Breaking down the stifling Heat defense

LeBron JamesNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images Sport

One of the rare times on Friday that Orlando got anywhere near the basket area.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Hoop Schemes, in which TrueHoop editor Kevin Arnovitz takes apart NBA strategy and puts it under a microscope.

MIAMI -- The throat-clearing has been loud and painful to listen to at times, but the Miami Heat are starting to show glimpses of how they're going to win basketball games.

Despite all that offensive firepower on the wings with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Heat have established their trademark early as a stubborn, menacing defense, one that can cover for an offense that's still feeling itself out and occasionally susceptible to an unusual combination of anxious deliberation and hero ball.

"Right now the most important thing is the guys understand, one, our identity is the defensive side of the floor," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Secondly, get to know each other what we're trying to do offensively. That will take some time."

That stingy defense kept them in a game at Boston they had little right to be in, then clamped down on Philadelphia, yielding only 87 points in 95 possessions. On Friday night against Orlando -- the 2nd most efficient offensive outfit in the NBA last season -- Miami was dominant. After a reasonably effective first period, Orlando couldn't find anything in the half court over the final three quarters. For a team that understands entry angles, ball movement, how to stretch defenses and -- most important -- a team that has a deep sense of self-awareness about what they want to achieve on every possession, Orlando appeared desperate.

Last season, the Orlando Magic averaged 24.1 shots per game at the rim – a smidgen below the league average of 26.5. On one occasion during the regular season, they generated as few as 12 shots in the immediate basket area, and logged a season-low total of 11 attempts at the rim in their humiliating Game 3 conference semifinal loss at Boston. Against Miami on Friday, the Magic attempted only seven shots in the basket area and not one of the team's collective five assists led to points at the rim.

Ever since the Heat began to fill in their roster behind James, Wade and Chris Bosh, we've heard that their most profound vulnerability is thin personnel up front. Tout the Big 3 all you want, said critics, but how can you possibly go to battle in the Eastern Conference -- and potentially against the Lakers -- with a frontcourt composed of the power forward from the worst defensive team in the league last season (Bosh), an undrafted, unimposing stilt who has quick feet but little girth (Joel Anthony), a noble but undersized power forward (Udonis Haslem), a few pokey oldsters off the bench (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Jamaal Magloire, Juwan Howard), and an uninitiated rookie (Dexter Pittman)?

Given all that, the logical question is: How did the Heat defy the skeptics and limit Orlando to four field goals at the rim?

Help and Recover

Here is a textbook set where Miami -- with its bedrock defensive principle -- stifles Orlando's go-to stuff:

  • [1st quarter, 12:00 mark] Opening possessions aren't always the best exhibit for examination because defenses are fresh and, in a game against an arch rival, amped up. But the Heat's D here offers an instructive look at just how active and intuitive their defensive instinct are.The Magic start their set with Dwight Howard (guarded by Joel Anthony) and Lewis (Bosh's man) at the left and right elbows respectively, with Vince Carter and Quentin Richardson situated on the right side. Orlando does a good job getting into the set quickly. Lewis curls around counterclockwise, getting an off-ball screen from Howard en route to his favorite spot on the left side of the perimeter. Miami anticipates the action beautifully. When Lewis swings around the screen, Anthony picks him up immediately, while Bosh moves down to take Howard.

    Nelson shuttles the ball to Lewis and this seems like a golden opportunity for Lewis to hit Howard -- now with a mismatch -- down on the block. But before he can, Wade has moved off Richardson to get between Howard and the hoop, which provides enough help to allow Anthony and Bosh to recover. That rotation by Wade along with the quick recovery by Anthony renders an entry pass by Lewis impossible. Meanwhile, Wade quickly darts back to rejoin Richardson in the weak side corner.

    Miami has extinguished the Magic's first option on the set and, with 14 on the shot clock, Orlando explores option 2 -- a reversal to the wings on the other side of the floor, which starts with Carter now holding the ball with James in front of him. Against a weaker, slower defender, Carter might be able to go one-on-one. Against James at this point in Carter's career? Forget about it. Howard steps up to give Carter a screen and, again, the Heat make life difficult for the Magic. James chases Carter along the arc, while Anthony shadows him. But who has the rolling Howard? It's Wade, again, providing timely help, giving Anthony enough time to drop back onto Howard in the paint.At this point, Wade returns to Richardson and gets there just as Carter pushes a pass over to the Magic's new small forward. With Wade harassing him and only :06 remaining on the shot clock, Richardson steps back for an awkward, contested 3-point attempt that isn't close. Four white jersey wait poised underneath for the rebound.So here we have a possession where all five Magicians touch the ball -- something coaches the world over preach as virtuous. Yet the Magic are never able to sniff the paint. Credit the Heat's defense, which makes a smart decision at every turn.

