Playoff Breakdown: Plenty of Defensive Adjustments, Shooters Shoot at Home

Insightlast week8 min readJohn Jablonka

With the series tied 2-2, it was key for the Miami Heat to take care of business at home and make sure they weren’t going to be trailing against the Philadelphia 76ers on the road.

You may look at the score, check some offensive stats, and assume the offense won this game. Yes, they had the best offensive rating in the playoffs — 130.7 offensive rating per Cleaning the Glass (CTG) — but the defensive adjustments gave them the second-best defensive rating. And that was more crucial in this game.

There wasn’t anything special on offense or any changes. One of the main differences, though, was the team scoring 1.54 points per possession on catch-and-shoot shots per InStat. This would be a whole point better than what they shot in the previous two games.

As reductive as this may be, most of the offense was solved by the guys hitting the shots. It was a well-balanced offensive game, with seven players scoring in double figures.

The major changes happened on defense. That is where Erik Spoelstra went to his lab and made adjustments that won this game.


Offensive Breakdown:

Did you know that the Heat are shooting 27.0 percent on 38.0 3s on the road? This would be a significant drop-off from their regular season averages of 38.2 percent.

But when the Heat are at home, they’re shooting 36.9 percent, which would be right around their season averages. In this game, the Heat finished with 13-for-33 but shot even worse before garbage time kicked in and non-rotational players bumped up the averages.

When the shooters get going, this team is terrifying. These are the looks the team was getting regularly in the two previous games. Notice how a couple of them were shots in transition. When you cause a lot of turnovers, then there are more transition opportunities, which generally means better quality shots. None of the plays here showed any tough shot-making or possessions that aren’t sustainable.

Also, another note is how the Heat are constantly trying to get Tyrese Maxey involved in off-ball screens.

This game still showed me the struggles that Tyler Herro is going through. He is getting the most defensive attention out of pretty much anyone on the court for the Heat. They are treating him the same way the Heat treated James Harden in the first two games.

In theory, this should be a good thing for the Heat. Extra defensive attention, playing off of others, and sending two at the ball — this should mean that there is an advantage elsewhere. Unfortunately, Herro hasn’t been able to adjust and take advantage of what the defense is giving him.

Whenever the defense brings the aggression and shows against him, he doesn’t think twice but to pass it off. Granted, some of these possessions were against the zone. The point is he makes the pass immediately when the defense steps up and that allows the defense to rotate back, which eliminates all the advantage.

What also stood out is how quickly he picks up his dribble when the defense comes. Any sign of defensive aggression, he picks up his dribble looking to get it out of his hands. To me, he doesn’t look comfortable facing these defenses. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with this. Every young guard will experience this, especially when this is their first time experiencing this level of defense in the playoffs. But it’s clear why his on-ball creation has decreased this series.


Defensive Breakdown:

Let’s get to the real reason why the Heat won this game.

One of the first changes that were made is to have Butler guard Maxey more.

Butler is one of the best help defenders in the league and that is where he is the most dangerous on defense. If you have Butler roaming around, helping off, being early at the nail, and able to play the passing lanes, that’s when you get the best defensive Butler. One play, in particular, was here. With Gabe Vincent on Harden, Butler is defending Maxey one pass away but is able to stunt and cause a turnover on the drive.

The key change was how they were defending actions involving Joel Embiid and Harden. In the two previous games, the defense against their pick-and-rolls was to switch. Whenever the switch happened, the player would front Embiid in the post and have additional help coming from behind.

That may have worked at limiting Embiid to some extent. But the overall effectiveness of this defense wasn’t as high, as it forced the defense to rotate and created more open shots as a result. Not only that, but in most cases, the additional help was coming from Max Strus or other guards. That’s not going to be effective even if they’re early.

They did have more success defending Embiid in the fourth when they had Bam Adebayo front him and battle for position to deny him the ball. That worked. It wasn’t the fronting that worked; it was who was fronting him.

Adebayo can hold his own against Embiid.

Adebayo wasn’t going to let Embiid catch the ball at any cost. Not only did he prevent him from getting the ball in the first place, but was responsible for causing those turnovers. Per CTG, the 76ers had a 19.7 turnover percentage. You’re not going to win any games committing that many turnovers and giving up transition opportunities.

Another change was going away from switching in the first place. There was no need for Strus, Butler, Vincent, or whoever was out there to be fronting Embiid because the switch never happened. And you can thank Tucker for that.

Rather than switching the PnRs involving Embiid and Harden, Tucker was going under or fighting like hell to get over the screens and recover, while Adebayo was dropping.

In the first play, you have Tucker going under and allowing Harden to take that 3, but he’s still trying his best to recover. The issue with this scheme could have been a re-screen, which would have been set inside the 3-point line. This would either allow Embiid to roll easier or force that switch. That’s what happens in the second clip, but even then, you have Tucker fronting and forcing Embiid into a worse shot going against the clock.

This defense proved to have some great results throughout the game.

Here, the 76ers run a double drag. That’s completely negated with Tucker going under on both and beating Harden to his spot. He recovers well and now it’s one-on-one with Adebayo helping at the nail. He prevents the drive, then recovers on Embiid and prevents his drive. Although this was a gamble by Butler that did play out well, you can see why he is better off-ball.

Here, Tucker goes under on the first screen and recovers. Embiid re-screens, which then Tucker fights over the screen, as Adebayo is dropping. Also notice Strus pre-rotating. Now you have three defenders on that side preventing a drive. You also have Butler helping off and tagging Embiid on the roll. The ball gets kicked, rotations happen, and it ends in a Maxey mid-range attempt.

The defense did have to switch at times, but this wasn’t as bad as it was previously. Instead of a guard fronting Embiid, you have Tucker who will do a great job fighting for position. You also have Butler helping on the backside preventing the pass. The ball gets swung and they cause a turnover.

Let’s end it with the defensive play of the game. This was clamps city! Tucker goes under on both screens — the pindown from Danny Green and the handoff from Embiid. He doesn’t recover entirely on Harden, but notice the help from Butler off that strong side corner. He slows Harden down and Tucker is able to recover onto Harden. The ball gets kicked back out to Embiid and now it’s time for Adebayo to get to work. He closes out perfectly, stays with him, and blocks the shot.