The Miami Heat are down one game against a team that had the best point differential in the NBA after January 1st. (That’s right: the Philadelphia 76ers have been the best basketball team in the entire world during the year of our Lord 2018.)
Joel Embiid is back looking dominant on the defensive end, Ben Simmons is channeling a controlled verve that impacts every square foot of the basketball court, and Philly’s Buyout Brothers (Marco Belinelli + Ersan Ilyasova) are shooting a combined 864 percent on contested threes while blindfolded and falling out of bounds.
The Sixers are likely to advance because they are a better team. But throughout this series there’s one action that’s given Philadelphia’s excellent defense fits. It’s uncomplicated yet devastating, and revolves around the aggressiveness of Goran Dragic, Miami’s lone All-Star and best offensive player.
The concept is simple: Let Dragic attack a defender who's inferior to the one actually guarding him, either with a sudden pick-and-roll or methodical one-on-one pummeling. In this series, that means “get Dragic off Robert Covington.” Only three players defended Dragic more often than Covington during the regular season; in 118 possessions the 31-year-old scored 24 points on 26 field-goal attempts and shot 34.6 percent from the floor.
Dragic has had a little success creating space with Covington on him, but as one of the game’s premier perimeter defenders—long as he is bold—that strategy isn’t viable if the Heat want to poke into the second round. In the first three games of this series, Miami’s offensive rating in the 60 minutes Dragic sat is 99.6. With him on the floor that number jumps to 115.8. Here’s a huge reason why.
In Game 2, Miami’s first-quarter offense was almost like the 15-play script some football coaches like to bring into battle. The entire objective in Dragic’s minutes (before Dwyane Wade took over) was to have the point guard attack J.J. Redick and Belinelli as often as possible. Screens were routinely set by whoever those two were guarding, usually in a way that allowed the southpaw to launch himself up the left sideline.
The tactic evolved as the game went on. If Covington wasn’t initially cleared out of the way, Dragic would move from one side of the floor to the other and run a couple pick-and-rolls until he got someone (Dario Saric in the play below) he could abuse.
Miami caught Covington from odd angles that let Dragic get to his dominant hand, and the second he got a matchup he wanted, the Heat would hit that lesser defender with a pick. On its face none of this is complicated, but when unfurled in rapid fire there's very little time for the defense to process what's happening.
There was actually one play where the Heat went off script and made the mistake of screening with Simmons’s man. The result was an understandable disaster.
Exactly one play later they rectified the situation, targeted Belinelli, and immediately went into a pick-and-roll. With the floor spread, Dragic went away from the screen and drew a foul on Simmons (his fourth) at the rim.
In Game 3, Miami started by unleashing Dragic in more traditional pick-and-rolls and letting him go downhill against a dropping Saric. They brushed him by Kelly Olynyk, planted at the high post, for a layup and made use of Dragic’s three-point shooting with a couple flare screens. But the Heat’s bread and butter was what they turned to whenever desperate for a good look.
Miami ran this same action with Wade, too. And it’s not at all unique around the league (the Portland Trail Blazers leaned in to get C.J. McCollum going on Thursday night), but Dragic’s combination of straight-line speed, fearlessness, and deceit makes him so hard to stop whenever Miami’s offense intentionally creates controlled chaos against a mismatch. He’s like James Harden...except three years older, three inches shorter, 30 pounds lighter, 40 percent less stylish, and Slovenian.
To slow Dragic down the Sixers tried everything. They trapped him high and brought the screener’s defender level with the pick in attempts to squeeze the ball from his hands and force someone else to put the ball in the basket. But whenever two defenders came to the ball, Dragic responded by making the right read, which led to 4-on-3 situations, open three-point shots, and zero legitimate protection at the basket.
As seen above, Dragic loves to reject screens and slide towards the basket on the opposite side of where the big's defender expects him to go, a maneuver I’ve labeled in my notes as “the tuna salad.” (According to Synergy Sports, only Lou Williams and Dennis Schroder went away from a screen more than Dragic during the regular season.)
Dragic has always been an incurable cold sore in the open floor, a harsh reality opposing defenses have to live with and accept whenever they're backpedaling on defense. But if Miami can continue to execute in the half-court by using him to punish fragile spots in Philly's defense, this series may go much longer than the Sixers want.