Most of you watching Game 7 probably had the same thought as I did. Why was the Miami Heat's defense so stifling in Game 7 after being so dormant in five of the six previous games against the Indiana Pacers in the series? Why did it take so long for Miami to unleash its powerful trapping defense?
The easy answer is that Miami is a switch-flipping team. Paul Flannery alluded to this in his piece: Miami doesn't always reach its highest gear, but when it does, there's nobody that can play with them. It would be simplistic to say that the Heat only really tried their hardest in Game 7, when they had a true challenge on their hands.
But there's also a lot of truth to the idea. Miami does go through stretches defensively where they look terrible, and they go through others where they look like the greatest defense known to mankind. When the Heat really needed to exert more effort -- Game 5 and Game 7 in particular -- they did so. Otherwise, they drifted a bit and allowed a normally mediocre Pacers team to score efficiently on them.
The thing is, this shouldn't necessarily be seen as a character flaw in Miami's demeanor. Instead, this has a lot to do with the style of defense Miami plays.
Unlike the other three teams in the conference finals, the Heat defend the pick-and-roll aggressively. Since they lack the behemoth big man that the other three teams possess (Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Tim Duncan), the Heat compensate by having their big-man defender jump out and double-team the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls. This leaves them vulnerable if the ball-handler is able to get the pass away, but Miami still manages to force a lot of turnovers when their traps are appropriately aggressive and their backside rotations are sound.
But the margin for error can be slim, and the style can be tiring. The Pacers, by contrast, can shut down teams by simply stationing Hibbert back in the paint on pick-and-rolls and having everyone else stay on their men. Miami's system requires more effort on everyone's part and more moving parts to be precise in all steps of the operation. When one player is slow on a rotation or one trap isn't hard enough, the Heat are put in scramble situations that are exactly the kind any offense wants to create. That explains why Miami's defense can be so inconsistent.
To illustrate the difference between a Heat defense that is fully locked in and a Heat defense that has a few squeaky wheels, let's look at how they defended the high ball screen involving Hibbert. When Indiana was scoring well in this series, they were getting excellent looks out of this action. In Game 7, though, the Heat tightened up their coverages and shut the play down, save for a brief stretch at the beginning of the third quarter.
Note all of these botched coverages by Miami in Games 1-6.
These plays feature similar breakdowns by Miami. The trap on the ball-handler was usually sound, but once he got rid of the ball to Hibbert, the Heat failed to make second and third rotations.
Sometimes, the rotating big man failed to step out high enough from under the rim, allowing the Pacers to hit Hibbert going to the basket. Look how far back Chris Bosh is on this overtime play in Game 1 (15-second mark of video).
Bosh should be taking a couple extra steps up the lane here, and Dwyane Wade, playing Lance Stephenson in the right corner, should drift between him and David West under the basket. Instead, Bosh doesn't step up and Paul George drops the lob pass into a rolling Hibbert for the layup.
Here's another example from Game 2 (52-second mark of the video), only this time, it's Udonis Haslem who is underneath the rim.
Haslem is concerned about his man, David West, who is behind him. However, in order to maintain the Heat's scrambling style, Haslem needs to step up to stop Hibbert much higher on his roll and trust that LeBron will position him properly on the right side between his man (Lance Stephenson) and West. This is how Miami's system ends up being dependent on perfect weakside rotations. Haslem doesn't make his second rotation because he doesn't trust James to make his third rotation. That's how things can break down in a hurry.
In the end, Haslem does prevent the layup, but he surrenders deep post position to Hibbert, who eventually draws a foul. It's better than a layup, but fouls hurt the Heat because they prevent them from keeping the pace fast.
Here's a third example where some momentary confusion on which player is supposed to make the second rotation exposes a poor third rotation (2:10 mark of the video).
The Pacers smartly overload the left side of the floor, but either way, this is a botched decision by Miami. The only way a trap of the pick-and-roll works is if a third player gets close enough to the roll man to disrupt his rhythm and allow everyone else to recover. Here, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen both seem to expect the other one will be that third player. When neither steps up ...
... West gets an open jumper.
There were even instances where Miami contained the initial play, then failed to make a final effort that allowed the Pacers to score anyway. Here (1:55 mark of the video), Bosh is at least able to push Hibbert out to the edges of the paint on his rotation, and the work of Wade and Mario Chalmers behind him stops the potential pass to West under the basket.
The second and third rotations are sound, so what's the problem? Watch how Haslem recovers after trapping the pick-and-roll. As he runs back, he should double-team Hibbert.
But instead, Haslem runs back underneath the hoop and ignores the play, failing to continue the trapping defense that would have potentially forced a turnover or at least made Hibbert kick the ball out.
Because of that, Hibbert gets a clean look for an easy right-handed hook shot.
I bring all these breakdowns up because it was precisely these second, third and fourth rotations that Miami consistently made in Game 7. For example, here's Bosh stepping up outside the restricted area and poking the ball away from Hibbert before he can turn to the basket.
Note also Haslem's devotion to getting right back into the play, which was not seen in the fourth bad clip shown above.
This next play is a great example of that hustle as well. Initially, the Heat cut off Hibbert's roll to the rim by using Bosh to help off West on the wing.
The Pacers find West, then, and for a split second, as the Heat try to recover, there's an opening for a pass to Hibbert.
But that opening closes quickly because of Haslem's dogged pursuit to get back into the play. Before Hibbert can turn and score, Haslem has closed in. This is the kind of trap we should have seen in the fourth bad clip above and didn't.
Even Miami's guards made the extra rotation in Game 7. Here, Mario Chalmers sacrifices his body to at least slow Hibbert's roll to the rim.
Chalmers is a point guard, and Hibbert is a center, so there's not a ton of resistance being offered here. In fact, Chalmers falls down trying to take the charge. But by stepping in, Chalmers has disrupted Hibbert's rhythm, which matters because it causes Hibbert to throw a poor pass to the man Chalmers left, a wide-open George Hill.
By at least stepping in, Chalmers gives time for Miami's pressure defense to work. Once James and Bosh recover, this is the best shot Indiana can get.
Finally, here's Chalmers stepping in again, this time on a side pick-and-roll.
As before, Chalmers' rotation works because it gives Miami's other defenders time to recover. In this case, Bosh actually comes back from trapping the ball to trap Hibbert, and as that happens, James and Wade rotate down to prevent the pass to West. Because of those series of rotations, Hibbert has nowhere to go with the ball.
Hibbert eventually has no choice but to dribble out and reset the play. He misses Hill open in the opposite corner, but there's no way he could have thrown the crosscourt pass anyway.
The end result is this, which is a decent shot, but one that misses because of all the work required to get it.
Miami's defensive success is ultimately determined by those secondary rotations that aren't always there because it's a lot of work to constantly have to make them. A Finals matchup with the Spurs therefore presents a major challenge for the Heat. San Antonio moves the ball so fluidly, a stark contrast to Indiana. Your only chance to beat the Spurs is to be disciplined in all of your rotations.
The Heat probably can't get to the level they reached in Game 7 all the time, but they need to be there far more often than they were in the conference finals if they want to win the series.