After Miami knocked off pesky Philadelphia, I wrote that Dwyane Wade would need to be a terror for the Heat to take down the vaunted Celtics. Some other breaks and dislocations went Miami’s way, but it’s reasonable to say that Wade was the Heat’s second round MVP, and no game epitomized his impact better than his scintillating performance in the decisive Game 5.
Last night Wade needed only 19 shots to score 33 points. That total could have been closer to 40 if Wade hadn’t missed seven free throws, but what was more telling than the amount of points he scored was that he managed to shoot 15 free throws and attempted 14 field goals within 15 feet of the hoop.
The Celtics defense hardly ever gets punctured for so many points in the paint, so how did Wade do so much damage? Certainly he had his share of individual heroics, but the Heat also did a fantastic job as a team of creating opportunities for Flash to exploit his marked advantage in foot speed.
Here’s is the area where Wade’s game has improved most dramatically this season. After spending most of his career as the Heat’s de facto point guard, Wade has developed into the perhaps the most devastating cutter in the league.
In this series, the Heat took advantage of Boston’s propensity to overload the strong-side of the court with defenders by stashing Wade in a corner, then unleashing him into space by setting simple curl screen. Long, fast strides and broad shoulders give Wade a distinct advantage on these actions, but he and the Heat have also improved the timing and execution of these cuts.
In the video below, you can see Wade catching starting on the left or right side, receiving a pin-down screen (or double screen) then turning the corner to the basket. Once Wade has a head of steam, forget about stopping him. The Celtics, concerned with the ball, do not have time to build their legendary wall of defenders in time to halt Wade’s paint invasions.
Wade may be the best in the league when it comes to splitting pick and roll defense. As John Krolik put it, “it might be possible to get in front of Wade, but it’s completely impossible to stay in front of him.” In Game 5, Glen Davis, Nenad Kristic and Kevin Garnett were all victims of Wade’s deceptive footwork as well as smart play design by coach Erik Spoelstra.
The idea is to attack Boston before they can position their on-ball and help defense. Springing quick pick and rolls on an uncongested weakside is a great way to do that, but there’s more than one way to find the Celtics pick and roll help coverage in a state disorganization. Watch how the Heat big men do a fantastic job of sprinting to all of their ball screens, whether in the half court or in transition, which makes the Celtics’ typical hedge/help routine nearly impossible. What’s more, on some ball screens for Wade, his screener was coming off of a screen himself, further putting his defender out of position to effectively help on Wade.
With room to take the one long stride he needs to reach top speed, Wade was able to brutalize the Celtics big men, who failed to hem Wade in before he could mobilize.
Wade was also a willing passer out of the pick and roll, three times finding LeBron James for spot up 3’s, and once hitting him rolling to the basket. In fact, all five of Wade’s assists were to LeBron, supplying 13 of James’s game high 34 points.
Two of James’s 3’s began with a Wade-Big pick and roll on the left side. As Wade powered baseline, sucking the entire Celtics defense lower into the paint, LeBron drifted up to create a passing angle near the top of the paint. This is an excellent example of the synergy that the two superstars honed this season. James has become more comfortable in the role of finisher, happy to capitalize on Wade’s attack rather than instinctively looking to create by forcing a drive.
Intelligent game-planning, spacing and timing are all well and good, but sometimes Wade just makes great plays, as at the end of the first half, when the Celtics elected to trap him 35 feet away from the basket. Wade saw the double coming, and took off to his right before the Glen Davis could get in contain position with Wade’s primary defender on the play, Delonte West. Desperately retreating, West and Davis were helpless when Wade abruptly reversed course, pulling the ball back with a wide but sudden right to left crossover that freed him for an uncontested 16 foot jump shot.
Players like Wade, James, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook thrive in space because they are just plain faster than everyone else on the court and need that room to get up to top speed. In the video above, watch Wade sprint past two Celtics for a transition layup off of Jeff Green’s turnover. A single defender simply cannot hang with him; and one was all that was available because LeBron, the fastest guy on the court, is hustling up court and occupying the potential help defender.
But in the postseason, these kind of broken, unsettled, wild scenarios are far less plentiful than in the regular season. By virtue of their making in the playoffs, opponents take care of the ball better, execute with more purpose, and take other measures to guard against these scenarios.
Boston’s entire defensive ethos is one of denying space, angles and options to speedy nightmares like Dwyane Wade. But the Heat proficiently executed a smart game plan that consistently created opportunities for Wade to reach Mach 3.
There’s a narrative out there about this series coming down to Talent (Miami) versus Execution (Boston). But the fact is that it was the Heat’s consistent execution that allowed Wade’s brilliant talent to swing the five round bout in Miami’s favor.