Posted by Matt Moore
MIAMI -- In the NBA, the best defenses live by a few principles. You've got to control the paint, nothing easy. You've got to close out on shooters as best you can. You've got to take advantage of opportunities to attack the ball while playing consistent position. And you've got to be willing to live with something. Some type of shot has to be what you're willing to surrender. The Celtics and Spurs, the two great defenses of the last decade, along with the newest model in Chicago, are built on this concept. Eventually you have to be willing to surrender some type of shot. Most often it's the mid-range jumper from one of the bigs, or the corner three as the last rotation. Sometimes it's the guard driving off the pick and roll free as the double hedges on a star screener with range (read: Dirk, as both the Thunder and Lakers let the ball-handler roam free off the pick and roll to guard Dirk). You can't guard everything, all the time.
The Miami Heat in the playoffs are proving that's not exactly true. They can defend everything. They are defending everything. They have the right combination of scheme and athleticism to cover every angle and contest everything. It's just a matter of being able to know where you should be, and get there faster. The rest is just trust. But we'll get there.
This isn't to say the Heat's defense is the best we've ever seen. It's not. they have the best defensive rating of any Finals team since LeBron's Cavaliers in 2007, better than the vaunted Celtics teams of recent years, but while it is very good, it is not quite of that caliber yet. But you can't argue with the results, especially after their work in Game 1 against the Mavs. The Mavs feature such a balanced attack, Miami knew going in they were going to have a significant challenge from the Mavs' shooters.
A Daunting Task
"They're one of the most impressive offenses I've seen," Mike Miller said Wednesday, "with the way they move the ball and the shooters they have."
Chris Bosh said the Heat knew going in to expect an assault, and the Heat were prepared for it, whether it was from the Big German or the Little Barea:
"We know that they have great finishers. Dirks' going to be in there, J.J.'s definitely going to be in there."
The Heat aren't lacking in swagger but they're also full up on respect for the Mavericks. In Game 1, they held the Mavericks to 44 percent effective field goal percentage (which factors 3-point shooting). By comparison, the Mavericks are shooting a playoffs-best 52 percent eFG% this postseason. The Heat were able to cripple the Mavericks by working in an unorthodox way. Outside-in.
About a month ago, the Heat Index ran a story talking about a primary defensive element the Heat had spoken of all season. The story outlined what coach Erik Spoelstra described as "playing on a string."
So what does "being on a string" mean exactly?via The Miami Heat on a string - Heat Index Blog - ESPN.
"It’s all guys moving together," Wade explained. "Our principles are protecting the paint. If the ball skips over the top, and I have to close out on the 3-point shooter, then that opens up the drive because I have to close and chase him off the 3-point line. So ‘being on a string’ as in, the bottom man -- the next man -- has to come over to be in his position. It’s not about one person. It’s about all five doing their jobs. If the bottom man comes over, that means he’s leaving his man. So now the opposite man has to sink down on that man."
This is nothing groundbreaking, it's an extrapolation of the help defense we've seen before. What's absolutely stunning is how fast the Heat are able to do it. The Heat don't just react to the ball movement, closing out on where the ball goes to try and run off a 3-pointer. They anticipate, rushing to cover the expected pass before it's made. That means instead of burning themselves to recover, leaving them succeptible to a pump-fake and drive or wearing themselves out and exposing offensive rebound opportunities for the Mavericks, they're simply able to cover ground and be everywhere they need on the perimeter. This isn't possible with another personnel set. You need the athleticism of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to pull it off.
Haslem hedges hard to cut off Barea's drive off the pick and roll. Mike Miller swings to recover on Dirk Nowitzki, leaving his man Jason Terry open. This should leave the wing "swing" player, Jason Terry, open. Instead, not only has James recovered from the low post to run Terry off, he's anticipated the pass and is already there. Terry instinctively swings the pass to the corner man Stojakovic. Peja should have a clear shot, but Bosh with all that length runs off the corner 3-pointer. Stojakovic does the right thing, pump fakes and drives, but Miller has now come over to cover for him. The result is a desperate pass to Terry who has to fling up an off-balance contested 3-pointer at the buzzer. Turnover.
It's a ton of work, but as Miller described it Wednesay, "It's what you've got to do."
Playing "on a string" is one of those terms that the Heat players' ears perk up immediately at. It connects with them at a very specific level, and you can tell they believe in the concepts. Udonis Haslem received the most praise for his work on Dirk Nowitzki but the morning after the Heat held Dirk Nowitzki to just 7-18 shooting, Haslem brought up the string himself, unprompted.
"Five guys on a string. That's how it's done. It's not me shutting Dirk down. I'm able to rely on five guys working together."
When asked what made that strategy work so well for the Heat, Haslem was short and to the point. "Trust," he said.
That's how the Heat kept the Mavericks' perimeter attack under wraps, even if their percentage was decent. But to do so the Heat have to first stop the easy stuff. And that's where they really excelled in Game 1.
Point of Attack
Shooting at the rim's supposed to be easy. I mean, it is at the rim. But in Game 1, the Heat held the Mavericks to just 44.5 percent at the rim. That's about as strong as your defense will get. It's that kind of identity that Chris Bosh says defines the Heat at this point.
"Just being us," Bosh said. "We know that they have great finishers. Dirks' going to be in there, J.J.'s definitely going to be in there. We want to use our athleticism and try and challenge guys at the rim."
So is it a matter of attacking the shot or maintaining position? I know this is going to shock you, but Joel Anthony says it's both.
"You've got to do both. You have to get there," Anthony said with a sense of dedication to his craft," get in front of them, and when they shoot you have to challenge."
For Udonis Haslem, who doesn't have the raw size of most defensive bigs, it's more of a mental approach. "Make everything tough. Don't let anything be easy. We did a pretty decent job of keeping them out of the paint. We have to focus on that because when they do get in the paint they can kick it out to their great shooters and those guys can knock it down with the best of them."
There's that respect again. It's important for the Heat. The more they're concerned with the Mavericks' ability to get loose, the better job they'll do in keeping the intensity of Game 1 defensively. Which is what they'll need to win another three and bring the trophy home.
The Heat won't stop talking defense. Even for an NBA team which guarantees an abundance of references toward that side of the ball, the Heat elected to make that their identity, and they've stuck with it. After all, it's gotten them to the Finals. Instead of creating some brilliant offensive scheme inside a year, they have a stellar defensive scheme, and let the offense out-talent the opponent. The Mavericks, after facing brie-like defense in the West, have discovered another level. It's up to the Mavericks to find an identity of their own to counter it.