Series Preview, Part 4: Synergy Breakdown and Spiderwebs

As another way to look at the upcoming series against the Heat, we’re going to use to build some spiderwebs, to help us understand where and how these teams score and defend. I did this last year during the playoffs, using it to both preview and recap the first round series against the Chicago Bulls. While there are limitations here, these can be useful in looking at how two teams match up.

First thing to do is to understand the macro – what do the offenses and defenses for the Heat and the Pacers look like from the 30,000-foot view. To do that, let’s look at spiderwebs comparing the distribution of plays vs. the distribution of points for each of the teams, at each end of the floor.

Miami Offense

Miami’s scoring and scoring plays have been varied and relatively efficient – fourth in points per play (PPP) according to Synergy. I have three immediate reactions to this spiderweb:

  • The Heat aren’t particularly Iso heavy. Though 11% of their plays finish out of isolation is above average, it’s not wildly so. For reference, more than 12% of Laker plays finished from the Iso, more than 13% for the Clippers, and a whopping 17.5% for the Knicks. While the Iso is, and always will be, the “ugly” form of offense, Miami has been pretty disciplined with it. Over 82% of their isolations and 89% of their isolation points have come from the big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Further, James accounts for 48% of these plays and 52% of the points. His 0.9 PPP is very efficient in an inefficient environment, and the Heat as a whole ranked 6th in PPP.
  • Miami gets more action (over 10%) and efficiency (0.87 PPP, 5th in NBA) out of the post than one would expect from team with dominant wings. Of course, much of this has to do with LeBron James developing focus on the post. He accounts for 30% of the post plays and 32% of the post points. Naturally, Wade and Bosh help round out Miami’s post game, as the big three contributes over 80% of both the plays and the points in this action.
  • The ballhandler is the bigger threat for Miami out of the PnR. Again, this sorta falls into the “duh” category, as the ballhandler tends to be LeBron James (31%) or Dwyane Wade (27%), but it’s meaningful in the context of a series against the Pacers. We’ll discuss it later, but Indiana has much more trouble guarding the PnR when the screener is a serious threat. However, this doesn’t mean the Pacers have an advantage here. The Heat are 4th overall in PPP here, and the PnR action is also responsible for a lot of Miami’s success in spot ups (0.99 PPP, 5th). Also, this action starts the defense rotating, which are a major cause for Indiana’s lapses on their defensive glass.

Indiana Defense

Synergy ranks the Pacer defense as 5th overall in PPP allowed, so this is a matchup of strength on strength. Indiana has proven particularly effective at defending the ballhandler in the PnR, where the 0.73 PPP is the third best mark in the NBA this year. Of course, the Pacers certainly didn’t get that level of success defending players the quality of James and Wade.

Miami presents a significantly different challenge than the Pacers’ 1st round matchup – the Orlando Magic. The Magic were largely a jump shooting team that were rarely going to successfully challenge the Pacers at the rim or get to the line a lot.  The Heat are a polar opposite, but in some ways, the style will be easier for Indiana to handle.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Pacers will have more defensive success against the Heat than against the Magic. They almost certainly will not. What this is that Orlando’s style with the spread PnR played perfectly into Pacer defensive weaknesses, while Indiana’s defense is designed to better deal with Miami’s style. However, the difference is always players, and what little Miami gives away with this style issue is more than made up for by the sheer quality of players they’re putting on the floor.

Overlay – Miami Offense vs. Indiana Defense

This last web simply shows Miami’s Offensive point distribution, overlaid on Indiana’s Defensive points allowed distribution. Again, the term “strength on strength” comes to mind, and it’s one of the reasons I think the Pacers will have a lot of trouble holding the Heat down in the series. The old saw about the bigger weapon always beating the better shield comes to mind here. Also, the versatility that the Heat bring to the table will prevent the Pacers from loading up to heavily on one area.

Indiana Offense

My overwhelming first impression from the visual above is “balance.” The Pacers used post action (16.4%) almost as much as they used spot up (16.8%). This is primarily impressive because spot ups basically are the result of almost any kind of beginning action – PnR, Iso, Post Ups – and, thus are generally the most common finishing play type by a relatively wide margin.

However, this phenomenon probably also contributes to the fact that Indy ranked 28th in field goals assisted, at only 52%. The Pacers could get tunnel vision, forcing their starting action to a conclusion, thus removing assist opportunities. Of course, that’s fine if you are successful, but it choked the Pacer offense in round 1 from time to time, and they shouldn’t expect more success against the better Miami Heat.

What you see in the distribution is what you see in the talent and philosophy. Vogel plays through the bigs – Roy Hibbert and David West – and through the post to other opportunities.  Hibbert had over 40% of the post finishes and over 41% of the post points. West had 26% and 29%, respectively. But those distributions are a little misleading.

Ultimately, what they show is not that Hibbert is the primary post weapon. Rather, they show that Hibbert in the post is a destination, while West in the post is a hub. The Pacers run their offense through the post and through West in a way that is relatively unique in the league. They use post touches in much the same way that most teams use PnR action – to move the defense and create opportunities.

This is also a partial explanation for why the PnR action (17.1% combined) is relatively low. Of course, they other reason for this is personnel. David West is really the only Pacer big that is consistently good at the PnR – and he’s very good at that. He’s scored 0.95 PPP as the screener in PnR action, and accounts for about 38% of both the Pacer plays and points in this area. However, as with the post, West as a screener is often used to facilitate the offense and is particularly crucial in exploiting weak side opportunities that will be an absolute necessity against Miami. (For more, check out what Jared Wade and Sebastian Pruiti had to say on the subject.)

