Beating the Miami Heat is going to be easy this season.
As long as the other 29 NBA teams get together, agree to pretend that there's going to be another lockout and then play the 2013-14 season without telling the two-time defending champs, the road to the Larry O'Brien Trophy will be wide open.
The strategic key for those two squads?
Keeping the Heat offense out of the restricted area, a task that checks in on the degree-of-difficulty scale somewhere between breaking into Fort Knox and convincing a 13-year-old girl that One Direction actually sucks.
In other words, it's theoretically possible, but nobody has ever totally pulled it off.
How Do We Know It'll Work?
No plan is fool-proof when it comes to beating the Heat, but one thing we know is that keeping them out of the restricted area on offense creates the best opportunity for success. A look through the data from last year shows that when teams were able to limit Miami's access to close-range field-goal attempts, they gave themselves a fighting chance.
And when they didn't, the Heat ran them over.
During the 2012-13 season, the Heat shot 68.2 percent from within the restricted area, the highest conversion rate in the NBA by a wide margin, per NBA.com. That figure wasn't the only reason the Heat won an NBA-best 66 games, but it had an awful lot to do with all those victories.
The story was largely the same in the playoffs.
In their first-round trouncing of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Heat made a whopping 72.6 percent of their attempts in the restricted area. Even more impressively, Miami attempted 117 shots at point-blank range in just four games, per NBA.com.
Nice help, John Henson.
Truthfully, Miami's interior dominance wasn't entirely the fault of the Bucks' big men, as the team's perimeter defense adopted a problematic "Red Sea" approach to Miami's penetration.
Anyway, the Bucks offered no close-range resistance whatsoever and were promptly dispatched.
The Chicago Bulls fared slightly better, limiting the Heat to 115 shots at the rim—but they still allowed the Heat to finish 67 percent of these attempts. That figure was below Miami's average during the year, but still would have been good enough to lead the league during the regular season.
Then came the Pacers, who limited the Heat to 60.6 percent from the restricted area and pushed Miami to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Spurs managed to hold the Heat to 63.2 percent at the rim, and even though they weren't quite as stingy as the Pacers were, they managed to come within seconds of defeating the Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
It's pretty simple: When the Heat don't convert a ridiculous percentage of their point-blank looks, they're beatable.
OK, so what? Isn't it obvious that the Heat are easier to knock off when they're not treating offensive possessions like layup lines? Of course it is. But the ripple effects of slowing down Miami's interior game are just as important.
Why It Works
The Heat want to take as many high-percentage looks as possible. Naturally, that leads their offensive focus to the restricted area. But it also means they want to get as many corner threes up as they can.
When the Heat get into the lane, help defenders have to collapse because, as we've discussed, allowing Miami unfettered access to the rim is a death sentence. But when defenders dig down to help, they invariably have to leave their own assignments.
Miami's perfect spacing almost always features a shooter in the short corner, and when helpers leave them open to slow down penetrators, the result is often a wide-open look from long range. You know, like this one:
So limiting access to the rim actually serves two purposes: It keeps the Heat from killing opponents with easy lay-ins, and it also prevents kickouts to open shooters.
In other words, it takes away Miami's two favorite things.
It's no mystery that the Heat love the corners. Most smart teams do; after the restricted area, they're the next-best places to generate high-efficiency offense. During the year, Miami shot more corner threes (717) than any other team, hitting 43.1 percent of their attempts from those spots, per NBA.com.
During the playoffs, Miami took 7.8 corner threes per game, second-most of any team in the postseason. Overall, it converted 43 percent of those shots.
But as an example, the Pacers made things much harder on the Heat by limiting them to just 40 attempts from the corners during the seven-game series. That's an average of 5.7 attempts per game, which was markedly lower than Miami's overall postseason average.
More importantly, Indiana held the Heat to just 33.3 percent from the left corner and 36.4 percent from the right, according to NBA.com. Nobody prevented Miami from shooting open corner threes better than the Pacers, and that fact is tied directly to Indiana's interior defense, which made it extremely difficult for the Heat to threaten the rim.
How To Pull It Off
By now, it should be clear that shutting down the lane—and, by extension, limiting corner threes—is hard to do. It takes a unique set of personnel, five-men-on-a-string cohesiveness and a rigid adherence to the scheme.
Guards have to force pick-and-roll ball-handlers to the sidelines and away from the middle. And whenever there's penetration from the top of the arc, helpers have to balance aggression with caution. We've already seen what happens when secondary defenders overcommit and can't recover to the corners.
The biggest key, though, is having an interior defender who can handle the restricted area all by himself. That way, perimeter helpers don't have to abandon their own assignments and can instead work to prevent quick passes to the corners.
If it sounds like I'm describing Roy Hibbert, you're correct. He's the ideal piece of a Heat-beating defense.
Hibbert showed the ability to single-handedly shut down the lane in his breakout postseason. He changed dozens of shots against the New York Knicks and was nearly as dominant against Miami. Because Pacers head coach Frank Vogel trusts his big man to defend the rim without fouling, he's able to keep his wing defenders at home.
You can see here that, as James turns the corner on a pick-and-roll, Hibbert is looming in the lane.
Because David West knows he doesn't have to take a step toward the paint to help, he can stick close to Shane Battier in the corner.
James finds his man, but West is in position and forces a contested miss.
With apologies to Tim Duncan, the Spurs didn't have that kind of rim-protector, and when their athletic wings shuffled down to help, Miami torched them from the corners. Note here how there are no fewer than four Spurs in the lane. Also note that Shane Battier is about to bury a three after James hits him in the corner.
While it's true that San Antonio was ultimately closer to beating the Heat than the Pacers were, the better defensive model for defeating Miami still resides in Indiana.
Why It Still Might Not Matter
The Pacers defended the Heat about as well as anyone could have imagined during the Eastern Conference Finals, and it still wasn't enough to win. Maybe it's possible for Indy (or some other team) to improve on the impressive defensive statistics it generated last postseason, but it's hard to imagine how.
Truthfully, it's an oversimplification to say that there's a secret to beating the Heat. If the Pacers had the kind of offense San Antonio flashed in the Finals and retained their defensive chops, maybe that would be enough to get the job done.
Or perhaps the rejuvenated Chicago Bulls will be able to defend at their typical elite level while also getting an offensive boost from Derrick Rose.
But now we're dealing in hypotheticals.
In reality, the Heat still have the best player in the world. And that's going to count for more than any scheme an opponent can throw at them. Plus, they're now fully aware of how teams are going to attack them.
Rest assured that Erik Spoelstra has some adjustments on the way.