Playoff Breakdown: Duncan To The Rescue, Spamming Delay Actions, Defending Murray/Jokic Actions

Insight6 months ago11 min readJohn Jablonka

WOW. Okay. The Miami Heat winning a game on the road, in Denver, in the finals, is something that I wasn’t expecting to happen so early. The Denver Nuggets were really good at home. Per Cleaning the Glass, before game two, the Nuggets were undefeated at home in the playoffs with the best net rating plus 12.7. The Minnesota Timberwolves had the closest margin by losing by only three points.

I liked a lot of things from the Heat on both ends. They got a lot of good looks. They shot 17-for-35 from 3. It’s just something that you look at and the only thing you can do is laugh.

But don’t believe anyone that wants to tell you the Heat only won because of shooting variance! This is disingenuous. Obviously, there’s some shooting variance that has the Heat make so many of their open or wide-open 3s. But shooters heating up is much more likely if they are consistently getting those looks. There’s more chance of shooting variance if the defenses keep breaking down which gives the team good looks. That’s just asking shooters who are in rhythm to make you pay for it.

At some point, there’s only so much that a defense can affect 3pt shooting. That’s the shooting variance. But the defense can control the looks they get. The defense can’t control whether the shot goes in or not(most of the time). But they can control whether the shot goes up and whether it’s open.

But to clarify. The Heat didn’t win because of shooting variance.

They won because they defended the Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic action well.

They won because Duncan Robinson is a freaking hooper that will carry the team on his back to bring them back in the game.

They won because Jimmy Butler will create good shots.

They won because of an adjustment to start Kevin Love.

They won because of their zone defense.

There were a lot of reasons why they won, so let’s go through some of them!

Duncan Saving the Game

I will never get tired of watching Robinson cook. I will never get tired of watching games being swung because of Robinson. Robinson only scored 10 points, but they all came in the fourth and gave the Heat life.

The Heat entered the fourth being down eight points. Three minutes and 16 seconds later, the Heat are up by three. That’s when Robinson scored the first eight points, created a 3, and then scored another basket. In a matter of few minutes, Robinson created 13 points.

There were a couple of 3s — one tough shot — but it was these three possessions that stood out the most:

All of the actions started in the same way. It was all with Adebayo in Delay action.

In the first play, Robinson is setting a pindown for Gabe Vincent in the corner. Denver switches that screen easily. Then this flows into a pick-and-roll with Adebayo, but Denver will also switch that. That does force Murray to be ready to help if needed, which allows Robinson to catch the ball and go without hesitation. That was a great move from Robinson to beat that closeout with Murray recovering. That snap decision was key here and that’s something that he’s improved on where his decision is always to shoot.

In the second play, it’s Vincent setting the pindown for Robinson. There’s a miscommunication on defense with Bruce Brown wanting to switch, but Christian Braun staying with him. That should’ve been a switch and because it wasn’t, that gives Vincent an open 3.

They go to it for the final time. It’s Vincent setting the pindown again. But because of the previous play, Brown stays with Vincent. And even though there isn’t a miscommunication here, that still should easily be a switch. There’s no reason not to switch this. You can have Brown on Robinson. They choose not to and Robinson is able to curl to the rim for a tough finish.

Spamming Delay Actions

As you can see from those possessions, all of them started with Adebayo in Delay action, which is basically having your big be the guy at the top with two actions going on either side.

This action is what the Heat ran for most of the fourth quarter. They started almost every possession until the last couple of minutes. It worked in the first three with Robinson, but throughout the quarter, it became less and less effective.

I didn’t like the Heat going to the same action after it didn’t create anything. It made their offense very stagnant because all of the off-ball movement was defended perfectly to not allow any cuts, curls, open shooters, or drives.

One big reason for that is that big guy in the paint. The Nuggets adjusted by having Jokic help off Adebayo and be lower in the paint. A little difference but that did stop those actions.

Take a look at these plays and the last play with Robinson. Jokic was in Adebayo’s face then. That gave Adebayo the pass to Robinson. With Jokic playing lower, though, that takes that passing window away. It makes it either more difficult to make it or outright impossible(unless you’re probably Jokic).

But it wasn’t just Jokic playing off. Notice in the first clip, Murray is already in the paint as Vincent is cutting. That window to the cutter is gone. In a perfect world, that’s a skip to Love in the corner.

Everyone else in general executed much better against those screens. In the second clip, Butler sets a backscreen for Kyle Lowry but Denver switches that action, which negates the screen. But also Jokic has both feet in the paint and uses his arms to make the pass harder even if there was a gap there.

