After getting shredded by the Indiana Pacers offense in Game 1, defensive adjustments were the first order of business in Tuesday night's Game 2 for the Miami Heat. Although they got off to a shaky start in the beginning of the first quarter, the Heat eventually tightened the screws and stifled the Pacers offense.
In Game 1, the Pacers scored at a rate of 119.8 points per 100 possessions. In this second game against the Heat, they managed just 101.7. That huge drop in efficiency was the product of myriad factors, but primarily it was a few simple tweaks that the Heat made with their defense.
One of the strategies the Pacers used to great success in Game 1 was shorting the pick-and-roll. This strategy helped the Pacers score an average of 1.11 points per possession on pick-and-rolls against a defense that allowed just 0.74 points per possession on pick-and-rolls in the regular season, according to mySynergySports (subscription required).
Shorting the pick-and-roll involves a soft roll from the screener to the center of the floor, instead of a hard roll to the basket. Here, Lance Stephenson holds the trap from LeBron James, allowing David West to slip through and catch the ball just below the free-throw line.
If West had rolled hard all the way to the basket, he would have found himself in the thick of the defense. But this soft spot around the foul line forces the Heat to make another rotation and gives him space to shoot, drive or pass. You'll notice that, just before he shoots, George Hill comes open on the wing, and this could just have easily been a corner three-pointer.
On this play Hibbert is the screener and walks the line between shorting and rolling all the way to the basket. As Hibbert drops from the free-throw line, David West catches LeBron napping and is able to back-cut him for the dunk.
This inability to contain either the ball-handler or the screener in the pick-and-roll was the Heat's undoing in Game 1. As Jack Winter pointed out at Hardwood Paroxysm, it was the Pacers who had the requisite energy and execution to kick off the series: "Destructive as the Heat’s frenetic style can be when they’re fully engaged and their opponent uncomfortable, it can be equally porous if they lack energy and the offense is well-versed in attacking them."
But in Game 2 the Heat swallowed the Pacers' pick-and-rolls by focusing their defensive energy and paying attention to the little things.
Defending the pick-and-roll effectively requires collaboration between both the big and small defenders. Norris Cole, in particular, came in and did a great job of fighting aggressively over the top of screens, keeping closer contact with the Pacers' ball-handlers.
The Heat's bigs also were much more attentive about trapping hard enough to deter penetration but keeping their hands up to prevent a pass to that short-rolling screener.
On this play Cole gets over the top of the screen, with the help of a shove from Hibbert, and stays right in front of Lance Stephenson. Chris Andersen jumps out enough to push Stephenson back but keeps his hands up so that the ball can't be slipped in to Hibbert.
In the end, Stephenson picks up his dribble and forces a pass that results in a turnover.
Here, Ray Allen and Bosh work well together to trap George on the pick-and-roll and active hands force another turnover as he tries to sneak a pass to the screener, West.
According to Synergy, the Heat forced turnovers on 23 percent of their opponents' pick-and-roll possessions on the season. The Pacers turned it over on just 11 percent of their pick-and-roll possessions in Game 1, but on 26 percent of their pick-and-roll possessions in Game 2.
But the result wasn't always a turnover. In some cases the Heat's pick-and-roll defense was so stifling that the Pacers simply moved on to some other avenue of shot creation.
On this possession, Bosh and Dwyane Wade close in on Stephenson as he dribbles around the pick, making sure there is no passing angle to get the ball to West. The end result of the possession is George isolating on LeBron, settling for a drifting, contested baseline jump shot.
The effect of this elevated defensive performance from the Heat wasn't just that the Pacers couldn't get points in the pick-and-roll. They also couldn't get all of the other sorts of choice offensive possessions that come as a byproduct of healthy pick-and-roll plays. In particular, they had a really hard time finding open perimeter shots and finished just 4-of-18 on spot-up attempts, per Synergy.
What we saw in Game 2 was the Miami pick-and-roll defense as it is supposed to be executed. There were lapses and holes here and there, but it was much more consistent than in Game 1 and was what created the opportunity for James and Wade to explode at the end of the fourth quarter.
Looking forward, the onus is now on the Pacers to make adjustments. Things become infinitely more complicated if George's concussion keeps him out of the next few games. But, even if he's on the floor, the Pacers don't have a lot to work with.
In Game 1 they did have some success with posting up Hibbert on smaller defenders. He scored and drew double-teams, but he's been inconsistent throughout the playoffs, and the Pacers' ball-handlers have been inconsistent in their ability to make entry passes without turning the ball over. Stubbornly pounding the ball in the post can make their offense even more simplistic and predictable, which plays right into Miami's hands.
The other option, something the Pacers have been reasonably committed to, is attacking favorable matchups with isolations. When Miami plays small, this often means letting West work in either the low or high post against Shane Battier or Bosh. Stephenson has also done some good post-up work against Wade, and the Pacers need to be on the lookout for these sorts of opportunities.
But none of these things are an offensive silver bullet, and if the Heat continue to execute with energy on defense, things aren't going to get easier, no matter what the Pacers do.
The track records of these two teams tell us that the Pacers' offensive performance in Game 1 was the outlier—not their struggles Game 2. There are counter-adjustments that can be made, but finding easy baskets against the Heat looks like it will be a challenge throughout the rest of this series.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/Stats