Miami coach Eric Spoelstra has taken a lot of heat (no pun intended) lately for a supposed inability to make adjustments and run real plays in the half court. As with most things in basketball media these days however, this perception is not entirely accurate. Here we’ll break down a few smart plays the Heat coach ran in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to get going, and see how much of LeBron’s success was due to coaching and how much of it was all LeBron.
This was one of the first post up possessions for LeBron, and it came out of a set play. Bosh has the ball at the elbow, and Battier and Chalmers set staggered screens for LeBron so he can come free to the ball. Here LeBron executes a dribble handoff to Wade and follows the ball to set a screen. On the roll, LeBron seals Ray Allen on the mid post on the switch and backs the much smaller Allen down. He spins baseline and gets an easy jumper to get his half court game going.
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This play highlights the value of Bosh, and his ability to space the floor with his jump shooting ability. Again, the play starts with Bosh receiving the ball up top, coming off a Haslem screen to meet the ball. What this does is it clears Garnett out of the lane. There’s now a massive gap in the middle of the floor which LeBron sprints to right away. He beats Pierce to the spot and gets excellent position, and he backs him down for the easy bucket. If LeBron waited, Haslem could probably have pinned Pierce on a backscreen there and this could have been an easy back door layup opportunity.
They went to this play a couple of times, here we see Pietrus turn his head for a split second and LeBron has made his cut and established himself on the left block.
Miami called these sets early on to get easy buckets and get their star player in the groove from the outset. Lets remember the monumental amount of pressure LeBron was under heading into this game. Spo was mindful of this and wanted to make sure James had some easy buckets under his belt early so he could get his mind in the flow of the game early on.
As LeBron chewed through Pierce, Pietrus and Ray Allen’s attempts to defend him on the low block, Doc called on 6’8” 250lb power forward Brandon Bass to try and body him up on the block. Where small forwards and shooting guards were overpowered by LeBron’s strength, Bass could hold his own down there and did a decent job of denying LeBron position. Doc took this in his backpocket for Game 7 and played almost the entire game with Bass on LeBron as the primary defender.
See here the excellent position LeBron catches the ball against Pietrus:
See here now where LeBron catches the ball when Bass is guarding him in Game 7:
Spo ran a great play in Game 7, to test how well Bass would be able to fight through screens on the perimeter. Miami had Battier and Haslem set staggered screens, with LeBron curling from the corner to catch the ball by the free throw line, with a full head of steam. Bass gets stuck on Haslem, and Pierce and KG, terrified of the idea of LeBron bursting into the paint in full freight train mode, both stay in the paint to help. LeBron spots the open Battier on the 3 point line and dishes for a wide open look. Battier would miss the shot here, but Miami went to this play at least 3 or 4 more times during the game (by my rough count), and overall it got them great looks every time.
Three plays in Game 7 again showed the value of Bosh as a shooter, as he steadily rounds back into form coming off his abdominal injury.
Battier and Bosh hang out on the perimeter, ready to catch and shoot if their man leaves them. Again, this draws KG out of the paint and leaves the Celtics with no back line of defence. Chalmers sets a perfect screen right at the edge of the screen, and LeBron cuts to the middle where the only defender left is Chalmers’ man, Rajon Rondo. Easy bucket for LeBron
Ultimately, if you guard LeBron with 2s or 3s, he will overpower them on the block with his strength. But if you guard him with a four as Boston did in Game 7 with Bass, LeBron will have the quickness advantage over him. Spo recognised this and, coming out of a timeout with 7 minutes left in the game, ran a steady diet of isolations for LeBron. Normally, fourth quarter isos are frowned upon as inefficient “hero ball”, but here LeBron was able to go one on one against a power forward on the perimeter and was consistently able to beat him off the dribble and cause problems for the Boston defence. Here on the first iso, LeBron easily gets past Bass and meets a helping KG. But here we see the value of Bosh, as LeBron kicks it out to him in the corner and Bosh makes a wide open corner 3. Miami would go on to run 6 straight LeBron isos against Bass from here on out to essentially close out the game.
This is just a simple pick and roll action between LeBron and Bosh. But due to Bosh’s now-established jump shooting threat, they switch the screen and keep a body on Bosh. But this just leaves Hollins on LeBron, and he’ll take that switch every time. Bosh rolls down to the left baseline, and Chalmers is perched on the strongside corner, so neither of their men can help on LeBron, lest they leave a capable shooter wide open.
Looking ahead to the OKC series, it’s hard to see who will be able to guard LeBron. The Celtics swingmen measured up at 6’6” 215lb (Pietrus) and 6’7” 235lb (Pierce), and they were no match for LeBron’s size and strength on the block. The Thunder’s options are Thabo Sefolosha (6’7” 215lb) and Durant (6’9” 235lb). They’re a little longer than the Celtics’ swingmen so theoretically they might be able to contest the turnaround jumper a little better. But that won’t matter if LeBron’s catching it with a foot in the paint every time because KD and Thabo can’t deny him post position. And unlike the Celtics the Thunder don’t have anyone like Bass to body him up either. They could use Serge Ibaka on him, who is listed as 6’10” 235lb. But the Heat have shown that if a big tries to defend LeBron they’ll run him through a maze of screens, or put him in an iso situation where he couldn’t hope to contain LeBron’s quick first step.
Coach Spoelstra ran some good plays to get his premier scorer the ball in a position to succeed. This is to be commended. But at the same time, its on LeBron to actually make a move to beat his guy and then make the shot for it to count. We tend to give coaches too much blame in times of crisis (e.g. Spo, after just about every Heat loss the past 2 years) and also too much credit in victory (e.g. the media making a big deal about Scott Brooks “outcoaching” Gregg Popovich).
Coaches can put players in a position to succeed, but ultimately it’s on the player to beat his man and put the ball in the hoop. As former ESPN analyst Mark Jackson liked to say: great players, make great plays.