In the third clip, Denver does a great job preventing any advantage out of those screens with Caldwell-Pope getting ready to switch and Murray denying the back cut.

At the 1:10 mark, that’s a perfect example of what Jokic being lower forces. It prevents any lower pass to cutters and the only pass available is a tough overhead one.

A combination of executing switches better, denying back cuts, getting over screens more effectively, beating guys to the spot, and Jokic manning the paint to take away any possible passes to cutters made this Delay action ineffective for most of the fourth. I wonder how much the Heat will go to it and how they’ll counter Jokic.

Maybe there’s something with screening Jokic or having Adebayo stationed in a different spot. Maybe it’s having someone else be the passer.

Defending Murray & Jokic’s Actions

The main thing on defense is how the Heat defended the Murray-Jokic actions. That’s a big part of Denver’s offense and I think the Heat have done as good of a job defending as they could and it involves everyone doing their part.

This means the person defending Murray is getting over screens effectively, not dying on screens, and recovering much quicker. Take notice of how Caleb Martin, Butler, and Vincent have been able to not allow much of an advantage by staying attached to him and getting back in front quickly. This meant that even when Murray tried to attack, there was no space to get right to the rim, but instead settled for a tougher 2.

They did a good job sending extra help. In the second clip, watch Butler help off in the corner to stunt at Murray’s drive. Even at times when the stunt didn’t happen, he was there ready to help if needed. This extra help can be great at stopping the drives or even discouraging them in the first place.

Both Adebayo and Cody Zeller were great in a drop too. Both did a good job at taking away the shot, and the drive, and not allowing any pass to the roll. Watch some of their offhand taking away the pocket pass. I don’t think Murray made many passes to Jokic on the roll.

Later in the game, they also adjusted by having Adebayo be much higher. He wasn’t exactly in a drop. It looked like the idea was to force Murray to be the passer in these situations. He saw more aggressive defenses. Both Butler and Adebayo were swarming him with arms up. Particularly at the 1:08 mark, they blitzed him on that baseline drive and didn’t give him any breathing space.

So, great screen navigation, good defense in drop preventing drives, pull-ups, and more importantly stopping the pocket pass. And finally, turning Murray into a passer was key.

Things That Caught My Eye

Just keeping a note of these three different results coming off a Vincent double screen:

They’ve been running a lot of these double screens for Vincent throughout the playoffs. Here, Max Strus gets an open 3 after he ghosts the first screen. In the second play, it’s an action mainly for Adebayo at the wing to flow into a DHO with Strus.

And the third play is counter to Denver’s counter. Watch Jokic in the second play where he’s helping off Adebayo, as he’s on the wing. He’s really helping off by being in the paint to take away Butler’s roll and Vincent’s drive, which opens up the pass to Adebayo and forces Jokic to recover. But in the third play, Jokic recognizes that and stays with Adebayo more. But without Jokic in the paint, that allows Butler to get the pass on the slip.

I’m looking forward to seeing if they continue to run this.

I liked their transition defense:

It seems like they emphasized protecting the paint and the rim by forming walls and collapsing inside. On that point, Denver only had eight shots at the rim and seven shots in the paint without counting Jokic. They did a great job forcing tougher looks against everyone else.

This is what Love brings:

For someone that hasn’t been known for his defense, especially as he got older, Love was huge with his help defense. Him being in the starting lineup means it’s not Vincent being the one either defending Aaron Gordon at times or being the low man that rotates over to help.

Did you know he defended the most shots at the rim in game one with nine? That’s right. The starting point guard defended the most shots for the Heat at the rim. Having Love changes that. I’ll expect the Nuggets to try to involve Love more on offense, though.

Butler had a poor game for his standards. I don’t think anyone will disagree that he hasn’t been his usual playoff Jimmy self. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t impact the game. Even with him being less aggressive, not scoring well, or not looking to score in the first place, the defense doesn’t care about that. The defense still treats him as if he’s the same guy.

And because of that, he’s still creating a lot of good looks by drawing the defense inside, forcing help to rotate early, or simply having every guy focused on him. This allows everyone else to play off those advantages by either making those open 3s or attacking closeouts and continuing that advantage to create looks elsewhere.

Take the play at the 0:19 mark. Butler draws Michael Porter to rotate in the paint. Murray is helping off Strus and has all eyes on him. Once Murray gets even closer, that’s a pass to Strus. He’s now able to attack the recovering defense. Similar to what Robinson did, Strus makes a snap decision to attack Murray’s momentum going the other way. He gets by, forces Jokic to help and it’s a dime to Adebayo.

Impacting the game without scoring or assisting.