The finest NBA defenses are a symphony of collective movement. Five players moving together with an awareness of ball, man and where the most offensive dangers originate. It's not enough to just play strong straight-up defense on "your" man. You also need to be aware and make sure you have everyone else's back. Plus, you need to do all of this with discipline while adhering to the defensive rules and philosophy of your team. You need five to play as one, tied together "on a string."
Different teams accomplish "on a string" in different ways. A team's defensive style and rules depend on both personnel and the head coach's individual philosophy. Though this is a league that loves to copy each other's X's and O's, the elite teams remaining in the hunt for the NBA championship all play defense differently.
The biggest wildcard in the team defense deck is the defending NBA titleholders, the Miami Heat. With length and athleticism, as well as the cyborg known as LeBron James, the Heat play an aggressive half court defense, looking to stymie the other team's pick and roll actions with blitzing double teams. The Heat are always looking to turn the opposition over. They play on a tight, elastic string, with big double teams and constant quick rotations.
After a Norris Cole basket, the Heat apply a token amount of full-court pressure before settling in to disrupt Indiana's half court attack. Miami has already mixed-up their individual match-ups by having LeBron cover George Hill at the same time as Ray Allen picks up Paul George. Norris Cole takes C.J. Watson, while Shane Battier marks David West and Chris Andersen grabs Ian Mahinmi.
Indiana empties out the left side to play a two-man game with Hill and Paul George. Before George can even set the screen (let alone make contact), Ray Allen is already preparing for a hard contact show (see explanation here).
As Allen makes contact with the ball handler, Birdman is already fully rotating from the weak side to the rolling George. James recovers to Hill as Ray Allen chases back to his man, George. While all of this action takes place around the ball, Battier and Cole play a two-man zone against three Pacer players on the opposite side.
As Allen arrives to double-team George along with Anderson, Battier rotates up with Mahinmi and Cole goes down to the nail (the center of the free throw line, explanation here).
Once George starts to make the foul-line pass to Mahinmi, Norris should already being rotating to the low block to attempt to deal with David West. On the Frenchman's catch, Cole is a little late dropping down, but he's OK, as Battier does an outstanding job of getting tall to defend against the pass. That causes the pass to float, which gives Cole time to get to the short corner and close out hard against West.
Aggressive blitzing, scrambling, quick rotations. These are the hallmarks of the Heat's defensive game plan and philosophy.
We see these same principles at play here:
The Pacers begin to run a high pick and roll with C.J. Watson and Luis Scola, but Chris Bosh zones up underneath Cole and then recovers quickly to the Argentine. Norris Cole does an excellent job squaring up and containing Watson off of the dribble, forcing him to kick back out to Scola.
The Pacers must reset. As Stephenson cuts back up from the low block for a dribble hand-off exchange with Scola, Bosh is already preparing to blitz Lance along with Wade.
As Stephenson is forced to take a hard dribble away from the action, Birdman has already starting rotating to protect against Scola's roll to the rim. Wade does a great job contesting the pass and allows Birdman to basically arrive on the catch. Bosh quickly recovers to the paint, helping Anderson as Scola puts the ball on the floor.
With nothing else to do, Scola makes a long kick out pass to Rasual Butler as the shot clock winds down, and Butler is forced to fire off the 28-foot air ball as the shot clock expires.
This was probably Miami's best team defensive effort of Game 2. It had all of the hallmarks of their aggressive and athletic defensive style:
- Excellent on-ball defense from Cole to contain the original dribble.
- A hard aggressive blitz on the dribble hand-off by Wade and Bosh.
- A strong, tall contest on the pass to the roll man by Wade.
- Birdman with a quick and on-time rotation.
- Bosh with the second effort to help the rotator.
- Wade with a strong (and angled) close-out on Butler as the shot clock expired.
The Heat's defensive philosophy is dependent on aggressive double teams that force opponents to make decisions under pressure. To beat Miami's elastic string of five players moving as one, Indiana needs to knock down mid-range jumpers, which they were unable to do in Game 2. Or, they'll need to start sending a cutter to the high post area to relieve the pressure.
If Miami's defenders continue to execute coach Erik Spoelstra's ball pressure defense without Indiana finding a way to take advantage, the Pacers are in big trouble for the rest of the series.
If you have an after-timeout play to suggest, please tweet or email me with #ebeATO