INDIANAPOLIS -- The Miami Heat have had one of the most consistent 3-point attacks all season long. They're so good at dribble penetration and turning the corner on the pick-and-roll that it forces a defense to suck in toward the middle like it's wearing a pair of Spanx. Once the defense attempts to collapse, the Heat use quick passes to find the shooters on the wings or in the corners to capitalize on open real estate around the perimeter.
It's a well-oiled machine and one that works as a symbiotic relationship. The "Chicken or the Egg" game the Heat play with dribble penetration leading to good 3-point shots and good 3-point shooters leading to room for dribble penetration has been as deadly as any attack in the NBA this season. The Heat had six players who took over 100 3-point shots this season, and the lowest percentage for any of those guys was Rashard Lewis 38.9 percent.
Aside from the first half of Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat haven't looked like a dangerous team from the outside. Shane Battier has been a horrendous shooter (and played really poorly overall, which is probably why his minutes are shrinking) and even Ray Allen has been slow to get his historic shooting stroke going. The Heat went from the second-best 3-point shooting team in the regular season at 39.6 percent to 34.7 percent through the first five games of this series.
A 7-of-10 first-half performance in Game 6 gave the Heat a huge boost in their percentage for the series (they're now at 38.1 percent), but the Pacers quickly corrected their perimeter defense by allowing Miami to go just 3 of 9 from three in the second half of their 91-77 victory to force Game 7.
Why have the Pacers, the league's best 3-point defense, been so good at contesting outside shots from the Heat? While many would attest to great defensive rotations, Pacers' coach Frank Vogel doesn't believe this is just a matter of good help defense.
“A lot of great defensive minds will talk about help," Vogel said Sunday after the Pacers' win. "You know, you've got to be a great help defensive team. I like to think that we're not a help defensive team. We're a ‘stay home and minimize the need to help as much as possible.'
"I think that's the way that we've been able to guard the paint and stay home on shooters.”
It's an incredible strategy and set of principles that Frank Vogel and his coaching staff have instilled in their players. They've gotten their guys to buy in to the idea of being tougher than their opponent on defense and gaining all of their success through hard work. Instead of scrambling to locate shooters like a game of tag, the Pacers utilize trust in their big man Roy Hibbert to protect the paint if the perimeter defender gets beat.
The key to surviving with a style of defense like this is having great length with your defenders. That's why the Pacers' system is so good. It gives solid principles like staying home on shooters and trusting the big man to protect the paint, but having five guys in your starting lineup with a ridiculous wingspan makes it easier to cut off drives to the hoop and contest jump shots. It complements Hibbert's ability to protect the rim.
"Roy Hibbert is as important as anybody on this team," Vogel explained. "But also the length that we have at all of the other positions as well. Paul George and George Hill, in particular. David West and Lance Stephenson with great length and great hands. And our bench as well. But it all really starts with Roy's ability to protect the rim.”
George Hill stands at 6 feet 2.5 inches but has a wingspan of 6-9 to take away space in the half court. Lance Stephenson is just under 6-6 but his 6-10 wingspan makes him seem taller to offensive players. Paul George's wingspan reaches roughly seven feet. And while David West (6-9) seems a little short against the big men he battles inside, he has a wingspan of 7-4 to swallow up driving lanes and reach in from the weak side.
Throw in Roy Hibbert's 7-2 frame and a wingspan that hovers around 7.5 feet and it's no wonder why Vogel believes the length they have is the key to being able to stay at home on shooters and contest shots. Hibbert's ability to maintain verticality while protecting the rim gives his teammates and coaches confidence that he'll often be able to protect the rim while avoiding foul trouble, and that's mostly what he's done against the Heat in the ECF.
The Pacers have taken away one of the most consistent perimeter attacks in the league nearly every quarter.
During the regular season, the Heat's 3-point shooting hardly varied at all quarter to quarter. Their attempts per game from quarters one through four were 5.1, 5.1, 5.8, and 5.9, respectively. They always take roughly the same amount of 3-point attempts each quarter and they always hit just about the same percentage in each quarter. They made 39.7 percent in first quarters, 39.0 percent in second quarters, 39.8 percent in third quarters, and 39.9 percent in fourth quarters.
For a team to remain that consistent with long-range shooting shows incredible execution in its game and its identity.
They haven't been so accurate against the Pacers. They've shot 3.8, 4.0, 3.8, and 6.3 attempts from downtown, respectively, in quarters one through four in this series. They make 60.9 percent of their first quarter attempts, 33.3 percent of their second quarter attempts, 34.8 of their third quarter attempts, and 34.2 percent of their fourth quarter threes.
Ray Allen has made just 29.4 percent of his attempts from downtown against the Pacers while Shane Battier is clocking in at 13.3 percent for the series. This is what the best defense, whcih is also the best 3-point defense, does to even the best attacks throughout the course of a series. They dig in, trust their big man to protect the paint, and challenge as much as they can on the perimeter.
Their length shrinks the court, but it makes the 3-point line seem so far away from the basket.