No one foresaw the Indiana Pacers' offensive explosion against the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Every starter scored at least 15 points, and the Pacers were able to penetrate and dish with ease.
Miami's defense, as Hardwood Paroxysm's Jack Winter describes, could not handle Indiana's pick-and-roll offense. In his postgame press conference, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra flatly stated, "That’s probably just us at our worst defensively" (via ProBasketballTalk). There was a lot of blame to go around.
What was so surprising about Miami's defense wasn't its effort. While the premise of their pressuring defense is to create turnovers for fast-break opportunities, it's always more about calculated risk-taking. But in Game 1, the Heat were outright gambling.
One of the main culprits was LeBron James, who countless times tried to anticipate steals without regard for consequence. Under normal circumstances, James can use his outstanding athleticism to gamble and recover more easily than most players. In Game 1, the Pacers burned him with backdoor cuts and off-ball movement atypical to the Pacers offense.
Part of Miami's defensive scheme often leaves two players pressuring one ball-handler on the perimeter. Of course they hope that this initial pressure will force an immediate turnover through a deflection or strip, but the greater purpose is for a ball-handler to make a long pass.
On the weak side, it's up to the three Miami defenders to cover four players. Since this is obviously impossible, they'll often leave the player farthest away from the ball open. In essence, they're baiting the ball-handler to make this long, cross-court pass.
At worst, the pass is on target and the offense finds an open shot. Under duress, however, the pass is likely thrown higher and with greater flight time. This gives the defense ample time to recover should it be completed. More likely is an off-target pass, which the Heat can hopefully deflect or steal. This in turn catalyzes their transition offense, the strongest part of their offensive game.
The overall key is to overplay the easiest passes and give up the long, cross-court pass. This is both the least dangerous pass to the defense and easiest to anticipate, creating turnover opportunities. Where LeBron got caught was overplaying this long pass, and getting burned by easier looks closer to the rim. Instead of remaining disciplined, he was nudging one too many steps toward the long pass he assumed would come. When it went elsewhere, he was out of position.
Here's an example from early in the first quarter, when Chris Bosh and Shane Battier are pressuring Paul George after he and Roy Hibbert run a pick-and-roll. As the weak-side defender, it's James' responsibility to handle the roller (Hibbert). Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade are pinched in on the strong side to protect against the drive.
Four Miami defenders are flooding the strong side, with James sliding toward the middle to guard Hibbert. Because Indiana has only one person on the weak side (David West), Miami is usually comfortable with leaving him open. George has his head down under the immense pressure, and most likely cannot even see West. And even if he could, by the time he pivots, picks his head up and releases the ball, Miami's defenders will have recovered to their original men.
Instead, LeBron hovers around the elbow and doesn't sink down with Hibbert. This forces Chalmers to pick up Hibbert, but he can't fully commit since his man is only one pass away for an easy corner three.
By the time Bosh recovers to Hibbert, LeBron is still waiting for the pass to West. Except he is not behind James; he's cutting backdoor without James noticing. Had LeBron simply positioned himself with Hibbert, he would have been able to see a West cut toward the hoop—or at worst, recover to him as he takes an elbow jumper.
With Miami choosing to play a smaller lineup featuring LeBron at the power forward position, he found himself guarding West throughout much of the game. This put him in lots of pick-and-roll situations as the man guarding the big, which in essence made him a hedger/trapper on multiple occasions.
LeBron's extreme length and athleticism often make him an ideal trapper, but at times he was a bit overzealous against Indiana. Take this play from later in Game 1, when George drives toward the right corner against Battier.
Per Miami's defensive scheme, James is completely fronting West's post-up and daring Indiana to throw a high-risk/high-reward pass over the top. This is to compensate for the size mismatch, as West is too powerful in the post for even James.
As George veers toward the corner, LeBron senses an ideal trapping position: Any time you can corral a ball-handler in the corner, his options become even more limited. But the trap works only if the entire team is on the same page, rotating to cover the abandoned offensive player.
Here, Miami's defense is geared toward helping LeBron with his front of West. But all of a sudden he jumps out toward George, trying to initiate a trap.
What LeBron doesn't realize is that the nearest help defender, Bosh, is nowhere near ready to step in front of West to deny an easy dump-off pass. Even though a pass to Hill in the opposite corner is nearly impossible, Chalmers hasn't had enough time to process the situation and react appropriately. This leaves him in no position to help Bosh as he tries to handle two Pacers in the middle.
So when LeBron gambles for the trap (and doesn't succeed), Miami is caught completely off-guard. Bosh isn't ready to guard West, and finds himself on both Hibbert and West only feet from the rim. By the time West gets the ball, Miami's defense is beaten.
It is easy to characterize Miami's defense as a gambling one, but the risks they take are organized. It isn't simply a matter of one player going for the steal; it's an entire defense slanted toward trapping and recovering, with each player understanding his responsibilities on the back side.
Veering outside of the rules causes the entire thing to collapse. LeBron did that a bit too often in Game 1, and his team paid the price.
Moving forward, Miami needs LeBron at his best defensively. Because they're trying to dictate mismatches by playing small, James will often find himself guarding bigger, stronger and post-oriented players. This puts him at a natural disadvantage and in danger of fouling, something Miami cannot afford.
Yet this is a risk they willingly take because James is usually such a smart defensive player. It's just that he wasn't in Game 1, and it demonstrated exactly why his nongambling play is so crucial to their defensive success.