Indiana Is Taking Away the Three and Marginalizing Miami's Role Players

The Heat’s second best player has shot like trash in this series. After shooting 8-for-22 last night, as noted by Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, Dwayne Wade is now 4-for-19 (21%) on jump shots in two games against Indiana. While Frank Vogel has credited this to how well Paul George has been playing defense (which is mostly true), this isn’t just a second-round issue for Wade. Including the Knicks series, he is now 12-for-49 (25%) on jumpers during the playoffs. That is horrible and if he continues to shoot at that rate outside the paint, the Miami Heat have no chance to beat the Pacers. They really don’t.

Most onlookers would expect Wade to turn it around, however. And even if he can’t get out of his jump-shooting slump, he is such a dynamic and versatile scorer that he will find ways to put points on the board. He is still among the most lethal penetrators in league history, a Maserrati on the break and a fixture at the free-throw line. His individual talent to score remains the second-biggest concern for the Pacers (following, ya know, the talents of that other guy.)

Conversely, it really isn’t Wade that the Heat should be concerned about.

What they need to fix is the lack of production from their one-dimensional supporting cast. Because the rest of the team is shooting just as poorly as Wade. In 160 combined minutes during Game 2, the other eight players who entered the game other than James and Wade scored just 23 points on 9-for-34 FGs (26.5%). In Game 1, over 140 combined minutes, Miami players not named LeBron, Wade or Bosh scored 21 points on 7-for-21 (33%) shooting. And being even that useful required a 4-for-4, 9-point performance from Joel Antony, a career 2.7 point per game scorer.

Part of the Plan

For the Pacers, this is all going according to strategy. Frank Vogel was on 1070 The Fan radion in Indiana this morning and discussed how his team is focusing on taking away Miami’s role players.

“[We're] very focused on what those guys’ strengths are,” said Vogel. “All their role players are capable of much greater production than they put forth last night. But they are sort of limited in what can do. They’re either drivers or shooters or dunkers at the basket. But they’re not versatile, they’re not multi-weapon type of guys. So if you just dial in to taking away their one strength, they’re guys that can be limited.”

The number-one way to minimize the Heat’s bench is to take away their ability to shoot open three-point looks. There are very few ways any of them can hurt you other than by making triples. And it is something they do very well.

Throughout the regular season, Miami was the 9th best three-point shooting team. Oddly, however, they actually didn’t take that many. They were 23rd in the NBA in terms of threes per game (which was coincidentally just one spot below the Pacers). And strangely enough, Indiana had the same profile: a low-volume, high-accuracy three-point shooting team that knocked down 36.8% of its triples (good for 6th best).

So going into this second-round matchup, the reasonable expectation was to see two teams that won’t shoot that many threes but will make a high percentage of those they did put up.

Things have not played out that way, however.

Through two games, the Heat have shot 1-for-22 (4.5%) from three-point range. By comparison the Pacers have been sharpshooters, but their 7-for-32 (21.9%) success rate leaves a ton to be desired. We’re only talking about a two-game sample size so obviously that will skew the stats. And when you throw in factors like Danny Granger’s shooting slump (1-for-5 from deep in Game 1, 0-for-5 in Game 2) and Miami’s woeful bench shooting overall, the team-wide number become less shocking.

But there is another factor that makes the shooting woes of both teams curious: Miami and Indiana — two excellent defensive teams all year long — generally don’t defend the three-point line well. In the regular season, Miami was the NBA’s 4th best defense but only 26th when it comes to preventing teams from knocking down threes. They allowed opponents to shoot a potent 36.3% from deep.

The Pacers were somewhat of a mirror image. They were league’s 9th best defense in the regular season, allowing opponents to shoot 35.1% from behind the arc, which ranked them as the 17th best team in the league at preventing threes. (For reference, league average was giving up 34.9% and the Nuggets were the worst, giving up 38.3%.)

But even surrendering a worse-than-average percentage from three-point land, they both kept their opponents eFG% (which adjusts regular FG% to account for the fact that three-pointers are worth more than two-point shots) relatively low. The Pacers were the 7th-best team in terms of eFG% allowed due to their ability to keep teams’ overall FG% down to 43.5%. The Heat were nearly identical in this regard (eFG% against of 47.9% with a FG% against of 43.4%).

Changing the Defensive Priority

What we can infer here is that both Indiana and Miami generally practice a defensive strategy that prioritizes taking away high-percentage shots in the paint while allowing teams to take shoot long jumpers, including threes. You can’t stop everything, so allow teams to take long, contested shots and presume you will beat them unless they have a lights-out night.

If that is what each team has been doing in Games 1 and 2, it has worked. Nobody can hit the water from a boat. But that actually hasn’t been Indiana’s strategy against Miami.

Presumably, a good defensive team can adapt its play.

