Playoff Breakdown: Defending Brunson, Using Butler Differently, Exploiting Knicks’ Overhelping

Insightlast month10 min readJohn Jablonka

Did you know that the Miami Heat did the impossible? They beat the New York Knicks on the road in The Garden. I don’t know how they did. Based on the coverage, I assumed everyone on the Heat were going to crumble under the bright lights because it’s tough to win in New York on the road. Well, one team did blow their chance of winning.

It’s fitting that the score was so low and that both teams struggled to shoot. It just makes sense that these two teams will grind it out in the 90s throughout the game just like they did in the actual 90s.

Now, even though a win is a win, I think both teams would feel like they didn’t play near to what they can. Just take that Knicks’ decision not to attack Butler — that was awful.

But with the Heat, they shot poorly from everywhere on the court, had a below-average offense, didn’t take capitalize on many advantages, and had a lot of dumb mistakes on offense.

So, let’s go through a bunch of things they’ve done(and didn’t do) on both ends:

Defending Brunson

The way the Heat defended Brunson varied throughout the game. A lot of the times whenever he was coming off a screen, Bam Adebayo would have been in a drop and have the defender go over the screen. That was the ideal scenario.

Early in the game, they also didn’t send help much. Once Brunson got inside the paint, they let him go 1v1 and that resulted in this:

In the second quarter, he went 5-for-5. Once he got that paint touch and went for the floater, it was as automatic as it can get.

There was also quite a bit of hunting on switches. He wanted to go to Max Strus early on often:

He did get a couple of good looks — some were shots he normally makes, but missed — but most of them were looks that defense will live with. I can live with a long jumper beyond the free throw line on a stepback in isolation. That’s a good shot.

What’s not a good shot for the defense is when he matched up with Strus and put him in an action in a pick-and-roll.

This changed in the second half. They had Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, and Jimmy Butler more on him. But what was more important is how the defense reacted when he got inside the paint.

Before, whenever he got inside the paint, it was basically a single coverage with little help. Now, everyone is pinching in to crowd the paint. There is little room for Brunson to maneuver around or finish over players and it just makes everything tougher for him.

Expect that kind of defense to be on Brunson going forward.

Also, what was good to see is how they fought to avoid switches in the first place. He did end up scoring here, but it wasn’t easy:

I liked how both Martin and Haywood Highsmith defended him and made sure not to give up the switch on Duncan Robinson.

Finally, there was one possession with Adebayo switching on Brunson:

It did its job. It stopped Brunson from doing anything and despite there being a defensive breakdown that gave up a lob, I don’t think this was a mistake that would happen often or get exploited. Here, Butler gambled on that steal, which allowed Josh Hart to go off the catch and draw the defense to open up a lob.

But what’s good about this play is it gives the Heat a break in case of emergency option, There’s a big safety net that can put Adebayo on Brunson and stop any advantage.

Offense Revolving Butler

Before being hobbled with an ankle injury, Butler scored 25 points on 60.0 percent true shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds(four offensive), and had four assists. And yet, it felt like a quiet efficient 25.

This didn’t feel like a Butler game from the Milwaukee Bucks series and that’s because he was used entirely differently and will continue to be used differently.

He’s been used away from the ball more often to score. He’s not getting the same space or the shots that he did against the Bucks. They played a much more conservative defense that needed that kind of defense to get any type of looks or force the defense to do something else. Against the Knicks’ defense, it’s a bit different.

The way he got his points is through cuts, getting screened in the paint, in the post, or slipping screens.

The Knicks don’t want to switch Hart off him at all. So, he can go to work one way or another in the post by getting the pass over him. Have Gabe Vincent screen for him inside the paint and then perfectly seal Hart under the rim. Or screen Kyle Lowry and slip before the defense can react.

This play is particularly noteworthy:

Butler doesn’t score here, but where the defense is set and how he got the look is important. In non-Adebayo minutes, it’s going to be key for Butler to attack the paint. Love spaces the floor well enough that it draws Robinson out of the paint. Now you’re giving Butler more space to cut and attack down low.

Another Butler-Love action. Earlier in a game, Butler gets a pindown from Adebayo and curls into the paint. So, later in the game, Hart anticipates that and wants to beat Butler to his spot. But by doing so, it allows Butler to have a back cut. Now, that also causes confusion, which opens up Love for 3.

Expect a lot of Butler-Love actions in some way without Adebayo.

But it’s not just how he gets his points but how he’s being used that will be important for the Heat to generate any kind of offense. There are two ways that the Heat can use Butler to create offense — guard screening for him and him screening for guards.

Both pressure the defense in a similar way by either forcing the defense to switch and have a mismatch or forcing the defense to show and put the defense in rotations.

Firstly, you have Lowry screening for Butler. Because the defense doesn’t want to switch, that means they’ll have to hedge/show/trap. But once that show happens, Butler can attack, drive middle and find looks elsewhere.

Though I’m not always pleased with how they go about it.

The next way is to have Butler be the screener because that was a better way to force a switch for a mismatch. Once that happens, the defense will send help. At times they may send a double or a triple team.

And this is where I’m also not pleased with how the Heat go about capitalizing on that. This is something I feel they’ve struggled with all season long. They don’t do well taking advantage of advantages(this was actually the first topic I’ve written about in this season)

Things That Caught My Eye

The most entertaining part of the game? Love’s three outlet passes. That was fun.

Not only was it fun, but it was also needed for the Heat to make a push. I’ve tweeted out a breakdown of Butler’s scoring and his most efficient(and second most used) play type was in transition — scoring 1.5 points per possession. What better way to get transition points than to receive a touchdown pass from Love in a split second off a miss?

This helped the Heat get very quick six points that they needed.

Do you know who else was great? Lowry. He doesn’t do it consistently anymore but when it’s needed, he steps up like no one else. And the thing about Lowry is he does all of the little things.

He didn’t go off for some 30-piece, didn’t hit multiple shots down the stretch, or made some highlight-worthy plays on offense. What he did do is tip the ball for an extra possession, stopped a fastbreak, blocked a shot, and forced a jump ball. #Littlethingsmatter

The Knicks have already shown the type of help they send early on a lot of the pick-and-rolls. They pack the paint, rotate early, pre-rotate to one side, have guys with a foot in the paint from the corners, and a whole bunch of things to make life difficult:

And I’d say this worked well for them. I don’t think the Heat were able to beat that effectively. This is where Adebayo and Butler will have to do a much better job as passers in this series. But not only that, Spoelstra will have to make certain adjustments to exploit this over-aggressive defense.

One way that they tried is by having Adebayo in the corner ready to flow into a dribble-hand-off. This has been a thing against the Bucks with a Butler-Love pick-and-pop.

The only difference is I really didn’t like how they executed this. The idea was there and the first advantage was created for that DHO to happen. But you can see in the first play that once Butler drives middle, draws the defense, and kicks it to Bam, there was a mistake somewhere.

Why is Robinson that far out? Was he not expecting to go into a DHO? Why did he lift that way? He seemed surprised that he should have gone to get the ball.

Finally, just taking a note of these three plays from the Knicks:

The Knicks got three open good looks from the corner using this pin-in screen. And it most commonly happened when they helped early and were out of position before needing to recover.