James and Wade: Making music off the ball

James and WadeAP Photo/Tom Mihalek

It took some time, but LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have learned to thrive as weakside threats.

The other team knows it’s coming, but it doesn’t matter.

Dwyane Wade pounds the rock just beyond the 3-point line, the only Heat player on the left side of the court. LeBron James, a 270-pound mass of muscle, sprints toward his teammate, barreling down on Wade’s already beleaguered defender. If Wade refuses the screen and attacks to his left, as he did to finish off Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in March, there is virtually no help defense that can arrive in time to stop him.

If Wade uses the screen, the defense is forced to switch to prevent Wade from turning the corner. Accepting the screen, Wade drifts to the middle of the court as LeBron slams his backside into his new defender and pins him just below the high post.

From here it’s a brutal two-man game in which a shooting guard at least 50 pounds smaller than James is marooned on a deserted high post island, almost certain to be eaten alive.

Many expected to see the uber-effective Wade-James pick-and-roll numerous times each game throughout the season. But Miami has used it consistently only over the past couple of months, and its arrival hailed a new narrative:

James and Wade might be figuring out how to play together.

Yet as devastating as this action is, Miami deploys it only when necessary, as though too much exposure to the bright lights of the game might dull its effectiveness. Instead, James and Wade have continued to operate largely in isolation or in pick-and-rolls with Heat big men.

This is how things were when the Internet and airwaves were rife with the accusation that Wade and James were “taking turns,” bellowing as soloists rather than crooning in harmony.

And it may still appear that way now, although it’s clear that coach Erik Spoelstra, James and Wade have grown in leaps and bounds when it comes to maximizing the two stars’ incredible, but somewhat redundant, abilities.

For Wade and LeBron, that journey has been one of self-improvement, shoring up parts of their game that their own gaudy talents had left unrefined. Never before had either player shared the court with another ball-dominant wing scorer, and both clearly felt uncomfortable in that role early on.

James spoke about this journey a bit in practice on Thursday, describing the process as one he expected to take some work.

“I’ve definitely played off the ball this year more than I have in my previous seven years,” said James, “I knew coming into this situation that D-Wade is … you know we’re just sort of the same guys when it comes to pick-and-roll basketball throughout our careers. So I knew I would definitely have to watch film and adjust my game plan off the ball and finding spots and creases underneath the rim or on the weak side where I could still help the team without the ball in my hand.”

At the beginning of the season, it was common to see Wade attack middle from one side, draw help and kick to LeBron on the weak side. James would then attack, and kick back out to Wade, and so on. They were both doing what they do best, getting to the paint, but whoever received the kickout looked lost as to how to take advantage of his teammate’s progress. All that work would often result in a contested 19-foot jumper, a tough shot that neither player has trouble manufacturing on his own.

Now, notice how LeBron or Wade slowly creeps along the perimeter as the other handles on the strong side. He is looking for the crease LeBron described, that angle through which to explode into the paint and receive a pass. As the defense gravitates to Wade and attention is diverted from James (or vice versa), a slim opportunity to sneak into the paint unnoticed presents itself.

These cuts, often along the baseline, have been the most obvious example of this phenomenon. But they happen only a handful of times each game. For the most part, the two stars’ synchronicity takes a subtler form, one facilitated by Spoelstra’s design.

The Celtics’ defense has stymied NBA offenses for the past four years by overloading the strong side and pressuring the passing lanes to prevent ball reversals. This is the perfect strategy to neutralize players who excel in isolation scenarios, like Kobe Bryant, James and Wade.

But LeBron and Wade’s failures against Boston occurred when each was their team’s sole wing creator. And, as James tells it, Wade has made life much easier against Boston’s strongside pressure defense.

“That was part of my whole decision [to come to Miami], knowing that you could have someone strong on the strong side against a load-up defense, and I could be on the weak side,” James said.

Spoelstra and the Heat are actually exploiting the Celtics’ vaunted system by baiting Boston into overloading one side, then swinging the ball quickly to the other side and letting Wade or James attack before the defense has a chance to recover. The Heat often use a second pick-and-roll sprung quickly on the weak side to accelerate that process.

Against Wade or James, an abundance of space and a dearth of help defenders spells doom for any defense.

“If there’s nothing going on for D-Wade, I can be on the weak side when he swings it to me; then I have the ability to get away from the defense because all of them are on the strong side,” James said.

This basic strategy still fundamentally relies on wing isolations and traditional pick-and-rolls. But it’s been much more effective over the last month of the season and into the playoffs, because Wade and James’ awareness of spacing and cutting opportunities has improved mightily, and they’re exhibiting a far more faithful commitment to the speedy ball movement that ignites their rotating pick-and-roll attack.

Perhaps this evolution shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, they chose to play together, and as James implies, knew changes would be necessary.

The advances they’ve made aren’t as easy to appreciate as an improved jump shot, or a new post game. Learning to be effective and make the right reads off the ball was always going to be Wade and James’ biggest challenge, because the task is more mental than physical.

It took about 60 games for the principles to become instinct. For Miami, it was well worth the wait.

With a symphony of drives and dishes, James and Wade are together overwhelming the Celtics' defense that so confounded them as individuals, and a growing chorus of former critics are declaring the once 9-8 Heat favorites to win it all.