The Key to the Heat's Game 5 Victory: Simply Trying Harder


For the first four games of this Pacers/Heat series, an underrated story was the ability of the Pacers’ 19th-ranked offense to score against the Heat’s 7th ranked defense. Buoyed by an incredible offensive rebounding rate, efficient postup scoring, and a related parade to the free-throw line, the Pacers scored at a rate that would have led the league during the regular season. After Game 4, we looked at the offensive rebounds in particular and found the Heat’s effort less than exemplary.

The key adjustment needed from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra on defense and the boards was simply to get his team to try harder.

No one on the Heat tries harder in those two areas than Udonis Haslem. For the second Eastern Conference Finals in three years, Haslem — a player most had largely written off — has come out of nowhere to be a key player against a team that was outtoughing the Heat.* Haslem’s unconscious shooting from the left baseline has proved critical in the Heat victories in Games 3 and 5, but far more important in Game 5 was his defensive effort.

*Bulls fans will recall their team’s domination of the Heat in Game 1 of the 2011 ECF, in which Haslem barely played. He was a key figure in the Heat’s Game 2 win, and the Bulls would not win another game in the series.

Haslem regularly brings an absolutely insane level of effort on the defensive end,* and nowhere was this more apparent than the decisive third quarter of Game 5, in which the Heat held the Pacers to only 13 points. Rather than remove Haslem from the lineup after 6 minutes to go small a la his regular season M.O., Spolestra left Haslem on the floor for all 12 minutes of the 3rd period as well as crunch time.

*Presumably, he has not shaved his horrendous Aleutian Islands beard (HT: Ethan Sherwood Strauss) to save energy for defense.

This sequence was typical of Haslem’s effort in the period. The speed with which he helps out on Paul George as he comes off this downscreen put George on his heels, making him miss a wide-open D.J. Augustin at the top of the key.  After George finds Roy Hibbert on the block, Haslem sprints back with Visigoth intensity for a double team that forces the 7’2” Hibbert to dribble into the corner and call timeout.  Again Augustin is wide open, but Hibbert has no chance to find him because of the pressure.

As a team, the Heat’s ball pressure was the main component of disrupting the Pacer offense.

Sometimes the results of the pressure were very direct, like here when Mario Chalmers forces  D.J. Augustin into a turnover.

Augustin was an appalling -15 in the 6:58 he played in the third quarter after George Hill went to the bench with his fourth foul. Indiana led 51-49 at the 6:58 mark when Augustin subbed in, but they would score one basket and 6 points the rest of the quarter.

While turnovers help, the more important effect of consistent pressure is thwarting precision passing.

Lacking a superstar perimeter shot creator, Indiana relies on such passing to get the ball to its big men in scoring position. Moreover, this pressure is all the more effective because the Heat have little worry about simply being blown by.

In this late clock clip, Haslem and LeBron James combine to pressure George into missing an open Hibbert on the pick and roll, which resulted in an awful Lance Stephenson jumper.

These were the plays George was able to make unmolested in Game 2.  Haslem was also instrumental in fronting Hibbert in the post while the Heat pressure and backside activity prevented the lob pass.

A precision lob pass to the corner of the basket beats the front and gets Hibbert a layup, but Bosh’s pressure makes David West hesitate.  By that point, Mario Chalmers has rotated into backside position.

Here again the Heat move in perfect concert to execute the post-fronting tactics team architect Pat Riley first perfected as coach of the New York Knicks 20 years ago on one of the greatest defenses in NBA history.*  James pressures up George while Haslem fronts Hibbert and Wade takes away the lob.  By the time the Pacers try a pick and roll it is late in the clock.  Hibbert is forced to shoot off the pick and roll and charges over a rotating Bosh.

*Fronting is even more effective now with the legalization of zone defense, as the backside defenders can rotate into position before the pass is even thrown.  Prior to 2002, leaving one’s man off the ball was prohibited.

The other key for the Heat was securing the defensive glass.  They fought the Pacers to a draw on the boards in Game 5.  In the third quarter, the Heat gleaned 8 defensive rebounds to only 1 offensive board for the Pacers.  Part of this success was the Heat’s ability to deny penetration, deep postups, and other crisis situations for the defense, which can open up offensive rebounding opportunities.  But the real key for the Heat was simply trying harder.

This effort was led by LeBron James, who in addition to his offensive heroics provided 4 defensive rebounds in the period.  After his fiery halftime speech to his teammates, James backed up his words with a spectacular effort on defense in the third.  He pressured up on the perimeter while rebounding well out of his area against bigger players.

Look at the ground James covers here to grab this loose rebound…

….and how he outmuscles and outjumps the 7’2”, 285 lbs Hibbert for this defensive board.

The Heat perimeter players also exhibited great effort on the boards.

Here, Bosh is forced to help on the strong side, leaving West in perfect rebounding position.  While he is not James’ man, LeBron still battles with West enough to inhibit West’s jump.  Meanwhile Chalmers swoops in from the top of the key to save the day, grabbing the board and throwing the ball out of bounds off West.  This is the type of effort that is needed from the Heat guards on the defensive glass in this series.  Even if a taller offensive player gets rebounding position down low, a guard with NBA athleticism can often get the rebound anyway because he has a running start and clean jump at the ball while the offensive big man’s jump is limited by having to fight for position.

The only way for the Pacers to win this series is by outworking the Heat.

If the Heat continue to match or exceed the Pacers’ energy, this series is over.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Tyler Hansbrough’s 4th quarter ankle injury is a perfect example of why falling to the ground is so dangerous.  After a tip in, Hansbrough came down on Shane Battier’s leg after he had flopped to the ground looking for a call, turning his ankle.  Battier has often argued that players just naturally fall down in the course of a game if they get hit hard enough, but when trying to draw a foul call that simply is not the case.  Feeling contact and allowing oneself to get knocked down by it is not a legitimate basketball play.  The focus should be on trying as hard as possible to make a play.  Falling down is the antithesis of that.

Horrible offensive series by Wade, Bosh, Battier, and Ray Allen have led to what would seem to be the demise of the Heat’s pace and space offense in this series.  However, the Heat have continued to score at a perfectly acceptable rate.  It was their defense that really needed attention.  With LeBron Jame, the Heat’s offense will always have a certain floor as long as he is out there.  The Heat’s defense has now shown the ability to lock down the Pacers when Haslem is on the floor.  Even if he cools off from midrange, where many of his shots have actually been adequately contested, he should remain on the floor as long as the Pacers aren’t scoring.