Playoff Breakdown: Not Allowing Penetration, Multiple Defensive Coverages, Butler Doubled

Insight3 weeks ago10 min readJohn Jablonka

It really is Miami Heat in five. It was Heat in five before the series. It was Heat in five when they lost game two and it’s still Heat in five now.

This honestly wasn’t a game from the start. The New York Knicks couldn’t score outside of some offensive rebounding. Their best offense was when they were able to push slightly off a miss. That was how they went on a little run.

Off a made basket, the Knicks scored 27 points on 29 possessions, but their pace was 17.4 seconds. Whereas off a miss, they scored 26 points on 30 possessions and had a 8.3-second pace. That is fast. And that was the only way they could somehow generate easy looks.

The Heat again made their life difficult whether it was getting to the paint in the first place and once they got there. There were barely any holes in the defense that the Knicks were able to take advantage of.

And that was how they won. With their defense. Keeping opponents below 90 points like they did in the late 1990s against the Knicks except this time they’re doing it in 2023 where the average for the playoffs is 110.8 points per game.

No Penetration, Forming a Wall, Forcing Knicks to Shoot

One of the reasons why the Knicks struggled a lot is they couldn’t get anywhere near the rim or the paint, especially in the half-court. Overall, they accomplished that in multiple ways that are all connected to one another. It wasn’t simply one scheme or adjustment that did this.

Everyone is doing it all to stay in front, get around screens, and provide help to barely allow anyone from breaking the 3pt line. This may seem simple, but the effort on the perimeter was the first reason:

In the first clip, Gabe Vincent goes under the pindown from Julius Randle, and the second screen from Mitchell Robinson on the dribble-handoff against Jalen Brunson. They try to go to another action to get RJ Barrett involved but Jimmy Butler was able to beat him to the spot. He defends him well and forces him to pass out. Randle then goes for a 3.

In the second clip, it’s a similar thing. Vincent goes under the screen. You also have Butler completely ignoring Barrett, who’s one pass away. His entire focus is to be early at the nail and take a potential drive away. Not even presenting it as a viable option. Then, you also have Max Strus helping off Josh Hart from the corner to stop Barrett. Ends in a Hart corner 3.

Notice in all of the clips, starts with Vincent going under Brunson, whether they’re pick-and-rolls or off-ball screens. That allows Brunson to beat him to the spot and prevent him from driving or turning the corner.

Then there were these two plays:

In the first clip, you have Haywood Highsmith going under twice against Obi Toppin. And in the second clip, you have Butler staying put with Brunson when defending that Brunson-Barrett pick-and-pop until he passes to Barrett for 3.

You also have these plays:

The Heat were forming a wall early in the transition. As mentioned earlier, the Knicks got a lot of their offense pushing the pace, but even then their job was difficult because of the extra help. They either had three defenders around the free-throw line to stop the drive or have someone help off the strong corner.

And in all of these clips, the end shot for the Knicks is a 3. That’s the focus. It’s all about preventing them from getting inside and getting shots there. It’s turning them into 3pt shooters.

Here are the Knicks’ players 3pt attempts per game in the regular season and against the Heat now:

  • Randle: 8.3 → 7.0
  • Quentin Grimes: 5.7 → 3.0
  • Immanuel Quickley: 5.6 → 5.3
  • Barrett: 5.3 → 7.0
  • Brunson: 4.7 → 7.3
  • Toppin: 3.7 → 5.7
  • Hart: 2.1 → 4.7

Barrett, Toppin, Hart, and Brunson all increasing their attempts is interesting. They are turning poor shooters into shooters. This is not their strength. You don’t want either Barrett or Brunson to be taking this many 3s. Ideally, they’re getting points in the paint, drawing fouls, or getting to the rim. If they’re taking a lot more 3s, then that’s a win for the defense.

Versatility is Key

The best defense in the playoff is versatility. It’s the ability to throw multiple coverages, schemes, and players at the offense. If the offense is able to get clean looks one way, then you have options to adjust. And that’s exactly what the Heat had in this game with Kevin Love, Strus, Vincent, and Adebayo.

