It was obvious from the very first play of Game 3 that the Miami Heat's defense was off.
Numerous bad things happen here, so let's take them one by one. First, there's the way Miami handles the initial side pick-and-roll between Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
While many teams will aggressively attempt to "ice" plays such as this one (where the defense forces the ball-handler toward the baseline in an effort to trap him), Miami plays soft coverage here. LeBron James halfheartedly jumps out into Parker's lane without truly attempting to redirect his path, instead essentially conceding the middle of the floor.
Worse yet, LeBron and Mario Chalmers bump into each other and temporarily leave Leonard open along the baseline. It's only because Parker had already decided to pass the ball to Tim Duncan near the elbow that Leonard doesn't wind up with the ball and an open lane to the basket.
After getting the ball back from Duncan near the top of the key, Parker initiates another pick-and-roll, this time with Duncan as the screener. Again we see soft coverage from Miami rather than its usual aggressive trap. This has largely been its strategy for defending Parker in pick-and-rolls throughout the series.
The problem here is that Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers leave far too much room between them for Parker to slide a pass to Duncan. Parker hesitates a beat before actually throwing it to Duncan near the left side of the lane, but when he does...
Chris Bosh sees how far out of position Haslem is to cover Duncan on the roll, so he slides over to protect the basket. LeBron then picks up Bosh's man, Tiago Splitter, underneath the rim. Problem: rather than subsequently picking up LeBron's man as a result of the first two rotations, Haslem just goes directly back to Duncan.
Even with both Haslem and Bosh on him, Duncan gets into the lane for a hook shot. And because of the blown third rotation from Haslem, Kawhi Leonard is sitting wide open in the corner for a three should Duncan elect to pass.
A few of these problems are again evident on a Duncan layup out of the pick-and-roll later in the half.
As has been a theme whenever LeBron has checked Parker in this series, the Spurs have one of their bigs come set him a screen right away. Rather than icing the screen toward the baseline, again the Heat elect to play soft coverage, conceding the middle of the court.
LeBron and Chris Bosh also leave far too much space between them, allowing Parker to slide a pocket pass to Duncan, who gets the layup before Mike Miller can rotate in behind the play.
Even on plays where the Heat cut off that pocket pass, they still left themselves vulnerable to attack by not icing side pick-and-rolls.
By conceding the middle of the court, the Heat freely allow Parker to make this type of crosscourt pass to Manu Ginobili, who takes advantage of Dwyane Wade's overaggressive closeout and gets a thunderous dunk.
If the Heat force Parker baseline at the point of attack, he has to throw that pass over the top of the defense, allowing Wade enough time to close on Ginobili before the pass even gets there.
Instead, he's scrambling and vulnerable to the pump fake.
This wasn't Wade's only defensive mistake—he had an especially poor game defensively, leaving his man wide open behind the three-point line numerous times.
Here, Wade commits the cardinal sin of leaving his man in the strong-side corner to double-team the ball, allowing Danny Green—who shot 5-for-5 from three in Game 2 and would eventually finish 7-for-9 from deep in Game 3—a wide open look at one of the most efficient shots on the court.
Why Wade felt the need to double Gary Neal on a drive to the basket when Neal was being guarded by Shane Battier and Chris Bosh was planted in front of the rim is a mystery.
Then there's this play from earlier in the game, where Wade barely looks at his mark—Kawhi Leonard—for a 10-second span of time that ends with Leonard getting a wide-open three because Wade is busy auditing Intro to Ball Watching.
Wade does sneak a peak at Leonard just before Parker passes Leonard the ball, but he somehow manages to lunge in the wrong direction when trying to protect against the pass.
Wade wasn't the only Heat player victimized in this manner; both Miller and LeBron (among others) were also repeatedly taken advantage of.
Miami and San Antonio each played much of the second quarter with matching small-ball lineups. Here, Miller first loses track of his own man in a handoff pick-and-roll, forcing a switch. LeBron picks up Ginobili and expects Miller to stay with Leonard, but Miller doesn't get the message and keeps chasing Ginobili around the perimeter.
When Ginobili comes off a second screen from Duncan above the free-throw line, LeBron, Miller and Chris Bosh all cover Ginobili. This results in Dwyane Wade abandoning Gary Neal so he can cover Duncan on the roll to the rim.
Wade's decision leaves Neal a free run to the top of the key, and even though he runs directly into Miller near the elbow and stations himself one pass away from Ginobili, Miller decides he needs to deal with the threats on the complete opposite side of the court, which frees Neal up for an open three.
Miller looked similarly lost when defending Neal on a pick-and-roll earlier in the quarter.
Miller and Chris Andersen have major communication issues here. Andersen backs directly into Miller while covering Tiago Splitter in delayed transition. Both Andersen and Miller chase Neal while he dribbles right on the drag screen, and when Neal simply crosses back over to his left, both are out of position to contest the shot.
Speaking of Splitter, he was the beneficiary of two beautiful passes from Ginobili, both of which caught LeBron ball watching and subsequently out of position.
LeBron seems to have the right idea midway through the first play here, before the wheels fall off. He drops down off Danny Green to bump Splitter on Splitter's roll to the rim, counting on being able to recover back to Green in the event of a crosscourt pass.
But when Ginobili pulls up and looks back to his right, LeBron immediately jumps back toward Green, and Ginobili fires a look-away pass to Splitter in the middle of the lane.
The second play is basically a mirror image of the first. Ginobili dribbles down the court in the final seconds of the third quarter and comes around a high screen from Splitter. LeBron drops off Neal on the wing to protect against Splitter's roll to the rim, but when Ginobili pulls up and looks to his right, LeBron (and Miller, dropping off Green in the corner) stops in his tracks, allowing Splitter a free lane to the basket.
It wasn't just individual players losing track of their man that cost the Heat defensively, though; there were times where they'd make the first and even second rotation correctly, but the next one in the line of succession would either be late or nonexistent.
In our Game 1 recap, we talked about the Spurs countering Miami's fronting of Tim Duncan in the post by driving directly at the front and having Duncan convert his post-up into a screen. In Game 1, that resulted in a dunk for Leonard and a kick-out to the opposite side of the court for a three because Duncan's man couldn't extricate himself from the screen in time to cut off driving lanes to the rim.
Here, the Spurs run a play out of their zipper series (see the Danny Green section for an explanation and some examples) to try to set up Duncan on the right block.
Haslem is able to free himself from Duncan's screen in time to cut off Parker's driving lane, but when he and Chalmers both chase after Parker in the corner, Duncan ends up wide open near the elbow, and nobody makes the next rotation to pick him up. Duncan's been knocking that shot down for years, and it's even easier when he's that wide open.
Things just kind of went like that all night.
Some of these problems have easy fixes; preventing shots like that last one Duncan got is just a matter of everyone making an effort to rotate effectively. When that first rotation comes, the second should already be happening, and the third, fourth and even fifth should be on the ready. Miami is one of the quickest, most athletic teams in recent memory, and it's had clockwork-like rotations on the ready in the past.
It can handle that.
The pick-and-roll defense is a different story, though. The Heat have been uncharacteristically soft in their pick-and-roll coverage so far in this series, and it's obvious they think that's the best way to defend Parker. While sending a more aggressive trap at him would move the Heat back into its comfort zone, it would also signal a major shift in strategy.
It might be wise to send him different looks depending on the screener, or to just vary things up on a possession-to-possession basis. You never want to let an opposing player get too comfortable, lest he find a rhythm. It's safe to say the Spurs found a rhythm in Game 3, so Miami has to do something to knock them off their game.