Few things rile up the NBA blogosphere as well as the Miami Heat’s performance in clutch situations. Who should take the final shot? Does LeBron shrink in the moment? You know the drill. Tonight, the Heat will host the Los Angeles Lakers, and the same talking heads will probably deliver the same sound bites about Kobe Bryant taking over games in the fourth quarter and LeBron James shrinking from the moment.
But instead of taking another whack at those tired old saws, let’s examine several of Miami’s late-game possessions, analyze the plays that coach Erik Spoelstra called, and evaluate how the Heat executed them. Let’s look at what succeeded and what failed and how the Heat can improve as the season — and more importantly, the postseason — continues.
Possession 1: Dec. 28, 2011, Miami at Charlotte, down 95-94, 12.2 seconds left in fourth quarter
Trailing by one point, the Heat faced their first “clutch” situation of the season. As LeBron James looks to inbound the ball, Shane Battier loops out to the weakside corner. Chris Bosh, who was positioned at the foul line, sets a screen for Dwyane Wade. Wade uses the screen and flashes to the top of the key, looking for the ball.
After receiving the ball, Wade dribbles out the clock and gets in position to attack the paint. This is a straight-up isolation play by the Heat, but the key here is the positioning of James and Bosh on the floor. As Wade attacks, James waits in the ball-side corner and Bosh sets up on the weakside block. Their defenders know better than to leave James or Bosh to help on Wade, so this all but guarantees Wade a one-on-one situation with his defender.
When Wade drives, he gets all the way to the block before any help arrives. This allows him to get a shot up at the rim, and he knocks down the game-winner. Here’s the play in real time.
I’m not a fan of late-game isolations, but sometimes a coach just needs to get the ball to a player who can create a shot. These plays seem to be most successful when the remaining offensive players are positioned to create and maintain space for the isolation. In this case, Spoelstra sets up Bosh and James on opposite sides of Wade’s driving lane, almost like brackets. This makes it almost impossible for the nearest help defenders (those covering James and Bosh) to leave their men. Without a doubt, this positioning allowed Wade to get a better look at the basket.
Possession 2: Dec. 30, 2011, Miami at Minnesota, tied 101-101, 6.0 seconds left in fourth quarter
All coaches borrow plays from their colleagues, so when the Heat found themselves tied with the Timberwolves with just six seconds to play, Spoelstra decided to call a play that the Boston Celtics used to beat Miami in a 2010 playoff game. Once again, James inbounds the ball along the sideline. Wade is on the strongside block, with Battier at the strongside elbow and Bosh opposite him. James Jones waits in the weakside corner. The play begins with Jones running crosscourt to the near corner. At the same time, Battier sets a pin-down screen for Wade, so it looks like the Heat are looking to run another isolation play for Wade.
However, instead of coming to the ball, Wade curls off a second screen set by Bosh at the top of the key. Because Jones is a 3-point threat, his defender must stay close to him; this clears out the lane for a lob pass to Wade. With Derrick Williams shadowing Jones, Wade curls into the paint untouched.
James’ pass is on the money, and Wade jumps, catches the ball, finishes the lob, and wins the game. Here’s the play in real time.
Spoelstra couldn’t have picked a better play to borrow for the Miami playbook. When a team has players with the passing ability of James and the athletic ability of Wade, it’s a clever way to snatch a win. Then again, players like James and Wade can make almost any play look good.
Possession 3: Jan. 5, 2012, Miami at Atlanta, down 92-88, 12.1 seconds left in fourth quarter
Miami’s Big Three usually make a coach’s task of drawing up plays easier. Against the Hawks, however, Wade and James were both out with injuries. That left Spoelstra with Chris Bosh, the Heat star who can’t really create for his own shot on the perimeter. With limited offensive options, Spoelstra had to come up with a creative play. When Battier gets ready to inbound the ball, Bosh is at the top of the key, Terrel Harris is at the weakside elbow, Mario Chalmers is in the paint, and James Jones is in the weakside corner. Jones runs off a pair of screens set by Harris and Bosh, flashing behind the 3-point line and looking for the ball. While that happens, Mario Chalmers leaves the paint and heads to the corner.
Because the Hawks are leading by four, they want to protect the 3-point line. When Josh Smith, Bosh’s defender, sees Jones coming off the staggered screens and dashing to the perimeter, he leaves Bosh to deny the ball from Jones. This is exactly what Spoelstra and the Heat want. When Smith switches off Bosh, the Heat big man slips the screen and dives to the rim.
Bosh, unguarded, makes the catch and scores. His quick 2 cuts the lead in half and only took two seconds off the clock. Here’s the play in real time:
Down by four points with 12 seconds left, Spoelstra decided to go for the quick 2, then foul and extend the game. In a bit of brilliant play calling, he used the threat of Jones’ 3-point shot as a decoy to set up Bosh’s easy bucket.
Possession 4: Jan. 5, 2012, Miami at Atlanta, down 93-90, 10.0 seconds left in fourth quarter
After Bosh’s layup, the Heat foul Joe Johnson, who makes one of two free throws. Miami now needs a 3-pointer to force overtime. The Heat set up a similar play to the first one where Jones came off a staggered screen from Bosh and Harris.
Again, Jones’ cut off the screens is a decoy. Instead, the Heat look to set up Bosh with a “screen the screener” play where Harris sets a screen for Bosh after the two of them screen for Jones.