That’s how the set-piece offense flows  – with a heavy focus on the post and David West. And that’s what Miami will endeavor to take away. Therefore, the ancillary areas – spot ups, transition, and offensive rebounds – will become very important to Indiana at the offensive end. Put simply, they need to hit their open shots, get some easy buckets, and generate more offensive possessions, because they won’t be able to count on Plan A all, or even, most of the time.

 Miami Defense

Analyzing Miami’s defense is daunting – they’re one of the best in the league, and they’re pretty much good at everything. They rank first in the NBA in PPP allowed in the Iso and to the ballhandler out of the PnR. They’re second against transition and fifth against the screener out of the PnR. Perhaps most importantly, they’re third in PPP allowed against post action.

Rather delving deeply into what drives Miami’s defense (mostly, it’s LeBron James), it’s better now to look at the overlay of the Pacer offense on Miami’s defense.

I love this spiderweb. To me, it clearly shows what one team (Indiana) wants to do outlined against what the other team (Miami) has historically been willing to allow. The Pacers are comin’ atcha in the post, while the Heat deny most normal action and turn their opponents into jump shooters.

And, of course, this is why much discussion has centered around the Pacers’ bigs – specifically Roy Hibbert – as being an advantage and potential key to this series. I both disagree and agree with these thoughts as they pertain to Hibbert. He is key to this series, but I do not consider him an advantage.

When talking about the Pacers’ post players vs. Miami, people generally ask, “Who’s going to guard them.” That’s one point of view that, if taken, does present a big advantage for Indiana. If Roy Hibbert (or David West, for that matter) consistently get one-on-one matchups with anybody on Miami’s roster on the block, then they will destroy the Heat.

However, that’s not how you defend the post. The truth of the matter is that if a competent-to-good offensive big gets the ball on the block, 99% of the defenders in NBA history are largely reduced to hoping the offensive player misses. The battle is waged before the ball gets there.

You defend the post by defending the pass and defending the position. Miami is extremely good at both, and the Pacers will occasionally help. Miami has big long perimeter defenders that can cause a lot of problems – particularly for Indy’s small point guards. The Miami defender in the post can help hamper the pass by fronting or playing three quarters – using their quickness to disrupt the angles.

From a position perspective, West should be able to consistently establish it, but this remains a major area of weakness for Hibbert. Glen Davis pushed him just out of his comfort zone, holding him to 11 ppg in the first round. Chicago outright bullied the Georgetown big man last year, making him a non factor.

Hibbert can and should have some success, but the thought of pounding the ball down to Roy as a primary option strikes me as foolish and counterproductive. In the more physical playoffs, it’s just to easy to take that away. Further, it slows the offense down from both an up-and-down and side-to-side perspective, allowing a very strong Miami defense to focus on one area.

So, How Will the Pacers Win This Series?

The short, brutally honest answer is, “They won’t.”

Forgetting all of the team-vs.-superstar rhetoric for the moment, the Miami Heat are the more talented, more experienced, and more versatile team. The NBA Playoffs -with their seven game series format – are designed for the better team to advance. The most likely outcome here is Miami winning, probably in five or six games.

For the Pacers to win, they have to get to the point where Miami’s fate is decided by one game. Of course, better men than I don’t have any clue how the Pacers can get to that point, so, you know…it’s a big task. But, I think these are the important things for Indiana in this series:

  • Be able to take a punch – It’s highly likely that we will see a repeat of the early season blowouts by Miami in this series, at least once. In fact, I’m guessing today is the most likely candidate. It’s no knock on the Pacers. If the Heat brought their A game four times straight, I can only think of two teams – Oklahoma City and perhaps, San Antonio – that wouldn’t get swept. But remember, it’s only one game, and the points don’t carry over.
  • Keep Roy Hibbert in the paint defensively – There’s going to be a lot of times where there will be the urge to blitz the ballhandler. Resist it. Hibbert recovers to slowly, but more importantly, it takes him away from the rim. If the big fella is going to have a significant positive effect for the Pacers in this series, it will be by defending the rim.
  • Be Aggressive – Trite, but true. The areas of biggest focus should be in getting on their offensive glass and pushing the tempo. In the last series, the Pacers needed to dominate the fast break points and points in the paint against Orlando. In this on, they need to keep pace with the Heat. If they don’t, it’s all over but the shouting.
  • Focus on getting the ball to David West – In the post or in the PnR, it will be crucial. He’s arguably your most efficient scorer, but he’s also most likely to be the one who can get the offense moving and drive the kind of side-to-side ball movement that hurts Miami’s defense most.
  • The point guards must score and not be bullied – George Hill and Darren Collison have to be offensive threats in the series. However, it will be important to watch how Miami defends them. Against New York earlier this year, the Knicks were extremely physical and aggressive, pushing the Pacer points out towards halfcourt. The relatively small size of these two players makes them susceptible to being blitzed, and that’s what the Heat love to do. If Hill and Collison can’t regularly make plays in these situations, the Pacer offense will die.
  • Danny Granger and Paul George must play well – Both will be key defensively, given their match ups against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. However, they’ll also be key offensively. They will be the primary three-point shooters, and they’ll need to hit those consistently to keep pressure off the middle. Danny Granger is the captain and arguably best player, so all the reasons he’s important are fairly obvious.  Paul George is a little more subtle and a little more hopeful. George is the player that has the biggest upside, and a leap from him is one of the few ways that I can see the Pacers pulling an upset. Plus, when I look down all of the options, I think a 2-4 PnR with George and David West is potentially the most potent weapon in the Pacer arsenal

It’s a very tall order, but these guys have stepped up before.

Mostly, I just hope they continue to be themselves. If they’re going to lose, then lose together, because there’s no way they can hope to win other than as a unit.

I don’t know what will happen today or in the coming days, but I’m glad it’s happening. To quote Danny Granger, “It’s been a long time coming.”


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