Playoff Breakdown: Jimmy Butler The Pick-and-Roll Maestro, Taking James Harden Out of the Game

Insight2 years ago6 min readJohn Jablonka

I was expecting more from the Philadelphia 76ers, even without Joel Embiid. With Embiid, I thought this was going to be a series that went to six games, but these two games have shown that the Miami Heat are undoubtedly the better team. The 76ers may have the clear-cut best player, but top to bottom, the Heat are the better team by a good margin.

This was another all-around effort from everyone. They shot 14-for-29 from 3, two guys giving you 20-plus points and two other guys almost giving you that too. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Heat had a 126.7 offensive rating. Do you see what happens when the shooters make their shots?

There were also some subtle changes to both the offense and defense —Jimmy Butler had a different approach to the pick-and-roll (PnR) and zoning up against James Harden.

Offensive Breakdown:

In the first game, I discussed how the 76ers defended Butler’s PnRs. The plan was to prevent him from using the screen and keep it on the side. The Heat also went with having PJ Tucker in the corner, so when the defense did force Butler to the side, there was additional help coming off the strong side corner. There was one empty-side PnR, but that was still defended the same way.

In this game, however, they went away with having Tucker in the corner. The 76ers also went away with the ICE coverage and now his PnR looked like this:

The 76ers were going over on his screens, but by allowing him to use the screen, it got him going to the middle where he can do some damage — either by scoring himself or playmaking for others through kick-outs or pocket passes.

In the first clip, he easily gets through and DeAndre Jordan wasn’t going to do anything there. So, Harden was already helping off the corner, which could have discouraged Butler from attacking the rim. This then meant Butler was driving and had Danny Green in a 2v1 situation. He gives a head fake, moves Green to Gabe Vincent, and it’s an open shot for Tucker.

In the next two clips, he got inside the paint again and is occupying the dropping big. Though he hasn’t been money from the mid-range, that still would have been too much space for him, so the defender must step up. And as he steps up, it’s a dump-off or a pocket pass to the roller.

Speaking of that mid-range space.

These shots will be key when it comes to the Heat’s offensive ceiling. Teams defending these PnR involving Butler will most often switch or go under and give up those mid-range looks. However,  if he can punish the defense by making those shots consistently, they will have to change how they defend him and that could open other things up.

Staying on Butler involved PnRs, this was also interesting to see.

We know how much Butler loves to get a weaker defender and make him go to work. But what if Bam Adebayo also draws a high level of defensive attention when they switch. In the first clip, the 76ers switch the screen and it ends up being an Adebayo post-up, which forces extra help and leaves Green in a 2v1 situation. Having two players that can either exploit the mismatches themselves or force additional help to generate open looks will make switching against them less effective.

Some other thoughts from this game on offense:

  • Enjoyed seeing Tyler Herro cook as a PnR ball-handler with smart decisions to reject the screen, being patient, and hitting rollers — per InStat the Heat generated 1.43 points on seven possessions with him as the ball-handler
  • Great to see shooters shoot
  • The zone defense wasn’t as effective

Defensive Breakdown:

Quick question. Who do you think had more points in the second half? Harden or Max Strus? If you guessed the guy that doesn’t get scored on much in isolation, then you guessed right. It’s Strus.

Even Victor Oladipo had more points in the fourth quarter this game than Harden has in the two second halves.

There was a reason why Harden couldn’t do anything in the fourth quarter.

The Heat decided to go into a type of zone to prevent any penetrations inside. You can see in each clip that there is one of Herro, Oladipo, or Caleb Martin zoned up to create a wall. There was absolutely nowhere for Harden to go. And all the offense did was pass the ball around as the clock kept running. In the second clip, the focus on Harden is even more emphasized. There was a kind of triangle to prevent him from stepping inside the 3-point line.

The 76ers kept on going to isolation, which hurts the offense more than it helps. Per InStat, they run 25 isolations, which was 25.8 percent of their total plays, but they only generated 0.96 points per possession (PPP). Though the biggest concern is what Harden is doing. He had 16 of those 25 isolations, but he scored 0.81 PPP.

These are terrible offensive possessions. All this does is run out the clock, has no ball movement, doesn’t involve anyone, and at this stage for Harden, it’s not effective either. Granted these possessions were against Oladipo, but he couldn’t do this against Strus too.

Finally, the Heat are still showing why they are an elite defense, especially when it comes to switching.

In the first clip, there are 18 seconds on the shot clock. There was a screen for Tyrese Maxey, but who does he get? Yep, it’s Adebayo — though according to someone on TNT, that’s a mismatch. The ball gets moving, another screen was set and now Maxey has Butler on him. Before he manages to attack, there are only nine seconds left. He manages to get by him with his speed, but nothing to worry about as Adebayo will switch again. This would have been perfect if only Butler stayed on his feet.