adamant to stay at home, weren't able to to sufficiently protect the paint against James and Wade. Philadelphia also doesn't have very many shot-blockers to deter those drives.
This is the primary reason Wade was able to go off for 39 points and earn 11 attempts at the stripe. In their small lineup, the Heat also tested Philly by unleashing the Wade-James pick-and-roll on seven possessions, generating an impressive 10 points (1.43 points per possession).
The Sixers can insist that their individual defenders control penetration, but it seems like a futile tactic against the likes of Wade and, to some extent, James (Iguodala might be the one guy on the Sixers' roster who can contain a perimeter attacker like James). How will Collins adjust? We'll see.
The hive of yellow jackets
If you're Bosh, what kind of opponent do you want to see in a seven-game series? Ideally, you'd prefer a team without a true formidable defensive force down low. Fortunately for Bosh, he won't confront many rim protectors against the Sixers. Elton Brand is still a crafty, physical defender with solid instincts, but at this point in his career, Bosh might be a little too quick a cover. Ditto for Spencer Hawes, who bodied up on Bosh for a handful of possessions March 25. Although his big body provided some resistance down on the block, Bosh also has a quickness advantage, particularly rolling to the rim. Fellow Georgia Tech alum Thaddeus Young also drew the Bosh assignment for stretches, but Bosh can easily shoot over the undersized forward. "Chris has an advantage over Thad, off the dribble and on the block," Paul Hewitt, who coached both Bosh and Young at Georgia Tech, said Friday.
Young might be the most fascinating player in the series. He's a candidate for both sixth man of the year and most improved player. Young played the 3 in college but has seen most of his minutes at the power forward slot in Collins' speedy, smaller unit. Hewitt, who makes a point to watch both Bosh and Young whenever he has the chance, has come around on Young's appropriate position. "The more they've played him at the 4, the more confident he's become," Hewitt said Friday. "Now he's playing the 4, but what makes him dangerous is that he's taken those attributes as a 3 with him to the 4."
Whether Young is a 3 or a 4 might be immaterial, given how much Philadelphia's second unit runs, and Young is one of the catalysts for that transition attack. "He's one of the keys to the series because he'll keep one of those three guys busy, whether it's LeBron, Bosh or Wade," Hewitt said. "They have to run up and down the court with him."