The Miami Heat are the NBA’s feel-good story. Using their emphasis on conditioning and a stifling defense as catalysts, they’ve surged into the East’s playoff picture after an 11-30 start. They will be an extremely dangerous first-round opponent should they make it.
But Sunday’s 115-104 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers exposed a critical chink in the Heat’s defensive armor. Whoever draws the Heat in the first round should study the way Damian Lillard torched them on Sunday.
Lillard lit up Miami’s top-5 defense for 49 points and a sizzling 9-of-12 from three-point range. Miami tried everything it could to stop him, but came up empty. He was on fire. Sometimes, even the best defenses fail to stop a superstar.
But Lillard’s success was due to a game plan that targeted that Heat’s weak spot: Hassan Whiteside’s unwillingness to leave the paint when defending the pick-and-roll.
Let’s break down Lillard’s night further
Start with the points. Lillard’s 49 came on just 28 used possessions (21 shots, four fouls drawn, three turnovers).
Lillard also made an impact when he didn’t score. He collected five assists, creating an additional 10 points. Per NBA.com’s advanced box score, he had four passes that directly led to free throws — converted for only four more points because Jusuf Nurkic is a bad free-throw shooter. Lillard had one hockey assist for two more points. Portland also scored nine points via four offensive rebounds following Lillard’s own missed shots or teammates’ attempts that would have been assists if they’d finished.
Add it up, and Lillard’s presence accounted for 74 points on 42 possessions.
Where did most of those points come from?
I re-watched all 42 of those possessions, and here’s what I found.
- The Blazers used some sort of pick-and-roll attacking Hassan Whiteside 26 times. They scored or drew a foul on 20 of those possessions for a total of 42 points. That’s a 77 percent success rate.
- Of those six non-conversions when attacking Whiteside, only three happened directly due to him. Once, James Johnson flew out of nowhere for a block after Whiteside was badly beaten. In another instance, Josh Richardson stuffed Lillard from behind on a three, and the Blazers scored on the ensuing out-of-bounds play. Another miss happened in transition with Whiteside trailing the play. Whiteside altered one Lillard layup, forced one floater miss, and blocked Allen Crabbe cutting in off a Lillard-Nurkic pick-and-roll. Those are the only three plays where he negated Portland’s strategy.
- The Blazers used a pick-and-roll attacking Heat backup center Willie Reed an additional seven times. They scored on all seven of those plays for a total of 17 points. So that wasn’t a better option for the Heat.
- The other nine scoring possessions and 15 points came in other situations — transition sequences, offensive rebounds, and a couple late-game fouls.
In other words, 57 percent of Lillard’s overall point production came directly via a pick-and-roll involving Whiteside. If you add Reed to this equation, Lillard accounted for 80 percent of his production in pick-and-rolls involving Miami’s two big men.
How did that happen?
The Heat make life difficult for teams if they know the pick-and-roll is coming. Their guards are tenacious at fighting through screens and hounding ball-handlers before they even get to Whiteside. That allows Whiteside to tower around the basket and the Heat’s other three players to stay on spot-up shooters.
Portland, however, kept the Heat off-balanced with decoy action to set up their pick-and-rolls. The Blazers used a third player to screen Whiteside and give Nurkic or Meyers Leonard a clean lane to screen for Lillard.
That gave Lillard the space he needed to pull up.
Or attack and hit Nurkic on the roll.
Portland also made sure to get the ball up quickly and screen for Lillard before the Heat got set. On this play, Nurkic faked like he would screen for Lillard to go middle, then turned and ushered Lillard left. This is known as “twisting” a ball screen. That confused Whiteside enough to yield the space needed for Lillard to attack and find Nurkic rolling to the rim again.
Portland did this to Whiteside all night long and feasted when he didn’t come out to challenge Lillard’s shot. Look at how far back Whiteside is on these three-pointers.
So Lillard had a hot night. It happens. Why does this matter?
Because each possible Heat first-round playoff opponent has pick-and-roll maestros like Lillard. Cleveland has Kyrie Irving. Boston has Isaiah Thomas. Washington can throw out John Wall and Bradley Beal. Toronto should have a healthy Kyle Lowry by mid-April. If Lillard can give Miami problems, so can they.
All four teams have excellent screen-setters as well — Tristan Thompson in Cleveland, Al Horford in Boston, Marcin Gortat in Washington, and Jonas Valanciunas or Serge Ibaka in Toronto. They have the tools to duplicate Portland’s strategy.
And you bet they will, because the playoffs provide an opportunity to tailor game plans to attack specific weaknesses. Once teams identify a scab in the playoffs, they pick at it until it starts to bleed again. There isn’t enough time to do that effectively during the grind of the regular season. The playoffs change that.
There’s already a real-life playoff example to draw on as well. Though the Hornets didn’t win last year’s series, they pushed Miami to seven in large part by running Kemba Walker off pick-and-rolls involving Whiteside over and over again. Walker averaged nearly 23 points per game in the series (up from his season average of just under 21) and Whiteside struggled with foul trouble after a dominant Game 1.
When Whiteside was on the court, the Heat dominated the series. He snatched rebound after rebound, and his gravity rolling to the rim on high ball screens opened massive lanes for Miami’s other four players. His presence gives Miami its best chance to beat a higher seed.
But the Hornets’ strategy often forced Erik Spoelstra to put Whiteside on the bench, either due to foul trouble or ineffectiveness stopping Walker. It nearly cost Miami the series.
The Heat won’t be able to recover this time if teams can blunt Whiteside’s all-around impact by targeting his weakness. They don’t have Dwyane Wade to bail them out like he did in Game 6 in Charlotte. (They may not even have a fully healthy Dion Waiters to be a Wade facsimile.) Though Walker is terrific, the Heat’s four potential first-round opponents this year have even more accomplished guards to zip at Whiteside.
Time will tell if Whiteside can step up his pick-and-roll defense in the playoffs, should the Heat even make it. But this goes to show that even the most impenetrable defensive units have weaknesses that can be exposed in the crucible of playoff competition.