With Love, his usual coverage has been showing in PnRs. And throughout the season, that has been both great and awful. There were games where he did his job great and there were also games where it was getting cooked. But in the playoffs, I don’t think it’s been negative at all.

Brunson tried to go at Love when he showed but didn’t create any advantages from it. Love has done a pretty decent job at coming out high to take away Brunson’s drive and has been able to recover. Also got to give props to Vincent for holding his own after that too.

But I think it’s also the Knicks not being able to create something out of this. In all of those plays, the end shot is a shot that the Heat can live with.

In addition to Love showing, we also had him in a drop:

And this hasn’t been as bad as it usually has been. I’ve tweeted plenty of clips saying something along the lines of no more Love in drop. But this has been good too. There weren’t any major defensive breakdowns and it prevented the Knicks from creating any advantages or many good looks. That’s as good as you can ask for from Love.

Similar with Strus. He was also getting picked on later in the game, but the Heat opted to have him drop instead of showing:

Also, notice the extra help from Love. He’s there early at the nail to stop a potential drive and takes a roll. That’s yet another coverage that the Knicks aren’t able to pick on and instead settle for tougher shots.

Now, a lot of that also has to do with Vincent. By going through all of these clips, you can see that none of this is possible without Vincent doing one hell of a job at going through screens, chasing him around, recovering, staying in front, and holding his own.

Finally, the Heat are able to defend 1v1 without giving up great looks or having defensive breakdowns. First, you have Adebayo locking up Randle:

I mentioned this in the first game. Having Adebayo as this safety net to hold his own against anyone and can lock guys up when needed is crucial to have. But you also have possessions like these with Vincent:

They are first giving that isolation look but are smart when it comes to knowing when and how to help. These start with Brunson going at Vincent but it ends with him drawing late help.

All of this is giving them versatility in what they can throw at and it’s effective. These are effective options that prevent the Knicks from getting to their spots and putting the defense in rotations.

Butler Doubled

We got to see some Butler getting doubled possessions and I wasn’t that pleased with how it went down. I tracked five possessions where he got doubled. On two of them, he took the shot over two defenders. On the other three possessions, he passed it out on them.

In clips one and five, you’ll see Butler taking some tough shots over both Hart and Brunson. I know he made it but that’s not the ideal shot you want when you draw two. You should be able to get a better look than that.

In the second clip, he draws the double, and quickly passes it to Duncan Robinson. I feel like the pass was made too quickly and once he did, there was no advantage, and now Butler doesn’t have the ball.

In the third clip, it was better. Once Butler made the pass, the ball got moved quickly before the defense was able to recover. So, now Vincent-Adebayo action in the corner draws the defense and that opens Love for 3.

But I liked the fourth play. Butler in the post with Strus one pass away. Once the help comes, it’s an easy kick for 3.

Though, in general, I haven’t liked how the Heat handle double teams. I don’t think the player getting doubled and the four other players have done a good job of exploiting that. This is something I’ve talked about many times throughout the season and how that’s something the Heat have struggled with.

Bam in the Corner

Okay. This was a nice adjustment in the Milwaukee Bucks series but now I think the Heat are using this way too much. They fell in love with this and I don’t think it’s working anymore. It seems like it’s hurting them more than it helps.

The idea of having Adebayo in the corner is it punishes the defensive big that wants to help off. This was a great counter against Brook Lopez where Butler drove middle to the paint, saw Lopez, and now has a kick to Adebayo, which he can flow into a DHO.

The issue is what happens if the plan isn’t to give him a DHO? You’re just inviting the big to help off and be in the paint with no counter:

Any action in those clips is negated because there’s nowhere to go on the drives. All it does is make anyone who’s handling the ball more difficult and has no space to do anything.

This needs to be changed or it needs to actually look to set Adebayo up for a DHO. I don’t think it makes sense to have this as an option that they could go to but it can only work if it’s the only option.