Bulls vs. Heat: Isolation Games
When exploring the Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat matchup via the detailed play-by-play data offered by Synergy Sports Technology, one particular factor stood out to me: in terms of points per possession (PPP) on Isolation plays in the regular season, Miami ranked no. 1 in the league on offense with 0.93 PPP, while Chicago ranked no. 1 in defense with a stifling 0.74 PPP.
In Game 1, a key part of the story of Chicago's dominant defense was that they held the Heat to just 0.64 PPP on Isolation plays. As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told his team in one time-out huddle: "Isolating this team will not work."
However, despite their ineffectiveness, Isolation plays actually accounted for a higher percentage of Miami plays (15.4%) in Game 1 than in the regular season (12.2%) - many of these isos came after pick-and-rolls (another Miami offensive strength) yielded nothing, often due to aggressive switches by Chicago bigs.
One play that's stuck in my head as one of the best individual plays of the regular season was this one - on the game-deciding play with the score 87-86 Chicago on March 5, Joakim Noah switches out on a pick to cover LeBron James, gets down in a defensive stance and plays superior individual defense to deny James at the rim:
That play foreshadowed what happened in Game 1, as the ability of Chicago's bigs - especially Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, plus Omer Asik - to cover LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on isolations was a major factor, and really continues to be nothing short of remarkable.
In all, Miami had 14 plays which were tagged as Isolations by Synergy. They scored on just 4 of these possessions - 9 points in total on 3-11 FG, with 2 turnovers. Let's go through them quickly, as it illustrates how well Chicago's bigs defended.
James vs. Gibson: 0 points
On a switch after a PnR, James settles for a 22-foot miss.
James vs. Boozer: 1 point
On a switch after a PnR, James draws Booz into the air with a head fake on a 20-footer, and draws the foul. LeBron made 1 FT.
Wade vs. Korver: 2 points
Great matchup for the Heat here, as Wade drives into the lane from the wing and spins for a relatively easy shot from about 8 feet. (Note: Noah was guarding James Jones on this play, which opened up the lane; Miami's lineup was Chalmers/Wade/Jones/James/Anthony at the time.)
Bosh vs. Noah: 0 points
Isolated at the foul line, Bosh can only get off a rather awkward, contested shot. No dice.
Bosh vs. Noah: 2 points
Bosh again gets the ball at the foul line - this time he makes a nice drive left around Noah to score.
James vs. Noah: 0 points
After a PnR switch, LeBron backs up a little bit before attacking. He ends up trying to head fake and draw a foul from Noah on a 17-footer. Close to a foul, but looked like a good no-call, and more than anything, it was probably a travel by James. In any event, no bucket. (Note that, after the PnR switch, Bosh had Deng on him in the post.)
Wade vs. Bogans: 0 points
Wade drives from the wing into the lane, before getting stripped by Bogans for the TO in lane, on a play with lot of traffic inside. (Note that when Wade was on the wing, Bosh had Rose on him in the low block right in front of Wade.)
Wade vs. Noah: 0 points
After a PnR switch, Wade drives middle and gets into the lane, but Noah stays in front and ends up blocking the shot. (Note that Bosh has Bogans on him after the switch.)
James vs. Deng: 0 points
On a quick possession in transition, pressure from Deng causes LeBron to dribble out of bounds - a combination of Chicago's ball pressure (as noted by the TNT crew, Chicago is a rare team that pressures James and Wade on the perimeter) plus the carelessness which characterized several Miami turnovers in Game 1.
James vs. Gibson: 0 points
After a switch, LeBron is iso'd at the top of key. He backs up, attacks, dribbles forever - it's a situation in which we're used to seeing James settle for the long jumper, but on this possession, he gets into lane. However, Gibson still blocks the shot. Great defense. (Note that with all these empty iso possessions, the score is still just 67-61 Chicago late in the third after this play.)
Wade vs. Brewer: 0 points
Miami meanders around and wastes the shot clock. Wade ends up with an off-balance contested long two against a short clock. Brewer plays some very solid one-on-one D.
James vs. Deng: 0 points
At the end of the third quarter, LeBron settles for a three off the dribble with Deng in his face. It's the type of hero shot he made in Games 4 and 5 to close out the Celtics, but the percentages catch up with him here.
James vs. Asik: 3 points
After a PnR switch, LeBron makes a 3 at end of the shot clock, over a decent contest by Asik. (Note that Bosh had Deng on him after the switch, though he stayed on the wing on this possession.)
James vs. Asik: 0 points
After a PnR switch, LeBron settles for a step-back 20-footer with Asik contesting. (Note that the switch left Jamaal Magloire covered by Deng; Tom Thibodeau himself might be able to effectively guard Magloire.)
All told, there were six possessions on which James or Wade were matched up one-on-one vs. Chicago's bigs, and they scored on exactly one of those, yielding three points. Superior performance, especially by Noah and Gibson, and the isolation game is one to watch as this series progresses.
As you saw above, a lot of Miami's isos came after pick-and-rolls were thwarted. The Heat also ranked no. 1 in plays tagged "PnR Ballhandler" (i.e. plays made by the dribbler on the pick-and-roll) - LeBron in particular was fourth in the league in this category.
It seems that part of Chicago's strategy in having its bigs switch aggressively is to thwart these PnR Ballhandler plays as well. All in all, it was certainly an extremely effective game plan, as the Bulls shut down the dribbler on the pick-and-roll (keeping James and Wade out of the lane, off the free-throw line, and unable to draw the defense in for open three-point shot opportunities for teammates), and forced them into iso situations, in which Chicago won the battle of the team strengths.
The Bulls conceded a big game to Chris Bosh, as the aggressive play on the pick-and-rolls opened up the roll man several times, but overall, Chicago reigned supreme on defense. Bosh will continue to be an important player - if the Bulls continue to switch pick-and-rolls, Miami needs to use Bosh as a screener more often, and get him the ball when he draws mismatches.
Miami might also want to try Wade-James PnRs to avoid the Chicago bigs, but that just means the bigs will likely be able to stay near the basket. There are no easy answers against this Chicago defense under the masterful direction of Tom Thibodeau. Mobile bigs rule.