On Tuesday, NBA Playbook’s Sebastian Pruiti outlined how the Miami Heat – specifically LeBron James and Dwyane Wade – were able to pick apart the Dallas Mavericks defense from the high post when double-teamed. The bigger picture in the first four games of the NBA Finals, however, has been the excellent job the Mavs have done at preventing the Heat from consistently beating them when they choose to double or apply additional pressure to the ball.
It’s not that Dallas isn’t committing extra defenders or double-teaming the ball handler, but rather they are avoiding doing so in settings where there are no help defenders in the area. They’ve applied added pressure without giving up a lot of open looks.
Synergy Sports tracks data on three different play-types in which the defense often opts to commit with a double-team or extra defender: post-ups, isolations and pick-and-roll sets. During the regular season Miami was good, not great, at capitalizing on these opportunities, scoring .98 points per possession on 48.1% shooting overall. In four Finals games against Dallas these marks have plummeted to .67 ppp on 35.6% shooting.
Several factors are at play here. First, Miami isn’t converting open opportunities at the same rate we’re used to seeing from them. During the regular season the Heat connected on just over 45% of their open jumpers compared to 40% in the playoffs. Secondly – and more importantly – Dallas has often managed to pressure and recover rather than committing the help defender to a hard double.
This is where the acquisition of Tyson Chandler is paying massive dividends for the Mavs. While the Heat often rely on their pick-and-roll game to create open opportunities as a byproduct of a collapsing defense, Chandler’s unique athleticism for a 7-footer makes him the perfect hedge defender given how quickly he can recover. His presence allows Dallas to keep its primary interior defender in the middle without sacrificing open looks on the perimeter. As Beckley Mason pointed out on this blog yesterday, when Chandler is on the floor, Miami’s offensive production drops significantly.
Despite a limited sample size of only our games, a noticeable trend has emerged in this game within the games. In its two wins, the Heat has scored at a rate of .72 points per possession on 37.3% shooting in these scenarios as opposed to .61 ppp on 33% shooting in the two losses. What’s more is that in Miami’s two wins, there were 30% more possessions in which either Dallas opted to double, or was forced to commit another defender as a result of the pressure the Heat applied. In many ways it’s a self-fulfilling wish: the more often Miami forces Dallas to double and commit, the better the Heat perform in the opportunities created.
Given what the data and game footage tells us, it is in Miami’s best interest to remain aggressive on offense and force the Mavs to double. Yes, Tyson Chandler has allowed the Mavericks to hedge and recover much more effectively than they would otherwise, but the simple law of averages guarantees that he won’t play each possession perfectly. And if Miami attacks relentlessly, it’s unlikely Chandler can continue to so completely avoid foul trouble. We also know that given Dallas’s traditionally questionable perimeter defense, Miami stands to have the advantage with their wing scorers. With the season having boiled down to a 3-game series, every edge can make the difference.