Miami Heat are deadly trapping pick-and-roll ball-handlers

The Miami Heat have one of the best pick-and-roll defenses in the NBA. According to mySynergySports, the Heat force opposing pick-and-roll ball handlers into turnovers 32.2% of the time and hold them to an average of just 0.72 points per play, which is good for second in the NBA. One of the reasons this aspect of their defense is so effective is because of the aggressive way Miami’s defenders double-team the ball-handler. The Heat defenders are aggressive and opportunistic, frequently turning an aggressive hedge by the P&R roll man’s defender into a swarming double-team.

We start with a defensive stand against Atlanta’s Shelvin Mack. Notice how alert Miami is for any opportunity to trap.

As Atlanta’s Mike Scott comes out to set a screen, Mack makes two mistakes. The first is a basic one, although it’s one that players make on a daily basis: he doesn’t use the screen effectively.

Mack runs close enough to Scott to make Norris Cole change his direction slightly, but he never gets close enough to force Cole to actually run into Scott. As a result, both Cole and Chris Anderson are in good position to double-team Mack. Mack has two options at this point: pass to John Jenkins behind the 3-point line (note this, because we will come back to it) or continue to his left and try to turn the corner on Anderson. Instead, he takes a step back to reassess the situation. This does not end well.

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Trapped between two athletic, enthusiastic defenders and the out-of-bounds line, Mack tries to pass the ball away, but he travels in the process, giving the ball back to Miami.

But even if Mack had tried to turn the corner, it isn’t always easy to get around the hedging defender. In this play, Jameer Nelson gets trapped along the sideline.

Nikola Vucevic comes over to set the screen, and Nelson uses it effectively, taking a dribble toward the hoop to get his defender (Mario Chalmers) behind him before attacking Udonis Haslem. But when he tries to go around Haslem, he runs out of space quickly and is forced to back up. With Haslem already in position, Chalmers pressures Nelson immediately. It’s difficult to see exactly what happens in the tangle of arms that ensues, but it appears that Nelson, trying to pivot away from Chalmers, steps out of bounds trying to pass the ball away.

Sometimes, the problem occurs before the ball-handler can even get into his move. In this play, Raymond Felton gets himself stuck in a bad place.

Felton literally invites trouble by calling for Amar’e Stoudemire to come set a screen on Chalmers. But Stoudemire takes too long, and this gives Chalmers a chance to move closer and pressure Felton, forcing him to turn his back to the basket. This is never a good idea when you are as far away from the hoop as Felton. Stoudemire never actually sets the screen, but he comes close enough to allow Bosh to set the double without giving Felton a chance to get out of it.

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Felton tries to split the two defenders, but Chalmers rips the ball away with relative ease, and the Heat are off in transition.

Obviously, if the pick comes toward the center of the floor, it’s much harder to trap. But the Heat still can make things difficult for the ball-handler by showing a double in the middle.

In theory, Jrue Holiday would be uniquely equipped to break Miami’s double-team pressure because of his quickness, and he does, in fact, turn the corner on Haslem’s hedge with relative ease. What’s more: Haslem’s aggressive hedge has more or less taken him completely out of position to deal with Spencer Hawes rolling to the basket.

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Fortunately for Miami, they have LeBron James waiting near the basket. As Hawes rolls, James seems like he is out of position behind Philadelphia’s big man, but when Holiday elevates, leaving him no choice but to pass or shoot, James makes his move.

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James snakes his way between Hawes and the pass and knocks it down with both arms. In this case, the double team didn’t directly cause the turnover, but it did bait Holiday into throwing a risky pass into traffic, which allowed the Heat to grab the steal and take off in transition.

There are ways to beat the double team, of course. As previously mentioned, if a guard gets enough room to get around the hedging defender, the defense will have problems with spacing since two of the defenders are already committed elsewhere. Also, as mentioned in the first example above featuring Shelvin Mack, if the handler is able to complete a pass away from the double-team, the offense will have a lot of options. John Henson misses this layup badly, but his teammates put him in a good position with quick passing out of a double team.

Unlike Shelvin Mack above, Brandon Jennings both keeps moving, which forces both defenders to run alongside him as well. Even better, he manages to fire a skip pass into the corner, which forces LeBron to help off of Henson on Mike Dunleavy. A quick pass to Henson finds him open, but the rookie blows the open layup.

