When looking back at Cody Zeller's season performance and previewing his role in the playoffs, I noted that his pick-and-roll defense will play a huge role in the playoffs due to the amount of times coach Steve Clifford has Zeller coming up to the level of the screen, if not blitzing it altogether.
As then noted, a coaching chess match of using these traps to their team's advantage seemed like a decent probability. Teams had already used Charlotte's blitzes to create 4-on-3 situations during the season:
Once that pass out of the trap is made, the opposition's big is in a spot where he can really punish the Hornets either by attacking himself or making the correct pass outside.
Little could all of us know that Clifford might be forced to tone this coverage back after Miami capitalizing on it already in the first game of the series.
Hassan Whiteside shredding apart the taggers
When playing any kind of pick-and-roll defense against a good rim runner, he has to face bodies along his route to the basket. The weakside help defender needs to "tag" him to hinder his progress.
It can be just a slight bump (good enough to allow your big man the chance to get back in the paint) before recovering back to your assignment. If the situation allows it (as does bad spacing in this example), you can impede his cut altogether by stepping in front of him and holding your ground like Jeremy Lin does here:
The bet against a bad passer like Whiteside is that you can get him in enough of these uncomfortable situations to win most of these mini-battles. Him being stopped in his tracks and then trying to force up a shot against a wing is the result you want:
The problem is that Whiteside is an athletic freak sporting a monstrous 7-7 wingspan who is capable of dominating such mini-battles. Charlotte's wings weren't ready to combat his rim runs due to being over-powered and, at times, being too late to tag him.
Some of those decisions certainly aren't easy ones. That's why it's such a pick-and-roll heavy league. Put the right players in these actions and you will get good looks. Preventing a Whiteside dunk and recovering to Luol Deng in the corner is not an easy dance for Marvin Williams to do:
After all, lobs for Whiteside wasn't the only way Miami was able to score in the pick-and-roll.
Heat ball handlers making plays when Blitzed
The Hornets overall were just a split second too slow to make this work.
Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade are supposedly pressured by the big coming up to the level of the screen, yet they are nifty enough to make plays by just disregarding the big and keeping moving. Here's Wade beating Zeller to the spot and crossing him two times in a row:
When Heat's ball handler was supposedly stopped, Charlotte's defenders at times were a tad too late to follow all of the upcoming passes.
It's a strategy tough to execute when the opponent is basically facing it on purpose. Dragic could dribble into the trap, pass out of it and if Kemba Walker gets confused for a second about Josh Richardson's whereabouts, Luol Deng can make the second pass to punish him.
Blitzing the pick-and-roll requires all five players to be great at reading and reacting and working together on a string to eliminate any option to which the offense keeps moving. That wasn't exactly the case last night.
What adjustments should be made?
It seems reasonable that some adjustments should be made given the way the Heat were ready to exploit these situations.
If the coaching staff insists on using Cody Zeller for so many blitzes something has to give. One way to try and solve this would be ramping up the pressure on the ball handler.
In the first game of the Cleveland Cavaliers - Detroit Pistons series Andre Drummond couldn't dunk all over the Cavaliers (like Whiteside was able to) since Reggie Jackson wasn't getting the ball out of the trap fast enough.
Jackson was simply having a seven-footer of a man draped all over him whenever he'd run the pick-and-roll. Zeller would then need to exhibit Tristan Thompson-like pressure to prevent the Dragic's from ever getting out of the trap so quickly in the first place.
The other solution if you go with blitzing is having more pronounced weakside help.
That being said, it's a very dangerous bet with the shooters Miami have. You pretty much can only do it off Justise Winslow. Dwyane Wade might seem like a reasonable choice, yet he's an expert of cutting behind the backs of such help defenders. Rest of Miami's outside players have been shooting too good.
I personally would at least hint towards dialing the coverage back. If you're putting Al Jefferson out on the perimeter, you're pretty much hanging him out to dry. There's no way he has the ability to do this at a good level for an NBA playoff series.
Him coming out to face the ball handler just puts everybody in a limbo. Opposing guards aren't particularly bothered by his presence and can make quick plays thanks to Charlotte's choice of defense. Jefferson shouldn't be doing this anymore.
How about having Jefferson drop back and having guards go under any Goran Dragic or Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll? Dragic made 31.2% of his 3-pointers during the regular season, while Wade hasn't made one since December 16. That would take the Heat out of these 4-on-3 situations which most of the time went their way and were successfully executed.
Adjustments from their side obviously would come. Whiteside would do-rescreens. The Heat would run their free-throw line screen-and-rolls where the guard is just too close to the basket for you to go under. But that seems like a change you just have to make with Jefferson.
What you do with Zeller on defense depends on the coaching staff's trust in him. He certainly can guard on the perimeter after coming up to the level of the screen but you have to wonder whether he has the physical presence to go bananas on guards for a whole series. Perhaps, limiting his blitzes to pick-and-rolls ran on the side of the court would be justifiable. Just "ICE" the screens on the middle.
Either way, coming out the exact same way for game two would look like being a wildly unprepared team.
Good news is that all of this demolition only scored one win for Miami. There's plenty of game tape from which to learn. Make the adjustments you please and come out ready for Game 2.
Some more minor notes before wrapping this up...
Miami Making Contested Shots
According to SportVU data, the Heat made 34 out of 56 contested field goal attempts which is good for a percentage of 60.7%.
Deng's 6/6 and some of the iso looks Wade and Joe Johnson made were a bit flukey. However, the Heat seemed very comfortable when going to any size advantage.
Their wing scorers will make this a tough series for Nicolas Batum, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin, especially when they're playing one position up or are guarding a bigger player after a switch.
Giving Up Offensive Rebounds
Grabbing only 60.0% of available defensive rebounds after leading the league in this category for three seasons straight (79.8% this season) is an unpleasant surprise in the first postseason game.
Bigs couldn't box out Whiteside and Amar'e Stoudemire. Wings were out-hustled by Deng and Winslow.
Too many of those plays looked like this. The players supposedly are in the vicinity of the ball and going for the rebound, yet it's almost false effort. Box outs are incomplete, jumps for the ball are mere reaches.
Very odd and just a bad look.
Frank Kaminsky Immediately Rendered Unplayable
Just like that Kaminsky almost from the jump showed how he can be too slow to guard Deng and too much of just a floor spacer to use his size against Josh Richardson, per example.
I don't expect the usually conservative Clifford to pull the plug on a player so fast but you have to wonder about the possibilities Charlotte has of going smaller. The seemingly deep team suddenly seems shallow due to the Heat's wing rotation and ability to attack any smaller wings.
Batum should probably be tried at the four when Williams sits. Jeremy Lamb seems to be exploitable on defense but deserves a shot at the three, let alone playing time. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is sorely needed.