The Heat had a big three on Sunday -- Dwyane Wade, LeBron James ... and James Jones.
MIAMI -- Sideline interviews with media outlets are typically reserved for guys named James, Wade and Bosh in Miami. But after scoring 25 points and draining five of seven 3-pointers, reserve swingman James Jones got the call on Sunday, delaying his return to the Miami Heat's locker room after the game.
After Jones was through with his postgame commitments, he walked into the locker room still in his game clothes to a crowd of waiting reporters. Although most players opt to shower and dress prior to taking questions, Jones saw the scrum and immediately -- and empathetically -- began the Q&A session.
"You all have jobs to do. You have lives," Jones said. "I'm ready."
Jones' readiness on Sunday was a key contribution to the Heat's 99-90 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. On an afternoon when Chris Bosh underperformed and LeBron James was unexceptional by his standards, Jones' production was vital.
"JJ had the best game of anybody," LeBron James said of Jones. "Anytime it seemed like [the Celtics] were making a run, we penetrated and kicked to JJ and he was able to make a play."
Since Day 1, that's been the Heat's game plan. The upper tier of the Eastern Conference includes several teams that design their defensive schemes around stopping -- even overcommitting -- penetrators such as James and Dwyane Wade.
"We knew we’d have to make some plays to keep them honest," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They’re one of the better defensive teams in the league in terms of loading up and protecting the paint."
The Heat were well-aware that opponents would try to shrink the floor and send extra bodies at Wade and James, which is why they stockpiled long-range shooters to fill out their roster. Ideally, snipers such as Jones, Mike Miller and Eddie House would be primed and ready for kickouts from Wade and James.
Under the direction of Tom Thibodeau, the Celtics built a defense that overloads the strong side, converges on the ball handler, then zones up behind that pressure. Over the past several seasons, the Celtics have nearly perfected this strategy. Even though the offense often has a 3-on-2 advantage on the weakside, the Celtics are so deft at rotating and making snap decisions, they're able to do the necessary work to keep those weakside threats at bay ... at least most games.
On Sunday, the Heat made the Celtics pay and Jones was the taxman. How was Jones able to wreak havoc against the league's second-ranked defense?
Here's how his five successful 3-pointers played out:
[2nd quarter, 10:11] Off a Bosh steal on the defensive end, Mario Chalmers rushes the ball up the left sideline (the Heat are playing without a true point guard on the floor). Joel Anthony sets up beneath the rim while Jones and Miller fan out on the weakside perimeter -- Jones to the right of the top of the arc, Miller in the corner. The Heat initiate their offense early. Bosh sets an angle screen for Chalmers. Glen Davis shows hard, while Delonte West fights over Bosh, but trails Chalmers. Jones' man is Jeff Green, but he's serving as Boston's "extra body" at the top of the key, waiting for Chalmers. As Chalmers turns the corner and barrels down on Green, he has an easy pitch to Jones. The wide open look from beyond the arc is true.
[2nd quarter, 9:38] The very next possession, the Heat race the ball up again, this time off a miss at close range by Paul Pierce. Most of the Celtics do a reasonably good job of pedaling back and finding their assignments, but not Jeff Green. Even though Davis picks up Anthony to prevent a direct route to the rim, Green inexplicably decides to body up on Anthony, too. In short, the Celtics have effectively doubled Joel Anthony off the ball. Know who's open? James Jones. After Miller gets Pierce to bite on a ball-fake, he penetrates from the left wing. As the entirety of the Celtics' defense converges on Miller in the paint -- including Green who has never once looked for his man -- Jones fades to the right corner. Miller slings a cross-court pass to Jones. Catch, shoot, 3. "I got some good looks," Jones said. "Mike Miller came off the bench and got me a good look."
[2nd quarter, 7:09] The Heat operate a little more deliberately on this possession, but events still happen quickly. James brings the ball up the left sideline, then gets a pick from Bosh. Jones dashes down the gut of the lane, guarded by Ray Allen, then curls clockwise, fading to the perimeter on the right side. Allen stalls a bit, and when he realizes how much separation Jones has amassed, he tries to catch up. But there's Mr. Anthony with a strong pin-down -- and Allen doesn't have a prayer getting around it. Chalmers is also there for a stagger screen, but his presence doesn't really have an effect. James penetrates into the paint and, as if he has eyes in the back of his head, elevates, then flicks the ball behind him to a wide-open Jones. Three more for JJ.
[2nd quarter, 3:50] The Heat have to work a bit harder this trip downcourt to get Jones a look. They run a high screen-and-roll with Wade and Anthony. The Celtics naturally trap Wade, as Anthony rolls to the hoop. Bosh replaces Anthony to the left of Wade for a potential spot-up jumper, but Kevin Garnett is there -- he's always there. Bosh dishes the ball off to Jones in the left corner, but Allen closes nicely here. The Heat try again as Jones returns the ball to Wade at the top of the floor. The Heat move into another Wade-Anthony pick-and-roll, this time in the dead middle of the floor. Wade gets penetration and Allen is busy ball-watching as Jones fades to the left corner. Wade kicks to Jones for another 3-pointer. "We moved the ball," Jones said. "Whenever you can create a trigger … we created plenty of triggers tonight. When [the Celtics] get into rotations and they try to collapse on our guys rolling toward the basket, someone’s open and it’s usually on the perimeter."
[3rd quarter, 3:16] Spoelstra has a small lineup on the floor -- Mike Bibby, Wade, Jones, Jones and Anthony -- but Boston, with its conventional lineup, has opted to keep Pierce on James and has assigned Garnett to Jones. For the full breadth of this set, see bullet-point No. 3, because it's virtually the same play. Bibby and James orchestrate the same angle pick-and-roll that James and Bosh ran. Jones again clears, the curls clockwise trying to get some separation from Garnett. And there's Anthony again -- along with Wade -- giving Jones that space with a pin-down, this time on Garnett. Bibby dribbles to the right of the screen and hits Jones just as the marksman is spotting up on the perimeter. Another open look and another knockdown 3.
Incredibly, Jones also led the Heat in attempts at the stripe, converting all 10 of his free throw attempts. He didn't attempts more than five free throws in any single game this season.
The Celtics have committed themselves to converging on the Heat's strong-side action. That tactic has served them well for years, but there's room for exploitation if you work hard enough. It's not enough to just park a shooter in the weakside corner. Two of these 3-pointers on Sunday occurred in early offense situations before the Celtics truly set their offense. Another two came about because Jones never stopped moving. And one opportunity surfaced because the Heat were patient enough to pass up mediocre shots in search of a better one.
Boston will undoubtedly adjust, and 5-for-7 is hard to replicate. Still, the Celtics' philosophy leaves them the slightest bit vulnerable to weakside shooters. So long as Wade and James are willing passers and Jones stays on the move, the Heat should be able to find some open looks.