And that is exactly what the Pacers did in their first-round matchup with the Magic. It’s hard to compare Orlando’s full-season data to it’s playoff results considering that Dwight Howard has so much to do with everything that happened in the regular season. But the Pacers were able to keep the Magic from hurting them too badly from deep. In the series, Stan Van Gundy’s squad only shot 34.4% from behind the arc, which is respectable but well below the 37.7% they hit in the regular season. Again, the drop could have more to do with being Dwight-less, but it is a significant drop when you’re talking about 122 attempts.

Trying to replicate that success against Miami makes some sense against the Heat.

Obviously, goal one will continue to be keeping LeBron and Dwyane out of the paint. But at some point, you need to realize that they are unstoppable forces of nature who can only be contained not stopped. Meanwhile, the rest of their perimeter players are guys with limited skill sets who can, usually, make open shots. Mike Miller (who shot 45.3% from three this season) is the most dangerous followed by James Jones (40.4%), Mario Chalmers (38.9%) and to a lesser degree Shane Battier (33.9%) and Norris Cole (27.9%).

Outside of (very occasionally) Chalmers, none of those guys can hurt you with anything but an open jumper. So the sensible thing to do is try to keep them from taking uncontested threes while hoping you can make LeBron and Dwyane settle for mid-range jumpers or, better yet when it comes to Wade, threes. (He shot a horrific 26.8% from deep this season.)

With Bosh out and most of Miami’s non-Hall-of-Famers mired in shooting slumps, that becomes the most logical adjustment going forward: let James and a struggling Wade take as many shots as they want in the half-court while not letting anyone else get hot and limiting Miami’s transition points.

Here is how they did so in Game 2.

Exhibit A

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4id5wZtOaM&version=3&hl=en_US]

This video doesn’t show it as well as Couper Moorhead explains it at NBA.com, but it is meant to show a key way the Pacers are limiting the looks: staying home on shooters — especially in the corner. This is something Indiana knows first-hand can burn them. One of the reasons they lost in overtime to Miami in March was because they over-helped on penetration and surrendered an corner three. Specifically, Granger kept a foot in the paint on a Wade drive and allowed him to kick it out to a wide-open James, who knocked down the triple to force overtime, where Indy lost.

What Indiana has been doing so far in the playoffs is the opposite. They are now making sure the strong-side help defender doesn’t lose track of the guy in the corner. He is “keeping zero feet in the paint” so to speak. Above (and highlighted in the screen capture below), you see West barely hedges as LeBron probes the defense with penetration. The result is that he remains close enough to Shane Battier to contest.

Some teams have elected to have that defender play with a foot in the lane just to prevent the drive, waiting until Miami hits a couple of triples to move out a couple of feet. But with the defense crowding shooters like this, any shot attempt has to be rushed. Even when Miami plays small and West is pulled out of the lane onto one of those shooters, West is doing a wonderful job closing ground and contesting any opportunity.

As you see below, even a driving LeBron doesn’t cause West to lose discipline.

Exhibit B

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mATM-Re43mc&version=3&hl=en_US]

More of the same here. George Hill stays anchored to Mike Miller. Wade doesn’t get all that free in what is a pretty poorly run pick-and-roll, but you can tell Hill’s only concern here is Miller.

Exhibit C

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6J1KeDxrSk&version=3&hl=en_US]

You can see how Hill stays with Miller even better here. And this is in an instance where Wade is bearing down on Hibbert and Miller is way out on the wing. Still, with Hill’s length, he is able to cover ground quickly and get a good contest on Miller’s three.

Obviously, if the Pacers are to continue getting hands up on all of Miami’s role-playing shooters, they will have to first and foremost maintain the discipline. Choosing to stay grounded in open space when players like LeBron and Wade are driving at the basket is not easy. It goes against defensive instincts that have become ingrained since the earliest days of playing organized basketball. But the one good thing the Pacers have going for them is some “make up” room based on good genetics. Even when they’re a step slow, Hill, Granger and especially Paul George have the quickness and length to get out.

Exhibit D

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9FvA2Zdixs&version=3&hl=en_US]

 This clips shows not so much great execution, but the mentality of a team that is prioritizing taking away the most efficient shot in the NBA: the corner three. Here, despite Chalmers catching beyond the arc on the wing, two Pacers defenders still run to the corner. Obviously, one of them blew the transition rotation and they should have communicated better. And you just as obviously want to cover the guy with the ball before worrying about the guy he might pass to, but it may be this emphasis on limiting open corner threes in particular that will help Indiana keep Miami from racking up the triples.

It certainly worked against Orlando. In five games, the Pacers only allowed the Magic to make 8-of-26 (30.8%) of their corner threes. In the regular season, Orlando made 41.3% of their triples from the corner.

Exhibit E

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpbCAAFQX9Q&version=3&hl=en_US]

Check out Darren Collison at the 9-second mark in this video. He seems to forget that his key responsibility is checking Mario Chalmers behind the three-point line no matter where he is. So he momentarily stays in helpside underneath the hoop in case LeBron tries to drive right towards the baseline. Then he seems to remember that he needs to go track down Mario instead and sprints over. It was a good call. Chalmers later gets the pass behind the arc and attempts a three that was highly contest by Collison.

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