Reality Bad news for Knicks: Miami’s on a tear, The more I watch basketball and talk to people involved in the game, the more convinced I am that it’s just not possible for teams with multiple star players to maximize all 90 or so offensive possessions they get in every game. We complain often about Miami’s Dwyane Wade and LeBron James “taking turns,” Oklahoma City’s James Harden working as a glorified decoy at times when he plays with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, or New York’s Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony seemingly having difficulty working away from the ball.
We demand perfection — constant activity, clipboard brilliance, screening, passing and the kind of whirring selflessness that would seem to make any fully engaged Heat or Thunder possession almost unguardable. But lulls happen in games, and they are probably inevitable. Basketball is too mentally and physically exhausting, defenses too good and well-prepared, for every half-court possession to be a masterpiece.
Still, there is a long continuum between extreme stagnancy and perfect five-man activity, and Miami has proved for two seasons now that it is vulnerable when its star-laden offense falls too far toward the stagnant end. The Heat have a better bench this season, but when the pressure is high, their three stars will play more minutes together, and they will have to score effectively in the half court. Two of those stars, Wade and James, have similar skill sets, and neither is a knockdown three-point shooter who can space the floor simply by running around screens. Miami has to be more creative than that.
At its best, Miami is a fast-moving beast with Wade, James and Chris Bosh working off each other to create openings. The Heat are beatable when they go through long stretches of “your turn, my turn” predictability. Coach Erik Spoelstra can stop these funks only periodically by calling a timeout, drawing up a play or two and sending his team back out. The Heat too often looked uninspired in going “just” 19-13 after the All-Star break, including several losses to their main championship competition — teams with defenses that generally chew up predictable, spacing-challenged offenses. Could Miami rediscover the gear it showed earlier in the season?
Bad news for the league: Through two playoff games, it’s clear that Miami is reinvigorated on offense. Good news for the league: It has been only two games against an overmatched Knicks team whose best defender, center Tyson Chandler, suffered a poorly timed case of the flu and whose second-best defender, rookie guard Iman Shumpert, is out for the season with a torn ACL. Still, the early results are encouraging: Miami — which goes for a 3-0 series lead on Thursday in New York — is leaning on some basic actions in which its star players work together on and off the ball, rather than having everyone stand around while James or Wade runs a high pick-and-roll.
None of this stuff is complicated, which makes it frustrating when it vanishes from Miami’s offense. Take the simple cross screen that Bosh set for Wade under the rim on three consecutive possessions during Game 2:
Again, it’s not rocket science. A 6-foot-8 guy with some of the best passing skills in league history holds the ball above his head while an All-Star power forward sets a pick for the guy who might be the second-best player in the NBA. Look at the condition of New York’s defense as LeBron throws a pass:
Chandler has abandoned Bosh in order to bump Wade, the primary target here. Stoudemire has sagged away from Udonis Haslem in order to at least give the appearance of help. Knicks point guard Baron Davis is dropping down, too, leaving a better-than-average three-point shooter (Mario Chalmers) wide open. James chooses to pass to the tall guy closest to the rim for an easy bucket.
Miami ran the same play on its next possession:
This time, Chandler only slides off Bosh for an instant, leaving an open lane for James to hit Wade on the block. Landry Fields, overmatched in general against Wade, does pretty well here, but Stoudemire turns his attention to Wade, allowing Haslem to slip in for an offense rebound.
Here’s one more, this time with Haslem screening for Wade:
Using Haslem has the benefit of involving Stoudemire, a weak defender, in the main play. That means Chandler has to rove off Bosh, a deadly jump shooter. James again has options galore:
Haslem has had a down season, shooting just 42 percent from the field, and the Knicks have been willing to drift away from him in order to stop other players. It hasn’t been quite as blatant as how Heat opponents leave center Joel Anthony, but it’s there, and at some point, Haslem is going to have to start hitting shots like this one.
Watch for these cross screens. The Heat have also run them with James as the screener and Wade as the ball-handler, and they have used other tactics to get James favorable matchups in the post:
James starts this possession by nailing Wade’s man, J.R. Smith, with a back screen:
The pick hits flush, and the Knicks are forced into the switch Miami wants: shifting Smith onto LeBron. Shane Battier realizes what’s happening, swings the ball to LeBron’s side and clears to the right corner, making himself available for a potential skip pass when his man inevitably moves to help Smith. Again, simple, effective work between two stars.
And then there is the devastating stuff, the actions that unfold with such ferocity they are jarring even in real time:
This possession is dying, as some stuff intended to free Bosh on the right side just doesn’t work. But instead of giving up and launching a jumper, James suddenly dishes to Wade, sets a screen and immediately spins off it into post position against poor Fields. The possession ends in a bad miss, but you can see all the improvisational help that New York must send, and how many openings emerge for the Heat to pick apart. Keep doing things like this, and they’ll score.
One last one image of basketball terror:
Bosh and Chalmers developed a really nice pick-and-roll chemistry last season, and the Heat would be better off if Bosh slipped more screens and rolled to the hoop, as he does here, instead of popping out for jumpers. Once in the paint, Bosh draws the attention of both Anthony and Fields, which wouldn’t be a huge problem, except that they are guarding two greats. Wade cuts back door for a dunk, but watch LeBron: He begins a similar backdoor cut down the lane right as Wade starts his own cut. Scary.
This is the kind of thing we all envisioned when James, Wade and Bosh signed together. Miami’s half-court offense won’t always reach these kinds of highs, which is why Spoelstra started the season encouraging the Heat to run as often as possible. But to win the title, the Heat are going to have to do this kind of thing more often than not. The competition will get better if and when they advance past New York, and as that happens, the Heat stars will have to dig in and deepen their commitment to playing this way.