Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has created an offensive attack that maximizes the abilities of his best players. He has literally put them in a place to succeed.
By keeping traditional, loafing big men out of the paint and instead keeping personnel on the floor who can knock down threes, he forces the defense to spread itself too thin to clog the interior. With defenders who must stay home on shooters, the already otherworldly talents of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are magnified all the more.
The defenders guarding players like Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Shane Battier are constantly put to the test when the Heat's two dynamic penetrators make their moves. Do they sag off and help thwart the imminent threat of the drive? Or do they worry more about the drive and kick that could lead to three points instead of the two James and Wade may score at the rim?
It's a hard proposition no matter what.
But if you add in James' and Wade's incredible passing talents, unselfishness and understanding of where a defense is vulnerable, even the best defense will be likely to make the wrong choice too often to succeed.
The numbers bear this out.
As a team, the Heat shot 39.6 percent from behind the arc in the regular season, good for second-best in the NBA behind the Golden State Warriors (40.3 percent). James and Wade shot 74.4 percent and 67.7 percent respectively from inside five feet this season, according to NBA.com.
Now, Miami has a roster full of great shooters, and LeBron and Dwyane have historically been two of the best finishers the league has ever seen.
But these numbers are also in large part due to the proficiency of Spoelstra's scheme. The defense rarely can play flawlessly enough to prevent both an open three-pointer and interior penetration. Each time it chooses to take away one or the other, the Heat can just opt for the other means of scoring.
The San Antonio Spurs are a well-coached team that maintains discipline and knows assignments, but even they break down. To show how the system, something Spoelstra refers to as "pace and space," works, we can take examples from the Heat's first two wins in the 2013 NBA Finals.
Devastating with Space in Game 2
In Miami's blowout Game 2 win over the Spurs, space was a critical factor. Of LeBron James' seven assists, four came when he got into the interior of the defense and found three-point shooters.
It helped that Mike Miller shot so well—it remains a make-or-miss league—but James, using his savvy knowledge of how the defense reacts and where his shooters are, found open players behind the arc consistently.
Take this play early in the second quarter.
The Heat run a simple, high pick-and-roll with LeBron as the ball-handler and Chris Andersen screening. James probes left as far as he can without resistance. Then, Tiago Splitter rotates to cut off his path, and James notices Gary Neal sagging down into the paint.
The provides an opportunity for a kick-out.
LeBron passes it out to Miller, who buries the three.
There are at least two aspects that make this play special. The first is simply how good the Heat space the floor, starting before they even enter their offense.
Just look at how wide Mario Chalmers and Allen are as they bring the ball up the court. They're nearly out of bounds.
The other key factor is James himself.
He may be the only player in the NBA who could see Splitter cut him off, recognize Neal is sagging and then make this pass quickly enough so that Miller has time to get off the shot.
All in an instant.
From this position, he has to—out of the corner of his eye—notice Neal sagging and jump and whip the ball nearly 20 feet (with accuracy) before Neal can close out.
It's not easy. If it were, everyone would do it.
Here is another example of how the Spurs paid dearly for sagging into the lane.
Again, Miami runs a high pick-and-roll, but this time Chalmers has the ball and LeBron sets the screen. Chalmers drives left and finds James at the foul line while rolling towards the rim.
As soon as James makes the catch, Neal sees how far out of position his interior teammates are, and he commits heavily to trying to stop James from getting to the rim.
Of course, Neal can't do that. Not when James just keeps barreling, making a rip-through move and jump-stopping right into the middle of the paint. Three Spurs do meet him at the rim, however, cutting off any easy layup attempt.
But with Neal badly out of position, James simply throws an easy chest pass to Miller, who makes the three.
Again, there are a few things to notice.
And again, it starts with wonderful spacing. Allen is deep in the left corner, which keeps his man (Manu Ginobili) out of the play. Miller is far out on the right wing, and Neal has to respect his shot. Even Andersen is far enough out on the baseline to keep Tim Duncan out of the paint.
Then notice where the defenders are when LeBron makes the catch. Without consulting Gregg Popovich, it's impossible to know for sure, but it looks like Neal makes the fatal error here.
He should have simply allowed James to catch and go to work.
The best case there for the Spurs is a floater from LeBron. It is a tough shot, and it's only worth two points. Neal also has Duncan behind him and Kawhi Leonard recovering. Perhaps James plays it perfectly, forces Duncan to step up and LeBron dumps it to Andersen for the dunk.
But Neal should take that chance and not leave Miller. He did very little to affect James anyway.
Neal's decision is catastrophic. Miller is wide open, and James delivers the pass.
Pushing the Pace in Game 4
The other aspect of Spoelstra's attack is pace. It's as obvious as it sounds: The Heat push the pace, looking for running opportunities whenever they get steals or long rebounds. If they can get numbers and make the odd-man rush, they usually try to make a play in the open court.
Everyone has seen the SportsCenter highlights. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade get out on the break, and an alley-oop dunk happens more times than not. Or, James goes one-man freight train— grabbing a turnover, rushing by most defenders and outmuscling anyone who keeps up with him for a layup.
But in Game 4, we saw a subtler way that Miami can thrive with pace—and it's related to the space concept.
During the game, the Heat made just four three-pointers (and one was a James pull-up in garbage time). But three of those came at the critical junction of the game when Miami broke down San Antonio's defense and the Spurs soon folded.
With 6:30 left in the third quarter, a Danny Green triple put the Spurs up 61-60. Over the next seven-and-a-half minutes, the Heat would outscore the Spurs 24-15, with nine of Miami's points—the entire differential—coming on fast-break three-pointers.
The game was all but decided.
Pace killed San Antonio. Pace built on space.
In the video clip above, we see all three of the threes made during that run. There are three commonalities between them all: Miami getting a defensive stop, LeBron James pushing the ball ferociously and a Heat player making a wide-open three-pointer with at least 17 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
This attack would be difficult to recreate without the individual brilliance of James.
He has the physical tools and mentality to get the ball up the court so quickly; he has the vision to make passes that few humans can deliver (see the second one, a pinpoint laser, where he finds Mario Chalmers in the right corner); and he has the keen understanding of the system that lets him know where everyone should be on the floor.
But while all of these threes were created with James as the ball-handler, they could have just as easily come with Wade pushing. Because another part of what makes this work is that Miami has four players highly capable of bringing the ball up to initiate offense.
Notice that, on the first two threes, Chalmers wastes no time looking for an outlet pass after the Heat get a stop. He just runs up the court ahead of everyone and sets up in the corner.
A lot of teams don't have that luxury. They need their point guard to be the primary player who brings the ball up. He can't be taking off to vulture open triples in the corner.
The Heat have the luxury of multiple, skilled, threatening ball-handlers to bring it up. Specifically, they have James and Wade—two guys who can drive and kick as well as anyone who has ever played their positions.
Credit them for their unique talents. Credit Miami's shooters for staying spread and knocking down shots.
But be sure to also credit Erik Spoelstra, the architect who realized where his players' strengths lie and created a pace-and-space system that maximized everyone's abilities.