When I first saw the series of passes that led to this Goran Dragic dagger in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, two thoughts whipped through my brain:
No. 1: Why are the Boston Celtics trapping Jimmy Butler on this pick-and-roll with Bam Adebayo? Boston closed with its center-less Best Five lineup of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. You play such a lineup to switch every two-man action that doesn’t involve Walker. Why not have Tatum and Hayward — sturdy, like-size defenders — switch here? Why let one of the best passing big men alive ease into a 4-on-3? Ducking under Butler ball screens — something Boston is barely doing, though Miami sets up some such actions in ways that make going under difficult — is preferable to this all-out blitz.
The Celtics played that lineup only five minutes in Game 4 after they went plus-13 in the seven minutes they deployed it in Game 3. They have had zero consistent answers for Adebayo running amok down the gut on the pick-and-roll. They have adjusted their coverages since Game 2, helping more from targeted places — including some unconventional ones — and even daring to lunge off of Duncan Robinson on the weak side when there is no better option. Nothing has worked for long.
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I wonder if switching more might be their default response in Game 5. Stretching out this Best Five group would enable that. Daniel Theis, the odd man out in this group, managed well switching onto both Butler and Dragic late in Game 4; Boston might choose to amp up its switching even with Theis on the floor in more traditional lineups.
Alternatively, the Celtics have stashed Theis away from Adebayo, off to the side on a spot-up type — Jae Crowder, perhaps Andre Iguodala. But sliding Theis there removes one hiding place for Walker. Boston has risked slotting Walker on Tyler Herro in an effort to keep him out of Miami’s pick-and-roll game, and the Heat finally exploited that matchup with the right level of ruthlessness in Game 4. (Brad Stevens pivoted to Walker on Iguodala midway through the fourth quarter — too late.)
No. 2: I’ve seen that same Iguodala pass in crunch time before — that inside-out, twisting-in-midair, full-body touch pass-slash-heave from underneath the rim all the way out to the arc. That is such a tough pass. The speed with which Iguodala turns his body and releases the ball all in one motion indicates he knew what he was going to do — what options were available, and which was best — before he even touched the ball.
Iguodala is one of those spatial savants who sees everything a beat before everyone else. When he brings the ball up in transition, he sometimes hops mid-dribble, eyes wide and head tilting in a specific direction, begging a teammate to make some cut said teammate has not even registered as a possibility.
The cut might not unlock a shot for the cutter. That cutter might never even touch the ball. That cut might distort the next layer of defense in a way that opens up a shot for another teammate — a progression of events only Iguodala sees.
Watch this clip from last season, in which Iguodala in full flight instructs Stephen Curry to veer toward the top of the 3-point arc because he knows that will draw the defense and free Alfonzo McKinnie for a layup. Iguodala points back at Curry after McKinnie’s basket, acknowledging Curry’s selfless act:
Iguodala in those moments vibrates with hyperactive impatience. He sees something you don’t, and he really needs you to see it now.
He was probably primed to redirect the ball to Dragic the second Boston trapped Butler.
Turns out I had seen a very similar Iguodala pass in an even bigger postseason moment: the last minute of Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Toronto last June.
It’s not precisely the same, but it’s close. Iguodala jumps to meet Curry’s pass in the air — a method of getting more oomph on what is basically a long-distance inside-out touch pass to Draymond Green. You only jump like that if you know where you are going with the ball before it arrives.
“That’s what Andre does,” Klay Thompson told me after the game.
Iguodala was the headliner in Miami’s deadline deal with the Memphis Grizzlies, but Crowder has turned into the more important player for the Heat so far. It has felt at times as if Iguodala never quite settled in with Miami after sitting out most of the season — never made his imprint. He played 14 minutes combined over Games 2 and 3 of the conference finals.
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Iguodala’s impact can be easy to miss. He doesn’t score much. It sometimes seems as if he finds scoring unseemly — that he’s almost disdainful of points and their obviousness. It’s as if he wants his contributions to be harder to notice, lest he draw too much attention.
But his impact is always there — quiet background noise. He’s always doing something helpful. You know about his defense. (Iguodala is close now to yet another Finals clash with LeBron James — a potential fifth head-to-head matchup between their respective teams in six seasons.) He spots transition opportunities, and runs the floor hard. When he doesn’t have the ball, he stands in the right places — and slides to more profitable ones when the defense isn’t looking. Even when he passes up wide-open 3s, Iguodala turns those instances of frustrating non-aggression into positive next steps — smart passes, a canny give-and-go, the handoff that becomes a screen, a running floater if the shot clock demands it.
The lineup with which Miami closed Game 4 — Dragic, Herro, Butler, Iguodala, and Adebayo — played zero minutes together in the regular season. It includes three minimal threats from 3-point range — a lineup construction Spoelstra has mostly avoided.
It is now plus-23 in 42 postseason minutes, per NBA.com. Pristine spacing isn’t everything, though it certainly helps against elite defenses. That lineup includes five high-IQ playmakers who all move well without the ball. Collective feel and smarts can compensate for an overall lack of shooting. That is Iguodala to a tee.
Miami going into Game 4 had begun to look like a six-man team — their five starters, plus Herro. Spoelstra in Game 4 benched three regular reserves — Kendrick Nunn, Kelly Olynyk, Derrick Jones Jr. — and even unearthed Solomon Hill. Iguodala gave them a seventh man — enough to eke out another win, one game closer to an improbable Finals return. If Miami advances, it will need this Iguodala — the one for whom the Heat traded — even more.
NBA schedule: Game 5, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN App