Cornering the Market
Last night the defending champion Heat thoroughly had their way with the Chicago Bulls. It was an especially deflating loss for Chicago given the high-spirits around their undermanned playoff challenge against the Heat last season and the return of Derrick Rose
There were plenty of problems for Chicago, some troubling, some utterly forgettable, but one of the most surprising elements of the game was that Miami was able to create eight three-point attempts from the corners. They went 6-8 on those shots and it was big reason they were able to run away from the Bulls in the second quarter. Eight attempts may not seem like a lot but the Bulls defense only allowed 297 all of last season, working out to an average of 3.6 per game. They were one of the absolute best in the league at flexing their defense to deal with challenges, without leaving those corners exposed.
So how were the Heat able to create all of those open looks?
Here, as LeBron brings the ball over half-court there is some confusion about who exactly is supposed to be picking him up. In the photo you can see three different players pointing at LeBron, emphatically implying to their teammates that someone else should be stepping up to impede his progress.
Surprise . . . no one does. LeBron simply takes two more dribbles, freezing Luol Deng, and kicks it out to Ray Allen in the left corner for the wide open look.
On this possession Allen has beaten Mike Dunleavy off the dribble and collapsed the defense. This happens from time to time, but the Bulls defense has been fantastic at accommodating these sorts of breakdowns over the past few years with crisp rotations on the back line. In the image below you can see that the first two rotations happened as they should. Nazr Mohammed has rotated over to challenge Allen’s drive and Kirk Hinrich has dropped off of Norris Cole in the corner to put a body on Mohammed’s man. The problem is that both Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson are standing and watching. Neither has tried to put themselves in the passing lane or rotate out to cover for Hinrich.
You can barely see Cole, hidden by the score, but not only is he wide open, the four closest defenders all have their backs to him. The Bulls defense started to flex and reform around Allen’s penetration, they just didn’t quite finish the job.
Here Allen has again beaten Dunleavy off the dribble and you can see the incredibly difficult situation the Heat’s offensive versatility has put the Bulls in. Gibson has rotated down onto Allen, leaving Battier open in the corner. This is ultimately where the ball goes. But if he doesn’t make that rotation their is a cavalcade of bad options lurking on the other side. If he stays with Battier then Allen becomes Mohammed’s responsibility, leaving Chris Anderson open for a cut to the rim. If Rose rotates onto Anderson, then Cole is wide open at the three-point line. If Hinrich slides out onto Cole, then Wade is alone on the baseline.
Once that first defender is so thoroughly removed from the play there’s almost no way to prevent the Heat from finding a good shot. There’s just not a good decision to be made.
This one is another example of beautiful execution by the Heat stretching the Bulls defense beyond repair. Udonis Haslem is diving to the basket but Boozer is also occupied by helping rookie Tony Snell with LeBron. Rose is drifting through the lane but he’s really responsible for Chalmers who is sliding back to the corner. That means Joakim Noah is going to have to rotate over to take Haslem.
As Noah rotates into the lane, Chris Bosh moves out to the top of the key and Hinrich (after stepping in on Haslem) has to leave Allen to cover Bosh.
This ultimately leaves Rose responsible for both Allen and Chalmers on the wing. They see this and take advantage, Chalmers pulling him out higher to receive the pass as Allen fades back into the corner and prepares to shoot.
Ironically, Hinrich is the only Bulls player who sees what’s about to happen.
Here the Heat swing the ball to Allen on the wing and a brief moment of confusion between Rose and Hinrich about who is responsible for which Heat shooter leads to an open three.
On this last possession a simple push off a made basket catches the Bulls defense before it is set.
Going through these six possessions we see a healthy mix of problems. Things like miscommunication and a lack of focus are understandable (if not forgivable) in the first game of the season and can be fixed in quick order. But several of those possessions show how the Heat’s masterful spacing and execution can turn a simple perimeter breakdown into an extended flowchart of impossible decisions. The Bulls can play better defense, but even the best defense can’t take away everything.