But Miami is willing to give up plays like this because they want their opponent to make this pass. Any kind of skip pass out of a pick-and-roll is dangerous against the Heat simply because Miami has players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade who are both incredibly athletic and intuitively brilliant defensively. They are able to see a play developing in front of them and make a play on the ball right away.

Here’s an example:

In this play, JR Smith grabs an offensive rebound and pulls the ball out behind the 3-point line. He makes a motion to indicate New York should slow down and get a good shot, and Carmelo Anthony starts to slip a screen going past him. But Smith tries a risky pass across the 3-point line to Jason Kidd, and LeBron picks it off.

Obviously, Smith needed to be more aware of James lurking, but Miami baits opponents into making that particular pass. As you can see in this photo, as Smith makes the pass, James is near the free throw line, seemingly out of the play for the moment.

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Miami doesn’t get a chance to double Smith since he throws the pass as Anthony is going past him. Under ideal circumstances, slipping the screen and passing quickly away from the defense would be a good thing. But Miami’s gamble pays off here, since LeBron can cover large amounts of space in a very short amount of time. As a result, any kind of long pass against the Heat is risky. But if a team can complete that pass, there’s a good chance that, because of the double team and Miami’s tendency to gamble, the Heat will be out of position.

Another reason Miami’s defense encourages long passes is because they believe they have enough athleticism to recover and contest jumpers in spot-up situations if a double-teamed player manages to pass the ball away. In this play, Toronto runs a nice misdirection set, and Rudy Gay makes a nice skip pass to DeMar DeRozan. But Dwyane Wade is able to close the gap quickly and contest the shot.

The set Toronto runs is the kind of play that should, in theory, give Miami fits when they try to trap because the Raptors overload one side of the floor and draw two defenders onto Rudy Gay. But when Gay throws the skip pass, DeRozan allows Wade to get back on defense by taking one dribble into the lane and making his shot less efficient. DeRozan’s shot could have been both more efficient and more open if he had simply stayed behind the 3-point line.

But this is an example of a play Miami is willing to give up in favor of trapping because they believe (correctly) that they have the athleticism to contest the shot most of the time, and when they don’t, the opposing team is still shooting a jumpshot.

Another way to effectively beat this pick-and-roll trap is to have the screening roll man simply slip the screen before the ball-handler uses it. Toronto’s Amir Johnson does that here.

Johnson makes an excellent decision to slip the screen instead of actually setting it, since LeBron James would have been one of the players double-teaming the ball-handler if Johnson had stayed in place. As a result, the Raptors get an easy basket. Slip-screens are designed to catch a P&R defense off guard, and since Miami is so frequently looking to double-team the ball-handler, these slips are often an effective way to both beat the ball-pressure since the defending big is likely thinking one step ahead to the double, as well as get a good look closer to the basket instead of a long-range jumper.

In last night’s game against Boston, Jeff Green ran a similar play to beat a high-pressure hedge.

Green is somewhat hesitant in his slip, hovering in the middle of the paint waiting for the pass, which allows Bosh to get over and goaltend the layup. But the play is made possible by Battier’s aggressive hedge, which takes him out nearly to the half-court circle. If the ball-handler can complete a pass to a slipping roll man, there’s a solid chance that player will be in a good position to score. Miami came back and beat Boston thanks mostly to yet another fantastic fourth quarter performance by LeBron James, but a team like the Celtics, who have a lot of mobile bigs, could cause problems both by slipping screens and knocking down jumpers.

It’s also worth noting that when the opposing team manages to get a shot up, Miami is just 18th in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage at 72.2%, and in trapping situations, the Heat often have even fewer rebounders available.

No defensive strategy is infallible, especially against an NBA offense. But Miami’s unique combination of defensive execution and athleticism makes them a very difficult problem to solve for opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.


  1. […] all know how deadly that Miami Heat defense is against pick-and-roll ball handlers. Per mySynergySports, the Heat allowed handlers to score just 0.69 points per play (PPP), best in […]

  2. […] but the rest of the lineup is so lanky, athletic, and defensive minded that it just might work.  Look at how successful Miami was defensively when LeBron, Wade, and Bosh were still together.  Their vicious, trapping defense made it night impossible for a team to run a smooth […]

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