Playoff Breakdown: Tough Shot Making, Rim Pressure, A Whole Lot of Zone Defense

Insight4 weeks ago9 min readJohn Jablonka

Sigh. The Miami Heat almost did it. Despite not having Jimmy Butler, they almost beat the New York Knicks at The Garden again. It’s games like these that annoy me slightly in a good way.

Everything that could’ve gone right for the Heat on offense without Butler did. They shot well inside the arc, made a lot of tough shots, defended pretty well, and were in the game for 48 minutes.

This was the perfect opportunity to take a 2-0 lead going back home.

Unfortunately, they weren’t able to close it out. Now, there were some questionable calls that went the Knicks’ way that cost the Heat many points. But at the end of the day, I don’t like the idea of putting any blame on the referees. The Heat had multiple chances to close the game after that.

But despite the loss, I feel much more encouraged heading into game three, especially if Butler plays. On offense, there wasn’t much to take away from. We know what this team is on offense without Butler. But it was the defense that stood out and is something that can be translated to the next game.

3pt Shooting & Rim Pressure

Did you know that the Heat had a 119.3 offensive rating? This is surprising because the Heat rarely have a good offense when Butler isn’t playing. In the 18 games without him, they had a 109.1 offensive rating — though they did shoot poorly from 3.

And when you also include Tyler Herro in that, in four games without both, that number drops to 98.2. But again, they shot disgustingly from 3(27.0 percent).

This is why I’m slightly annoyed that they lost.

The process on offense wasn’t all that great. But it was a lot of tough shot-making, especially late in the clock:

  • 7-for-12 on shots with 7-4 seconds on the clock
  • 7-for-15 on shots with 4-0 seconds on the clock

They shot 14-for-26(53 percent) on late shots. That’s insane, especially when you consider this:

The Heat got bailed out on offense with some of those shots going in and when you also add some early offense, attacking a non-set defense, off a rebound, those points add up:

There were some gutsy shots, especially from Gabe Vincent.

They did, however, get a lot of points at the rim in the third quarter. They went 7-for-7 at the rim. That was one great quarter to generate a lot of efficient looks. And they did so in many ways:

In the first play, it started with a Bam Adebayo post-split and Vincent plus Kevin Love setting a stagger for Max Strus. The Knicks will deny that action by having Jalen Brunson beat Strus to his path to prevent him from using that screen. Because of that aggressive defense and Brunson using all of that momentum to go that way, it allows Strus to easily back cut to the rim.

Next, there was a Strus-Adebayo pick-and-roll. Brunson does a good job staying attached and going around the screens, but Strus does an even better job to continue using the screen and once Brunson goes under, he’s able to go downhill.

The third play was a good one. Another action for Strus coming off a pindown screen from Love to flow into a handoff with Adebayo. Robinson anticipates that and comes up early to take away the potential shot. Brunson decides to go under and that gives Adebayo the space to fake the handoff and get to the rim. Because it was sold so well, everyone on that side assumed Strus was coming off that screen, leaving no help at the rim.

We also see some off-the-dribble play from Strus and Caleb Martin. Both with a good crossover to get by the defense to the rim. That was severely needed without Butler.

Zone & Paint Defense

I know that it may be weird to talk about the defense when the Knicks had a 127.6 offensive rating and shot 40.0 percent from deep, but there was a lot of great stuff on defense when it comes to defending the drives, collapsing in the paint, rotations, and taking advantages away.

One interesting stat about the Knicks is how they’re driving significantly more compared to how they did against the Cleveland Cavaliers but are passing out way more often:

  • 48.4 → 58.5 drives per game
  • 17.6 → 25.5 passes out of drives
  • 36.4 → 43.6 percent of drives ending in passes

And the last game was even more. 54.2 percent of the drives were passes. But I think the goal that it was meant to accomplish worked. With the way the defense collapsed and how the help was sent, the goal to me was preventing anything inside. Make the paint completely off-limits.

Here’s the Knicks rim frequency against the Cavaliers games:

  • 35.2
  • 35.7
  • 30.1
  • 31.6
  • 29.5

But against the Heat, it dropped to 29.0 percent in game one and 23.1 percent in game two. Their 3pt rate skyrocketed to 48.7 percent.

Everything was good about their defense at preventing drives to the rim even when things broke down initially. They did a good job at recovering to prevent further advantages.

Take the first play. Love shows against Brunson on the first screen, but before Martin is able to recover, Brunson was still able to attack. But that didn’t matter because Strus was early in the paint to stop it with Adebayo also providing pressure.

In the second play, Isaiah Hartenstein sets a pick for RJ Barret to have a clean drive but Haywood Highsmith is able to beat him to the spot. Vincent also does a good job closing Immanuel Quickley to prevent any additional drives.

That third play was impressive to me. Everyone moves well in the zone. Josh Hart is able to find a gap to attack, but that gap disappears almost instantly with Vincent perfectly cutting him off and Adebayo showing higher just in case. They try again with Barrett, but Vincent again is there to cut him off and have both Love and Martin provide more pressure.

Then there’s this play that was my favorite. This was honestly so fun to watch:

It starts with Julius Randle quickly getting into a post up against Martin at the elbow. Strus immediately helps. There’s an open kick out to Brunson.

Vincent smartly closes out in a way to take away the extra pass to Barrett in the corner because he knows the defense in the paint is taken care of. He now has an open drive but that space disappears immediately. You have Martin waiting right inside the paint, Strus sinking from the left side, and Adebayo taking away the right side.

The only option available is a kickback to Randle. He attacks the closeout again. Vincent stunts and Adebayo is waiting with his arms stretched out to wall him off and it forces a bad pass whilst jumping.

Perfect defense.

But there are downsides to playing this type of defense. When drives command 2-3 bodies to collapse, that does put more pressure on making those recoveries and can open up 3s. That is the tradeoff, though.

The defense again collapses on the drives by sending 2-3 bodies or even four. But when the kick is to the other side, as it is in the first clip, it’s tough to recover. Then in the second clip, Randle’s drive draws three, Barrett does a great job at lifting and it’s an open 3.

Also, side note. I’m tired of watching that pin-in screen open up corner 3s.

Finally, with this zone defense, there will be more open 3s. Per Couper Moorhead, the Knicks went 10-for-22 from 3 against the zone.

All it takes is one ball swing and it’s an open 3. The Knicks didn’t do anything special in the first clip. Strus is left guarding two guys, so one extra pass and he can’t recover in time.

In the second clip, it’s a similar situation. Three defenders are on one side but watch Barrett here. He makes a great decision to cut right into the paint, which draws Kyle Lowry. That cut then opens up Randle for a wide-open 3.

I’ve been liking Barrett’s decision off the ball with his decision to cut and lift.

But for the playoffs, the Knicks are shooting:

  • 34.7 percent on wide-open 3s
  • 24.5 percent on open 3s
  • 31.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s

They’re going to have to prove that they can beat them by making 3s.

Finally, here’s a compilation of other great defensive plays:

This is what I meant by doing everything right on defense. Everyone did so many little things right that added up to having great defensive possessions. So few advantages are being given up. Everyone rotating well, showing on picks, recovering, knowing when to help, not getting fully beat, and being early to help.

Now, hopefully, this continues and gets even better when you add Butler to the mix. Having Butler will give you another body to throw at Brunson and Randle. allow you to play man-to-man, and more versatility.