How the Cleveland Cavaliers Picked Apart Miami Heat’s Aggressive PnR Defense

Insight3 weeks ago7 min readJohn Jablonka

Unfortunately, the Miami Heat couldn’t close out the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. But it was surprising even to see them be in the game right until the end.

If you look at the box score, you wouldn’t think it was that close.

  • The Heat shot 8-for-29 from 3
  • 22-for-29 at the free-throw line
  • 22 turnovers(25.8% of their possessions)
  • Bam Adebayo played 28 minutes due to foul troubles
  • The Cavaliers had 31pts off those turnovers

A lot of things went wrong for them in an extreme way. This a random stat, but teams are 84-101(45%) when committing 20 or more turnovers. There have also been 10 games with a team having a 25% or higher TOV% and those teams are 1-9.

And yet, it almost didn’t matter. Somehow they were still able to possibly win. Although I’d say they lost on offense — 107.5 offensive rating and a 113.0 defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass — I wasn’t impressed with their defense, particularly with their pick-and-roll defense.

The issues came with them choosing to go for a more aggressive form of defense and have all of their bigs show, which means the defensive big will come up high against the screen to not allow the ball handler to attack and try to force him to give it up or pick up the dribble before trying to recover back to his man.

So, let’s go through some of those examples.

The first one was early in the game with just over one minute in. And it’s kind of surprising seeing the Heat go into this defense with Adebayo that early in the game.

The Heat have been showing hard or even straight-up blitzing with Adebayo at times and that’s what he does to Darius Garland. Both he and Gabe Vincent go at him hard and jump forward to try to deflect the pass. Garland had instant decision-making there and with Jarrett Allen slipping early, he got the pass on the roll.

The first issue was the late tag on the roll. Someone should’ve helped earlier and I’d say that should have been Kevin Love given who he was guarding. What happened instead is the late help and both he and Jimmy Butler going to help on the roll — this isn’t the first time this happened with those two.

Because of that miscommunication, Allen now draws two defenders in the paint and it’s a wide-open kick to Evan Mobley in the corner. Though you still take that if you’re the defense, as Mobley is shooting 15.2% from the corner.

Here’s another possession with Adebayo blitzing hard. Though here, it does kind of look like he maybe was expecting a switch and there was some miscommunication.

Allen again decides to slip quickly and gets the pass on the short roll. But there seems to be another issue with who’s meant to be rotating. Tyler Herro ignores Isaac Okoro completely and rotates early to take Allen’s roll, which works. You also have Love helping off the strong corner, which was a question mark. Why are we helping off that much that early?

Because of that, Allen recognizes that Lamar Stevens is wide open and makes the kick. I should also point out that Allen made the decision too quickly, as he could’ve had Okoro wide open on the cut. And the reason he was open is that Butler didn’t sink down to help on the cutter.

In the next play, Donovan Mitchell and Evan Mobley quickly flow into a PnR, which I assume was to go at Love in the process. With Love, this has been the scheme they’ve gone with ever since his first game here. I’ve touched on this already, where this scheme has put more pressure on the defense and has given up a lot of quality looks.

Once you have Love showing quickly, Mobley doesn’t waste any time and slips immediately. You can even see he wasn’t looking to set a solid screen but instead, the intention was to slip.

The first issue again was that someone should’ve been there earlier to stop the roll. Herro still ends up taking the roll away and holds it until Love is ready to recover. But the next issue is with Herro’s man(Okoro) cutting along the baseline to relocate to the opposite corner — that was a great decision from Okoro.

Now, there’s no one nearby to go and contest, as Allen is setting a pin-in screen on Adebayo. Vincent could’ve rotated over, as he was splitting the difference and was the nearest one, but staying with Garland was the smarter choice.

Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo defend Caris LeVert and Allen. Because LeVert isn’t the ball handler, nor the decision-maker as Mitchell is, he simply did a retreat dribble and made the nearest pass to Mitchell.

Vincent did a great job at getting low and fronting Allen to take away the possible pass. Unfortunately, that does open up a skip pass to Ricky Rubio. And before Zeller is able to recover, which would allow Vincent to let go of Allen, there was just too much ground for him to cover.

Another show with Zeller, but this time with Caleb Martin against LeVert. This was a more aggressive show, which makes sense against a player like LeVert.

I think these hard shows/blitzes are good for either Luka Doncic-type ball handlers or players that may not be used to those aggressive defenses. You choose this defense against elite ball handlers to immediately get the ball out of their hands. You choose this defense against lesser ball handlers because they’re more likely to make a mistake.

LeVert makes a first mistake almost immediately. He had a wide-open Allen rolling — he was wide open because Herro was late with his tag. Instead, he continues to dribble out to find a simple nearest pass.

The issue with this is now Zeller has a lot of ground to cover before he can recover back to Allen. So, when Rubio gets the ball and drives, Herro is in a tough spot — does he stay with Allen or does he retreat back to his man? Both are wide-open passes.

I think he makes the right choice going back to Garland and it should’ve been Max Strus, who’s also near Allen. He should’ve rotated over quickly to take that inside pass. That’s the pass you don’t want the defense to make. Instead, he reacts late, so a dunk is given up.

It’s plays like these where the aggressive defense is stressing the defense up to the max. Take a look at how many things the defense has to keep up with and do just to not give up a look. The margin of error is so slim with this defense.

Hopefully, something changes in the next game. Whether that’s easing up with the aggressive defense, making the rules clearer on who should be rotating, or simply the effort and awareness need to be better.