Defense is the NBA’s dark art. At this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this past weekend, Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss presented a paper on what they termed The Dwight Effect. Using data from STATS, LLC’s SportVU camera system, they sought to account for more than stats like blocks and opponent field goal percentage in measuring interior defense. Although they admitted their approach was still mostly one-dimensional, their work began to incorporate the idea of a player like Dwight Howard changing shots without even doing anything—in essence, him being on the floor warps the space around him defensively because players don’t even want to come into the paint.
This distorting effect that good defense can have on another team’s offense was on full display last night as the Heat brutalized the Timberwolves in Minnesota. As you can see just from the final score, the Heat didn’t look great offensively. Spoelstra said as much in the tunnel after the game, conceding that the offense was ragged, but maintaining that their identity came from their defense.
“We have to get uncomfortable first,” he said. “It can’t be shortcuts for us, we can’t cheat our game. So in order for us to be disruptive and force turnovers and get them uncomfortable—even when they’re undermanned—we have to get out of our comfort zone.” It’s telling that Spoelstra described the Heat’s defense as relying on being uncomfortable: whereas running a smooth offense is predicated on being able to get into your sets and get easy looks at the basket, a good defense is always going to be reactive, constantly trying to turn an offense against itself.
All night, real estate was hard to come by for the Wolves. The Heat may not be very big down low with Bosh playing center, and this might have been a problem had Pekovic been able to play. But they’re reasonably big across the board, and Wade and James had little trouble keeping their marks from getting to their spots. Against a team with dominant big men, the Heat have to rely on their defensive cohesion to get stops, and amazingly, it often works. Against the Wolves, it was almost overkill.
The Wolves notoriously poor 3-point shooting (which continued to the tune of 25% last night) allowed the Heat to give them space on the perimeter, meaning that the lane was always clogged. Wherever the Wolves went, the Heat were there, harassing their catches and never allowing them room to operate. To paraphrase Andrew Marvell, the Wolves had neither world enough, nor time.
Let’s take a look at a few plays from the fourth quarter to see how the Heat skewered the Wolves’ offensive ambitions.
With Rubio heading to the locker room to get a look at his left knee (after the game he said it wasn’t anything serious: “It was just a little scare because it was the first time I felt something on the knee, but it was all perfect—knee injuries, it’s a pain in the ass”), the team came out small with Barea, Ridnour, Shved, Williams and Cunningham. Here’s their first possession:
There are a couple things to note at different points in this possession. First, the Heat trap the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll. This is something they will almost always do, especially any time the screen happens towards the sideline. The result is that although Cunningham is diving towards the paint and seemingly forcing Battier to choose between Williams and him, Shved is going to have a hard time getting it to him over Andersen and Allen.
Battier picks up Cunningham and Andersen has fully rotated onto Shved, leaving Cole to cover both Barea in the corner and Williams at the elbow:
As soon as Shved turns back to the center, though, Andersen retreats immediately to the paint. This allows Battier to return to Williams, who’s trying to screen Allen off of Shved. In essence there, the defensive assignments for most of the team shifted and then shifted back in just a couple of seconds. The Heat are elastic on defense in this way, and all based off one simple principle: trap the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll. Aside from that directive, everything else is based on fluidly shifting their points of strength to keep the offense from getting comfortable.
Here’s another thing to appreciate about this sequence: Cole is constantly checking in on Barea in the corner to make sure he’s not going anywhere. Look at these three frames that all come from the moment just after the trap has done its job of forcing Shved to the sideline:
They’re only separated by a few moments, but in between Cole is checking back in on the action in the middle of the floor. He never loses track of Barea, though.
Williams’ screen on Allen works in forcing Battier to switch onto Shved. Shved sees his opening and attacks Battier off the dribble. This actually isn’t a bad idea, but once he gets to the paint he’s surrounded by red jerseys:
He’s got Ridnour and Barea open in the corners, plus Williams on the left wing.
Of course, he jumps to pass it, because he’s Alexey Shved, which limits his options. He kicks it back out to Williams and once Williams has it, two important things happen or, rather, don’t happen: 1.) Williams doesn’t make the pass across the arc to Barea, who’s wide open and a better spot-up shooter than Williams himself. This is a pass I feel confident Kirilenko would have made. 2.) He doesn’t shoot it immediately put instead puts it on the floor and gets fouled without trying to take a shot.
Here’s the whole thing again in slow-mo with a couple pauses to check out how the Heat flow into and out of assignments and how Cole keeps tabs on Barea.
The net result of all this? A fresh 14 and the Wolves have to deal with a set Heat defense again. This is a bad result for an undermanned Wolves squad who don’t have a go-to scorer. To the extent that they’d been able to distort the Heat defense, they’d managed to get Allen switched onto Williams. Allen’s foul on Williams almost seemed like the Heat’s way of saying, “OK, you got us. Now we’ll stop the clock and get reset and you can try it again.”
And what did the Wolves get with their fresh 14? A Cunningham midrange jumper that rimmed out. Cunningham is a solid player who’s been a nice surprise off the bench with his energy on the boards and ability to hit that elbow jumper on the pick-and-pop, but if you’re the Heat, you’re going to live with that shot all day.
Let’s do one more. Here’s a play from not too much later.
You can see the Heat work the sideline trap on the pick-and-roll again. Barea is forced to give it back to Williams at the top of the arc and you can see the problem the Wolves have made for themselves:
Wade’s man Ridnour is down in the corner and Cunningham appears to be setting a screen on him, sort of. Yet Ridnour isn’t going anywhere. This frees up Cunningham’s defender, Chris Andersen, to float in the lane. When Williams gets ball he basically just charges right at Andersen—who might be old but is known for his rim defense—and gets stuffed.
These results—Shved driving into the well-defended paint and Williams doing likewise—are what the Heat want. If good offense is about forcing the defense to make hard choices about how to react, good defense is about limiting the other team’s options, about creating choke points where the offense is forced to pick among bad options for a shot.
Now of course the Wolves did manage to pull the game within a missed Shved 3-pointer of tying it with 10:15 left in the fourth and yes the dustup between Barea and Allen that resulted in Barea’s ejection and a few choice words for Allen as he left the court led to a run of futile possessions by the Wolves that pushed the Heat’s lead out to 18 and effectively put the game out of reach.
But I would contend that the Heat’s defensive stability throughout the game put them in a place to take advantage of the heightened emotions around Barea’s ejection, while the Wolves’ inconsistency meant they fell apart at that moment. Missing both Pekovic and Kirilenko, the Wolves would have had to play this one just about to perfect to have a chance to win. Instead, the heat they built up in the fourth as they drew close exploded, exposed as fragile and chancy next to the Heat’s disciplined and flexible defense.