It was a stunningly simply and beautiful play that, as many noted when it happened and in recaps this morning, we imagined we’d see a dozen times a game en route to a Heat championship. A high pick and roll between Dwyane Wade (handling) and LeBron James resulted in Wade hitting James rolling through the paint. With help defense closing in, LeBron made a touch pass to Chris Bosh who was cutting along the baseline and finished above the rim. Against a Celtics defense that was as stalwart as at any point their 2008 title run, that overtime bucket was as easy as it gets.
So where was that play for the rest of the game? Why do Coach Erik Spoesltra and the Heat continue to employ this reliable and demoralizing play so sparingly?
It should be said that Spoelstra made a number of nice adjustments, notably instructing Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony to shove Garnett off his cuts and front or three-quarter front him in the post, as well as engineering a number of quick ball reversal plays that led to Wade receiving the rock at full stride, curling middle toward the rim. That Garnett struggled to find room inside and the Heat blitzed the rim all game and paraded to the free-throw line down the stretch was no accident.
But at the end of the game, the Heat went away from their presumptive go-to play, repeatedly using Bosh as the screener in the primary pick and roll.
This in itself isn’t a bad idea. Bosh is an underrated screener and presents obvious complications to any defense with his size, speed, skill and ability to shoot accurately from 18 feet. The problem is what Bosh brought with him. No I’m not alluding to the baggage that accompanies a history of shrinking from The Moment, I’m referring to his defender, Kevin Garnett.
Garnett had a horrendous outing on offense, but he’s easily the best pick and roll defender on the Celtics and played like it in Game 4. Meanwhile, James was checked by Paul Pierce, who for all his toughness, strength and intelligence is far less equipped or accomplished when it comes to defending the screener in a pick and roll. Handling a ball screen for Wade is mighty tough duty for even the most experienced and able defenders.
At about 6-6, Pierce’s size makes a typical show-and-recover or hedge tactic difficult to pull off against a ball handler as dynamic as Dwyane. What’s more, the Celtics only other feasible option to defending a Wade-James pick and roll would have been to switch Delonte West, listed at only 6-3, onto LeBron.
Obviously, James isolated against West in the high post is hardly an alluring proposition for the Celtics.
This is a good time to point out that not all isolations are created equal. Screening and movement would have created this hypothetical mismatch between James and West. That’s a far cry from leaving Paul Pierce to go it alone against LeBron’s tenacious defense with the game on the line, or even isolating James against the lengthy Garnett, a scenario that yielded the missed 20 foot pull-up that Chris Bosh tipped in.
Yet, there are draw backs to the play as I’ve described it. In the high post, the Celtics would likely double LeBron, taking the ball out of his hands, and perhaps the hands of Wade, too. Also, LeBron is still not as comfortable in the post as he is with a live dribble at the top of the key.
But at the very least, the Wade-James pick and roll ensures both stars have a say in the play’s outcome, keeps Kevin Garnett out of the initial action and forces Celtic defenders to do things they’re not accustomed to doing. At best, it results in all three of the Heat’s best players touching the ball and an open layup, as it did in overtime.
I’m out of rational explanations for why the Heat don’t use this play more. We see teams like the Mavericks wear out a pick and roll combination for quarters at a time when it becomes clear that the opposition has no clear answer.
Still, Spoelstra probably deserves the benefit of the doubt. After all, the switch that left Garnett on James also allowed Bosh to seal Ray Allen for the game-sealing tip-in.
But Miami’s coach also knows that even in wins there is often room for improvement.