With his Miami Heat trailing 92-90 in the waning moments of the game, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra drew up an isolation play for LeBron James.
In the past, these kinds of moments have been a focal point of James-centric criticism. Because he is such an unselfish player and always willing to make the right basketball play, he often gives up the ball in these crucial situations.
During last night's Game 5, that exact scenario played itself out once more: With the ball at the top of the key and the clock winding down, James drove to the rim. Once he noticed Roy Hibbert sliding towards the hoop, he quickly fired a pass out to Chris Bosh in the corner. Bosh launched the three-pointer, and he missed. Miami lost.
Say what you will about James, his decision-making and his unwillingness to challenge Hibbert with the game on the line. But while you're at it, be sure to give credit where credit is due: All five Indiana players defended the play beautifully.
It starts, quite simply, with the off-ball pressure on the inbounds play.
After a series of criss-crossing cuts to generate some movement, James pops to the top of the key expecting the ball. Paul George, however, bodies James up and does not let him catch the ball anywhere near the three-point line. This forces James to extend further out than he would have liked, catching the ball 40 feet from the rim.
This is not an insignificant detail, because it now demands that James begins his live dribble, thereby eliminating any explosive first step he could have hoped to use. Instead of pivoting, jabbing and using his world class power and speed combination to blow by George, he has to dribble his way into a good shot.
James is certainly an excellent ball-handler, but George's willingness to make the catch difficult shuts down a portion of James' arsenal.
By the time James slowly creeps in toward the three-point line, Miami is in pure isolation mode: LeBron dribbling one-on-one against George, Dwyane Wade stationed in the strong side corner and three other Miami players spacing the right side along the three-point line.
Indiana, meanwhile, is gearing up for its situational defense. In late-game/quarter situations, many teams prefer to alter their defense by gearing up towards the ball-handler. Because they can reasonably expect an isolation, they'll pre-overload against the ball-handler.
There are many types of late-game special defense, and here we see the Pacers retooling to favor their strength: rim protection and defense of the three-point line.
Notice how Roy Hibbert is already on the block, well off of Chris Bosh. Every other Pacer defender is tethered to their man, essentially cutting off the three-point line.
Indiana, in short, wants LeBron to pull up. Hibbert serves as a kind of deterrent for paint penetration, and the other Pacers clearly have no intention of helping. Even George is giving James a bit of space to shoot.
Still, LeBron chooses to bully his way to the rim. As one of the—if not the—best drivers in the world, James attacking the basket is always a satisfactory option. And as expected, he draws two defenders.
Hibbert slides over from straddling the paint to avoid a three-second call to full paint protection mode. David West only takes a weak swipe at the ball, while George Hill and Lance Stephenson hold their ground.
Again, the focus is not to concede an open three-point attempt.
But with Hibbert fully rotated, it's now up to Hill and West to cover three Miami shooters. Bosh, who was being guarded by Hibbert, has been left open due to the help, and Hill in particular is forced to guard two.
The key is Hill's positioning before the James pass: He's already sneaked towards the corner, planting himself directly between his original man, Ray Allen, and Bosh. This gives him optimal positioning to close out onto whichever shooter he needs should the ball arrive.
West, following George's lead, also cheats over. With James driving to the rim, it's nearly impossible for him to throw a pass directly behind his head to Rashard Lewis. He's therefore eliminated as a threat on the play given the lack of time for ball swings, and West aptly recognizes his ideal defensive rotation.
By the time James kicks the ball out to Bosh in the corner, look at how West and Hill have rotated. Hill is on Bosh, West is on Allen and Lewis is left alone. Sure, 7.5 seconds might be enough time to swing the ball over to Lewis. But that's a long pass for Bosh, and a swing-swing pass would likely give Indiana enough time to recover. In these late-game scenarios, all the defense is trying to do is force an extra pass until time runs out.
But there's a secondary key here, and one that has been overlooked: Because Hill diagnoses the development of the play early, he's in a position to possibly deflect a slightly off-target pass to Bosh. Should LeBron throw it to Bosh's left shoulder, Hill knocks it out of bounds.
To compensate, James throws it to Bosh's right. A bit too much, in fact. Look where Bosh makes the catch:
This is an underrated part of catch-and-shoot opportunities. Off-line passes really throw off a shooter's rhythm, and James doesn't exactly hit the bullseye here. Not to mention that Bosh is lefty, and a high and right pass adds an extra tick to the gather before the shot. And that's only because of Hill, who takes away Bosh's left side.
Finally, there's the contest. We've seen countless fouls on three-point shooters in these playoffs, and most of it is due to poor closeout angles. It's only natural to align a closeout with the center of a shooter's body, but proper technique dictates running by his side. This diminishes the opportunity for body contact, while still allowing for maximum closeout speed and an adequate contest.
When Hill does that here, Bosh slightly turns his body. Afraid of being blocked, Bosh's balance is thrown completely off. He misses, Indiana grabs the rebound and the game is over. Here's the entire play:
The mechanics of defense, even on simple isolation plays, are often overlooked. There's a reason why countless hours are spent studying opponent plays, especially in late-game situations. Indiana probably knew where and how LeBron would receive the ball, and they were able to adjust their defense accordingly.
The perimeter rotations we saw on this play didn't simply appear out of thin air. This is a practiced defense that is fine-tuned over time, and it's clear Indiana knew exactly how it wanted to play the situation. And with their season on the line, it's a good thing that they executed to perfection.