Spoelstra designed the play for Bosh to pop out and knock down an open 3. Unlike the previous possession, the Hawks defend this one well and force the play to break down. The Heat scramble out of the situation and run a pick-and-pop between Bosh and Mario Chalmers. Bosh gets open, catches the pass, and knocks down a 3-point shot at the buzzer. Here’s the play in real time:
In this play, Spoelstra tried to set up Bosh for a quick, game-tying 3. Other teams with perimeter-shooting bigs have tried this, like the Knicks, who have Amar’e Stoudemire, and the Lakers, who have Pau Gasol. The play didn’t work out exactly as Spoelstra drew it up, but his team didn’t give up on the possession and managed to tie the game.
Possession 5: Jan. 10, 2012, Miami at Golden State, tied 96-96, 25.0 seconds left in the fourth quarter
In this clip, the Heat decide not to call a timeout as Wade brings the ball past half court. Instead, Spoelstra lets Wade try to take his man one-on-one. The coach probably expected Wade to attack the rim, as he had done in the past, but Wade instead settles for a contested step-back jumper. If Wade takes one more dribble toward the paint, he could create enough space to pass out to James for an open jumper. If James’ defender doesn’t leave him to help on Wade’s penetration, Wade might be able to force David Lee to help off Bosh. This would open up an easy dish to Bosh. If neither defender helps, then Wade can get all the way to the rim. But Wade settles for the jump shot, and by doing so he fails to put enough pressure on the defense to create any of these opportunities.
Possession 6: Jan. 10, 2012, Miami at Golden State, down 109-106, 34.8 seconds left in overtime
In this video, the Heat trail by three with almost 35 seconds to play. Spoelstra decides to run a high screen for Wade to get a quick 2. This would allow Miami to defend the Warriors’ next possession without having to foul, and still have time to set up a play to tie or win the game. In this play, however, it’s difficult to understand why Spoelstra chose Chalmers instead of James to set the screen. On several occasions, we’ve seen just how dangerous that Wade/James pick-and-pop can be. With Chalmers setting the screen, the play isn’t quite as hard to defend. Wade drives away from the screen and still manages to get up a decent shot attempt, but the Heat might have gotten an even better scoring opportunity if they had used James as the screener.
Possession 7: Jan. 10, 2012, Miami at Golden State, down 109-106, 20.2 seconds left
After Wade’s missed runner, Miami gets another chance to set up a shot, still trailing by three points, with 20.2 seconds left to play. With the shot clock off, the Heat decide to take a 3 and try to tie the game. The play starts as Wade inbounds the ball to James near the 3-point line. After the inbounds pass, Wade sets a pin-down screen for Bosh.
Coming off the screen, Bosh runs to the top of the key and sets a ball screen for James. At the same time, Wade runs from the corner to the basketball.
The play is designed for a dribble handoff to Wade. As that happens, Battier sets a weakside screen for James Jones, who wants to get open for a 3-pointer in the corner.
This play doesn’t work because the timing is off. Battier’s screen for Jones comes way too early, and Wade never gets a chance to make that crosscourt pass. Instead, James is forced to take a contested 3-point shot with David Lee defending him. Here’s the play in real time:
Look at the weakside movement on this play. Battier screens for Jones as soon as LeBron James comes off Bosh’s pin-down screen. Instead, Battier should have waited until Wade received the handoff. By the time Wade had the ball, Jones was no longer open for a weakside 3, and James tried to bail out the Heat with a desperation 3.
Possession 8: Jan. 11, 2012, Miami at Los Angeles Clippers, down 86-84, 22.3 seconds left in fourth quarter
Down two points against the Clippers, Spoelstra decides against an isolation play and instead uses a set to get James moving toward the rim without the ball. The play begins with Wade using a down screen from Bosh and then cutting to the perimeter to get the inbounds pass.
Wade dribbles to the left side of the floor as Battier sprints to the weak side to help set a staggered screen for James. LeBron curls around this screen and looks for the ball as he heads toward the basket.
James catches the ball with his defender trailing him. This is a good scoring opportunity for the Heat. With James having a full head of steam and an open lane to the basket, the Clippers have no way to stop him without fouling. Here’s the play in real time:
Possession 9: Jan. 11, 2012, Miami at Los Angeles Clippers, down 86-85, 14.7 seconds left in fourth quarter
After James made one of two free throws, the Clippers knocked the ball out of bounds and gave the Heat an extra possession, now down one point with 14.7 seconds left. The staggered screen for James worked so well on the preceding play that Spoelstra chose to run it again. This time, James’ defender, Caron Butler, does a great job of keeping James from curling off the screens and cutting to the basket. James reacts by flaring out to the 3-point line to get the basketball. Next, James dribbles into the paint and draws another foul. The play was successful, but James missed another free throw, the game went into overtime, and the Clippers eventually won.
The Miami Heat’s late-game play calling has been excellent so far this season. When Miami has run sets, they have been very effective. Their isolations have been less consistent, but the results tend to be positive when their isolating players make a point of getting to the hoop and forcing the defense to react. Erik Spoelstra may be calling great plays in the endgame, and the Heat have the horses to create good scoring opportunities. If the Heat players execute their offense when they play the Lakers tonight, they have a great chance of besting Kobe Bryant’s one-man show during crunch time.