Pick and Roll Defense

On the surface, the pick and roll -- a staple for Orlando (and most NBA teams for that matter) -- is a perimeter action. But for a team like Orlando, that tactic is often the portal to working the ball down low to Howard and also getting Nelson and Carter into the lane with dribble-penetration. Here's an example of how effectively Miami defended one of the most fluid pick and roll attacks in basketball:

  • [2nd quarter, 5:47 mark] This is one of Orlando's bread-and-butter sets, something they've tormented the league with for the better part of three years. It all starts with a high Lewis screen for Nelson. But Chris Bosh steps up off the screen while Carlos Arroyo does a nice job staying between the ball and Lewis, preventing a potential pass to the popping Lewis at the arc. But Arroyo's work isn't over. Bosh recovers onto Lewis, but as Arroyo scampers to recover onto Nelson -- who has dribbled to the right sideline with the ball -- Howard runs interference, then rolls toward the paint. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Howard's man) has to pick up Nelson outside the arc on the switch. Arroyo, stuck with Howard as the big man incurs into the paint, leaps in the air as Nelson telegraphs that he wants to hit Howard with an entry pass. This isn't a fail-safe defensive tactic (Arroyo looks like the short kid at the concert back in the crowd trying to see the stage), but Arroyo is disruptive enough that Nelson can't really make that entry, so the Magic point guard moves the ball to Lewis, who's on his left at the top of the arc.Bosh guards Lewis on the perimeter, long arms in the air, active feet, giving Lewis no space to breathe. Lewis looks for Howard down low, but Big Z is pushing Howard off his spot. This is an uncomfortable Magic offense. The Heat aren't as physical as the Celtics, but they read every intention and are lightning quick to the ball and to the passer's intended target.

    The ball slowly makes its way to the next stop on the perimeter line, J.J. Redick to Lewis' left. The Magic have only 10 seconds with which to work. Redick puts the ball on the floor and makes his way cross-court where he dumps it off to Nelson, who now has :07 to make something happen. Howard moves high to give Nelson a pick. Nelson dribbles in and elevates for a 20-foot jumper (a low percentage shot Orlando is generally superb at avoiding). Ilgauskas smells it the whole way. He recovers effortlessly to stick his big limb in Nelson's face. The shot is dreadfully short.

    After the game, I reminded Bosh that he played for the worst defensive team in basketball last season, but now finds himself on what appears to be one of the best. So, is a good or bad defense the product of personnel or is it about the system? Which is more vital to success or failure?

    "It's about the system," Bosh said. "It's nothing about personnel. It's just effort. I was talking about that with my friends. You have something and you stick to it. 'These are your principles.'"

    For the ball the reach the paint, there must be entry angles available and there must be space for slashers to penetrate. Eliminating those avenues are two of the guiding principles that Bosh is talking about.

Being Everywhere at Once

"Orlando is a tough team to play because they put you in a position where you have to double Dwight at times, then you have to fly out to shooters," James said. "You have to do multiple things. You have to get into the paint, then get out to the shooters. We did both tonight."

  • [3rd quarter, 8:26 mark] Richardson is able to deliver the entry pass to Howard in the mid-post, where the center is immediately swarmed by a quick double-team by James. Howard is an underrated passer out of the double-team, and is able to lob an overhead pass across the court to the weak side corner where Nelson has set up shop. James dashes over the instant the pass is airborne and, incredibly, is able to close out hard on Nelson before he can launch an would-be open 3-pointer.This forces Nelson to put the ball on the floor and take a couple dribbles along the baseline. When Nelson meets Bosh-- who has walled off the paint -- at about 18 feet, he's unloads a high-degree-of-difficulty, high-arcing shots that falls through.

    Although Nelson gets his two, chalk up this possession as a defensive success for the Heat. They deter two high percentage shots with their strategy (Howard from close range, then Nelson with an open corner-3), and force the Magic to settle for a low-percentage one. Yes, Nelson converts, but if you asked Magic coach Stan Van Gundy to rank in descending order his shot preference on this possession, chances are he'd place Nelson's wild rainbow well behind the first two options. Neither Howard nor Nelson had any chance to finish his shot at the rim.

    For the Heat, this type of anticipation and quicks will be central to what will inevitably be one of the league's most difficult defenses to score against this season.

This isn't the full repertoire of Miami's defensive attributes. They clog passing lanes. They collapse on penetration intelligently -- still being mindful of the space they've left behind. And they harass incessantly. With impunity. Joel Anthony still poses challenges for the Heat staff, especially on the offensive end, but his anticipation and happy feet defending the pick and roll are helping his team make stops. For all of Arroyo's failing, he, too, is making smart decisions as a half court defender. And Bosh? We might have a Ray Allen effect -- a guy who arrived into a new situation with a horrible defensive reputation, but just needed a coherent system to show off his instincts. Don't expect Bosh to take home any hardware this season for his work on the defensive side of the ball, but he's far, far better than advertised.

Whatever cohesion the Heat still lack on offense, Spoelstra has already instilled a fluid brand of defense that maximizes his team's uncommon quickness and smarts. Fans will tune in to watch the offensive exploits and the dazzling Top 10 fodder -- and who wouldn't -- but the Heat are going to succeed on the strength of their defensive system, one that has a chance for a historic season.