The Miami Heat’s 23rd consecutive win – a 105-103 road victory over the rival Boston Celtics – will be remembered for many reasons. LeBron James’ massive slam on Jason Terry, his game-winning pull-up jumper with 10 seconds left, Jeff Green’s from-nowhere 43 points, a short-handed Celtics team squandering a 13-point fourth quarter lead and Miami once again proving its the league’s preeminent crunch time team.
But lost in all those memories will be the Heat basket that made James’ jumper possible at all, the one that tied the game again after Miami allowed an Avery Bradley corner three-pointer with 1:49 left on the clock and their comeback bid seemed futile. And it’s a shame, because in a matchup increasingly disparate in terms of athleticism and star power, these two points serve as a reminder of just how far the Heat have come from an execution perspective and that Boston, aging and injured, needs to be near perfect in that vein just to keep pace. Here, Miami was and the Celtics weren’t, and it cost the latter a season-defining win.
Miami’s furious run to erase a 96-83 mid-quarter deficit was complete when Mario Chalmers hit a three from the circle with 2:40 left to give the Heat a 101-100 lead. The two teams traded misses on successive possessions thereafter, but on Boston’s next one James went for a steal, his teammates reacted to help and Bradley was left wide open in the far corner. These days that’s buckets for the third-year defensive menace, and he unsurprisingly delivered.
Now trailing by two again with under two minutes remaining, the Heat went right back to James. Being guarded by Green, he drove middle and lost the ball; the officials awarded possession to Boston, but replay confirmed the ball bounced last off of Green’s foot, giving Miami an in-bounds opportunity from the baseline (BLOB) with a full shot clock.
Here’s where the real action starts. In the photo below, Ray Allen is the in-bounder as his quartet of teammates create a box on the edges of the painted area. In a way, the Celtics are already in trouble; both Bradley (in the near corner guarding Chalmers) and Brandon Bass (in the far one checking Bosh) have their backs turned to the ball. They’re relying solely on verbal communication from their teammates – Paul Pierce and Green – to suss through any potential screens coming from Dwyane Wade and James, which seems risky given the stakes and raucous Boston crowd. Even so, that’s not what completely does the Celtics in.
In our next grab, James has moved to the left side of Bass to set a pick for Bosh. This is elementary stuff, but the timing surprises; Allen hasn’t even received the ball from the referee yet. Whether or not the play specifically calls for James to move so early is debatable, but Wade and Chalmers take steps toward one another on the other side of the box, too. Now, both Bass and Bradley have their heads on a swivel, anticipating more movement. The latter is looking toward the baseline at Wade/Pierce because Chalmers has walked him down a step or two; this will come back to bite Boston. Bass, meanwhile, has his eyes opposite James with a forearm in LeBron’s chest; no problems there.
Those Heatles are tricky. That initial, early action – or basic inaction – from Miami was false. Bosh never had any intention of using James’ screen, and Chalmers couple steps to the basket were nothing but misdirection to get Bradley guessing. And guess he did, as the above photo shows. In this one, Chalmers runs over the top of staggered screens by Bosh and James with Bradley a fully body behind him. Remember, Chalmers just hit a three-pointer and corner tries are especially easy; with Bradley so far from Chalmers an attempt seems imminent. Boston is in a tough, tough spot here, with Bradley an essential non-factor leaving three players to guard Miami’s four. Choices need to be made in split second intervals, and eventually they are; they’re just the wrong ones.
You have to feel bad for Green. His career night is the only reason the Celtics – playing without Kevin Garnett let alone Rajon Rondo – are in this game at all, but his is the superficial fault of James’ eventual score. Recognizing Chalmers has come wide open, Green (guarding James, remember) flashes with arms outstretched to the corner to prevent an easy pass and shot attempt. But there are consequences to helping, especially when teammates don’t help the helper. With Bass and Pierce occupied with action by Bosh and Wade on the near side, Green’s help isn’t coming from there. The only way to recover acceptably now is for he and Bradley to switch; both are just too far from their original men to make up for that distance now. But Bradley followed Chalmers over James’ screen, making a switch far more difficult because he won’t be able to get between LeBron and the ball/basket. Dead in the water, Boston is, and everyone in TD Garden knows it.
Hubie Brown said it best during the live broadcast of the screenshot below: “Oh my, you can’t leave James!” But because of Bradley’s early mistake in biting on Chalmers’ initial movement, Green was stuck between a rock and the hardest of places – allow a wide open corner three or try to recover and contest a shot near the rim? He took the latter route, and actually performed admirably given his Sophie’s Choice. James, after all, missed his first try due to a genius reaction by Pierce and Green’s long-armed interference. But LeBron, simply, is too strong and too good.
Below is the sequence in full. Note how quickly Bradley’s first tiny miscue occurs and how everything breaks down thereafter. In real-time it’s almost impossible to recognize, but that’s exactly the type of mistake that dooms possessions far before an eventual score. In the NBA, offense is too good and players too smart; defense, then, needs to be near perfect. And Boston’s normally is, but Bradley’s miniscule error is actually anything but and sets off a chain reaction that indirectly leads to James’ layup and Miami’s record-setting win.
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