The Heat’s Defensive Scheme Versatility against the Suns

Insight2 weeks ago10 min readJohn Jablonka

There are some mixed feelings about the defense against the Phoenix Suns from the Miami Heat. There were times when it was impressive and worked out well. But there were also times when you wonder why are they keep doing something.

And it seems like they’ve tried everything in this game. They tried Bam Adebayo in a drop, the usual switching, Dewayne Dedmon dropping, Dedmon showing, zone defense, and helping off the strong corner.

It was interesting to see them switch from scheme to scheme so seamlessly. A lot of their decision on which defense to use was dependent on who was on the court for the team and whether Devin Booker had the ball.

So, let’s go through each of the different defenses the Suns saw in this game.

Blitzing & Doubling Booker

When Booker had the ball, one of two things happened. He either called for a pick-and-roll or he called for a screen to get Duncan Robinson or Max Strus switched onto him.

The first time Booker went at Strus was early in the first quarter. No help came, no blitz, and no double. The result? A pull-up 3 in his face.

“30 seconds later”

The next possession, Booker again goes hunting for Strus, but you can see the approach was different. Although there seemed to have been some miscommunication as to who was meant to go double, it was obvious that from then on, they were going to blitz.

With this aggressive defense and when the communication on the help isn’t on point, then those open looks are bound to happen. It doesn’t help with guys not paying attention and blowing the rotation, to begin with.

Once Strus was no longer on the court, Robinson got his turn guarding Booker. In this play, you can see the level of aggressiveness even higher. There was also no confusion or miscommunication. As soon as Booker started dribbling at him, Caleb Martin went right in to blitz him.

The rotations here were also better. You can see Gabe Vincent rotating to take the first pass immediately. I think Adebayo was in a tough situation. He should’ve been the one to rotate to the corner quicker, but if he left too early, neither Robinson nor Kyle Lowry would have time to rotate to DeAndre Ayton.

Here was yet another blitz, but it was also different from the previous one, #Adaptability.

Vincent doesn’t even let the switch happen. He’s there pressuring Booker as soon as Robinson goes to show. But the rotations and positioning from others weren’t good enough.

Adebayo was out of position against Torrey Craig’s slip, which forced Lowry to help. Robinson was standing watching the ball when he should have been going back to another open man. Martin is also way too low and that should’ve been his rotation, which would have meant Robinson rotating to the corner.

That’s what happens if a player of Booker’s caliber goes match-up hunting. This forces a hard show, blitz, or double, which will inevitably force these rotations. Then once that happens, there’s little room for error.

This isn’t anything new for this team. There has always been a player or two getting hunted in the past four seasons. The only difference is these rotations aren’t as sharp as before.

Drop vs non-Booker ball handlers

Over the past few games, we’ve seen Adebayo in a lot more zone than usual, and if you want to read a more in-depth analysis, be sure to check out Nekias Duncan’s article on it that dropped recently.

There was a clear decision on which pick-and-roll defense you’d see Adebayo and it depended on one question — is the ball handler Booker? If the answer is yes, you switch. If the answer is no, you go into a drop.

There are a few parts of this scheme to go through — the screen navigation from the ball handler’s defender, the defense from the drop big, and any additional help from the three players not in action.

The screen navigation for the most part seemed okay-ish. Not perfect, but not terrible either, especially if it was Vincent or Martin. You can see in the first clip with Vincent getting around it well and recovering to put up a hand.

In this play, Martin was also doing one hell of a job getting around them quickly, and recovering to be in front.

Though at the other times, you can see in the rest of the clips that the reaction to go over the screen was slow, which made them trail the play more.

When it comes to Adebayo, I’ve discussed him in a drop in this week’s The Launching Pad, where I think he does a great job. He backpedals well, keeps both the roller and ball handler in front, swipes to discourage the shot, and if needed, he’s able to make some spectacular defensive play that only a handful of defenders can.

Finally, you have the off-ball defenders. You can see there’s an emphasis on helping off the strongside corners (that’s also been discussed here!). At the 16-second mark, you can see Strus helping off Craig in the corner to give a little dig.

There’s also more help from the wings and at the nail, which you see more often. At the 8-second mark, you have Vincent digging at the nail, or at the 11-second mark, Butler helping off the wing.

Shows with Dedmon

Once Dedmon checks in, the usual coverage with him is to hedge or show, then recover. The thing with these shows is it again relies too much on your rotations to be perfect. This is the same thing you get when Booker was hunting Strus and Robinson.

In this play, Dedmon is aggressive and blitzes Booker immediately with Vincent. Now, if you’re blitzing like this, it has to be a better job than allowing him to make this kind of read cross-court.

Robinson makes a good decision to rotate early to take Ayton’s roll. I feel like Butler should have been positioned lower to split the difference between Duane Washington Jr and Mikal Bridges.

Booker makes the skip pass, and now Robinson has a lot of ground to cover to go and contest the shot.

This was the same play here, except both Dedmon and Vincent do a better job at preventing those cross-court reads. Robinson again rotated early to be ready to take Ayton’s roll. Now, without the skip pass or the roll, the only pass available is to Bridges.

Robinson held his position long enough to prevent the pass inside and was still able to recover to Craig. The ball finds Ayton in the post, but Dedmon now has fully recovered.

That’s the kind of work and effort that it takes because of this scheme. It puts so much pressure on everyone to be perfect. Any slight delay and it could be an open shot.

Back to Switching

I do think switching is an effective strategy. The Heat have had an elite defense doing so for years now and it has worked extremely well. There is a clear benefit to doing so.

I don’t understand the need for these soft switches. Maybe it makes life easier on defense where you have these clear rules, however, there are instances where there’s no need for a switch.

If your two best defenders are guarding the action, is there much point in switching that? Though Butler is a strong guy, it’s still going to be a mismatch guarding Ayton.

I also see less of a need to switch some of these actions when both Martin and Vincent have shown to be good screen navigators.

It’s these plays where allowing Martin to go over and have Adebayo in a drop wouldn’t seem like such a bad idea. Instead, it forces Martin on Ayton, which makes everyone else needing to help.

Same thing here. A drop coverage would work perfectly fine here and it does seem like Martin was expecting to go over the screen. What happens now is Martin is out of position, Ayton slips and rolls, which forces Lowry to help off the corner.

The Suns had a 14.1% corner frequency(7-for-14). This would rank second in the league, per PBP Stats.

But another downside of these soft switches is even if you’re able to recover to whatever open shot there is, there’s a higher chance of the opponent getting an offensive rebound:

Strus gets matched with Ayton in the post with good positioning. This forced Lowry to immediately go help and double. Martin had to sink low to help on the cutter(though his awareness and reaction were slow here). Adebayo splits the difference and is there to rotate on the first pass.

The ball gets swung for an open shot, but now you have Ayton bulldozing his way through to get the rebound— he made Strus look like a little man.

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Suns had a 47.1% offensive rebound percentage. That’s insane! They grabbed almost half of their misses.

So, to finish up, it’s good to see that the Heat can maneuver their schemes seamlessly. That’s high-level versatility right there. Whoever is on the court, whoever has the ball, and they’re able to switch to whatever coverage suits them the most.

There are issues with each coverage — no coverage is perfect and will always give up something but it’s about balancing it out. With that said, this was a pretty damn good defensive performance.