The itinerary five years ago at the Coaching U Live clinic in Las Vegas had Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra scheduled to teach some of the finer points of pick-and-roll coverages to coaches from across the country, but he couldn’t resist the urge to offer his observations on where the game was churning in 2018.
Spoelstra paced around the free throw line as he pointed out what was growing in the game (pick-and-rolls) and what was dying (post-ups and mid-range jumpers).
“It’s almost becoming a negative word, ‘mid-range,’ ” Spoelstra said. “Everybody, all they talk about now is threes, layups, and free throws.”
He asked his audience a reasonable question.
“Well, if everybody’s trying to get those, what is everybody also trying to take away?”
The answer, of course, was threes, layups, and free throws.
“Eventually,” Spoelstra said, “what’s getting open a lot is this area here.”
Realizing where he was on the floor, Spoelstra used his hands to draw circles to spotlight the mid-range area.
“You’re seeing fewer and fewer players that are really able to really maximize this area and make an opponent pay,” he said. “You want to talk about something in player development? Don’t listen to all that hype that it can only be threes and layups and free throws. If you find a difference-maker that can really make a difference in here, that guy or girl is pretty special.”
Five years after making clear his stance on the value of the mid-range game, Spoelstra and the Heat are making an example of the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat have backed the Celtics into a near-impossible scenario — down, 3-0, heading into Game 4 in Miami Tuesday — by taking away what’s made the Celtics special all season.
The Celtics set franchise records this season for 3-pointers made (1,315) and attempted (3,492). Their offense became a drive-and-kick machine that yielded the third-highest offensive rating in NBA history (118.0).
But the Heat’s strategy to play a 2-3 zone — and at times even box-and-one — has made the Celtics’ strengths as glaring as their weaknesses.
The Heat essentially have roped off the paint — making it difficult to get layups and draw fouls — and forced the Celtics to rely on the threes they’ve leaned into all season while making the middle of the floor fair game, knowing the Celtics have no interest in going there.
The Heat’s strategy has forced the Celtics to face a difficult question: What do you do when the only option you have is the one you don’t want to choose?
The Celtics have tried traditional tactics for beating a zone — flashing Rob Williams, Al Horford, or Grant Williams to the free throw line and either getting the defense to collapse and kick out or letting one of them attack the rim.
They’ve tried using Jayson Tatum as a primary ballhandler and working the pick-and roll, but extra defenders high and solid rotations low have made clean pull-up three opportunities and drives challenging for Tatum.
That leaves the middle of the floor — a place the Celtics have avoided all season.
The Celtics took 596 shots from the mid-range during the regular season. Only three teams (Memphis, Utah, and Houston) took fewer. The Celtics took 1,231 shots from floater range. Only five teams took fewer.
The Heat have offered those shots on a platter in this series. The Celtics refuse them.
Through three games, the Celtics have taken just 15 shots from mid-range (six makes). By comparison, the Heat have taken 50 (25 makes). Through three games of the Western Conference finals, the Lakers had gone to the mid-range 39 times (17) and Denver had shot 34 middies (20).
Miami’s defense has challenged primary Celtics scorers Tatum and Jaylen Brown to do something they’re uncomfortable doing.
“They do a good job of mixing up when they go zone and when they go man,” Brown said after Game 2. “They keep you on your toes with the people they got on the floor. And we just haven’t figured it out in terms of how to exploit it every single time down the floor.”
At times, Brown has capitalized on what the defense has given him, going 4 for 5 from the mid-range. But he’s 23 of 61 overall for the series, including 2 for 20 from three.
Focused more on making plays for teammates against the zone, Tatum has shot 25 for 55 in the series, going 1 for 5 from mid-range and 5 for 20 from three.
Brown and Tatum have managed to be effective driving to the paint. Brown is 7 for 12 on drives, and Tatum is 13 for 19. But their threes have gone dry to the point that even open looks aren’t falling. Brown is 2 for 13 on open threes. Tatum is 3 for 10. They have a combined three assists and 10 turnovers when they drive.
This series may become an indictment of the Celtics’ offensive ethos — even though the drive-and-kick machine they created made them one of the most efficient offenses in NBA history.
But it serves as a better example of how the playoffs become about high-pressure problem-solving. The Celtics haven’t been able to count on what’s made them special all season. Another answer has been in front of them all series, but it requires them to do something they don’t want to do.
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.