On Monday, M. Haubs of The Painted Area astutely noted the increase in isolation attempts by the Miami Heat in their Game 1 loss to the Chicago Bulls. The overarching theme was the manner in which the Heat struggled to score on these plays as a result of Chicago’s big men disrupting the offense. This, however, isn’t anything new for the Bulls and their stalwart defense – they’ve been locking down Miami’s mid-range game all season.
According to Synergy Sports the Heat were one of the best mid-range teams in the NBA during the regular season, ranking third in scoring efficiency. However NBA StatsCube tells us that during their three meetings with Chicago, Miami was held to 35% shooting on mid-range jumpers compared to the 42% they shot from this location overall. This trend continued in Game 1 with the Heat shooting just 6-of-23.
Chicago has been lauded for the versatility of its frontcourt. Players like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik move well for big men, have the length to contest shooters and continually switch on screens without giving away much defensively. Based on play-by-play data from Synergy, a tremendous number of Miami’s mid-range shot attempts are generated out of pick and roll and Iso sets, many times with screens being used to isolate a mismatch. Unlike most teams though, the Bulls don’t lose a lot by continuously switching on these plays and leaving a player like Gibson to cover Lebron James or Dwyane Wade 18 feet from the basket.
Miami has consistently helped Chicago’s cause however, by settling for contested jumpers rather than attacking the rim. This trend has been most pronounced in Iso sets. During the regular season Wade opted for a jumper (either off the dribble or without a dribble) 58% of the time when isolating, this increases to 62% against the Bulls. James’ change is much more extreme, settling for a jumper 42% of the time against the rest of the NBA, but 71% of the time against Chicago.
It’s somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Bulls collection of forwards defend the pick and roll and mid-range game so well forcing Miami to settle for jumpers, but the numbers indicate they’ve been doing this significantly more against Chicago anyway.
Let’s look at a pair of examples from Game 1 to better illustrate this.
In this set from the 1st quarter LeBron James is covered at the top of the key by Luol Deng when James Jones flashes from the far wing to set a screen to James’ right. Taj Gibson is defending Jones at the outset of the action.
James dribbles off the screen and immediately sets up to isolate on Gibson who switched with the screen. Notice that Lebron has plenty of space to operate off the dribble and take Gibson either direction should he choose.
James makes a couple of dribbles in place, not really making much of a move as Gibson plays him straight up and is in perfect position to challenge the long-two that is ultimately hoisted up. This is a perfect example of what Chicago has been able to do with players like Gibson who have the lateral quickness to at least funnel James towards the waiting help defense if necessary, but also the length to deter him from driving. Holding the ball makes James’s task all the more difficult.
Example two comes from the 4th and again is a screen and switch scenario involving James. The screen comes from the block and pins down Deng, forcing Omer Asik to switch onto James.
LeBron again is left in a 1-on-1 setting against a frontcourt player, though this time with additional defender shading towards the ball in case he attacks of the dribble.
Against the length and hard nosed defense of Asik and with help lurking on the far wing, all James can do is make a quick dribble and step back for a long two. Asik doesn’t fully contest the shot, but his presence, and that of the help defense forced James to shoot from further out than he probably wanted.
This is an issue Miami can partially alleviate by utilizing their screen and roll sets more effectively. Rather than James and Wade dribbling off the initial pick and simply isolating against a new defender, they can go into attack mode and force the Bulls to bring additional defenders to the ball. The best way to exploit a mismatch is by forcing the rest of the defenders to react to open opportunities for others (this was the basic offensive philosophy of Mike Brown in Cleveland). By settling for either contested jumpers or long two’s, Miami is playing right into Chicago’s strength, thus limiting their otherwise dangerous offense.