How To Beat Miami’s Pick And Roll Defense: Or, Tom Thibodeau, Offensive Genius


A common refrain in evaluating Miami Heat losses focuses on rebounding. They can’t rebound, they won’t rebound, what have you – within which lies an assumption, grounded in nothing, that rebounds and victories are linked by causation, the former to the latter. Because in today’s world of half-baked analysis, it goes something like this:

/points towards arbitrary disparity in box score
//pats self on back

In the case of the Miami Heat, any causal link between rebounding and wins is simply nonexistent. As SB Nation’s Mike Prada has already discovered, Miami’s defense doesn’t rebound, at least in part, by design – big men double on the pick and roll, leaving a smaller man on rotation to box out a power forward or center near the rim. But that strategy works, because it baits guards into long, cross-court passes that often lead to turnovers – which, by the way, is Miami’s strongest asset: transition offense. Say what you will about Erik Spoelstra, but that Miami’s defensive philosophy activates their greatest offensive strength is an excellent piece of coaching.

But the point of this exercise isn’t to dissect Miami’s rebounding, nor glorify its success. Instead, let’s parse Miami’s pick and roll defense – the inherent cause of the rebounding disparity on the defensive end – to discover it’s weakness (with videos and bright red arrows, of course). Ball movement is the answer, they say, with an air of intellectual hubris. Well, friends, the reason why Miami’s defense is so good is because it’s hard to move the ball. They’re like, really good at defense and really fast and super intelligent and jump passing lanes particularly well. So then we must ask, is there a certain play design, a certain type of action, that can offset their hyper aggression? There is, in fact, and Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau has already discovered it.

Why Miami’s Pick And Roll Defense Works

Before we begin, it is important to understand why Miami’s defense is so strong – and it’s simple, really: the ballhandler, particularly on the pick and roll, has nowhere productive to pass the ball. Take this play from the Miami-Golden State game last week, in which Udonis Haslem’s extremely hard hedge forces Jarrett Jack to take a wide angle dribbling the ball around the screen.

Warriors 2

Meanwhile, David Lee rolls to the rim and turns around expecting the ball. Except by the time Jack has spun his head around to see Lee, he’s already rolled right into Shane Battier and LeBron James’ pass-baiting arms.

Warriors 1

What makes this type of defense so particularly indefensible (inoffensible?) is that Battier and James’ men – Carl Landry and Draymond Green – play right into Miami’s hands. By standing on the block and in the corner, as far away as possible from Jarrett Jack, the functions of two Warriors players as offensive threats are rendered essentially moot. This, in a nutshell, is what Miami takes advantage of: weak side defenders covering multiple people, because the furthest pass to the weak side is nearly impossible anyway. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Miami’s team speed is off the charts, making any potential recovery rotations that much easier. All of which is to say that if Jarrett Jack were to throw a pass in to David Lee, LeBron James would probably be dunking the ball on someone’s head a few moments later.

Here’s the entire play, in full:

So all that’s left is for Jack to harmlessly throw the ball across the court to Klay Thompson, and Miami’s defense can completely reset after blowing up the pick and roll.

Beating Miami’s Pick And Roll Defense, Thibodeau-Style

In their recent game against the Heat, the Chicago Bulls ran Miami’s defense out of its comfort zone by hammering the over-aggression with countless off-ball screens and high post flashing. But the key, at its core, was secondary and tertiary action to buoy the initial pick and roll, forcing help defenders to over-rotate in compensation.

Wait, what? Stop using fancy words. Use arrows.

Ok, fine.

High Post Flash: Variation 1

Rip Hamilton comes off a screen on the right side, catching a pass from Kirk Hinrich. Carlos Boozer then ambles over to set a high-side screen, rolling/floating to the short corner for an easy jumper. But Miami aggressively double-teams Hamilton and doesn’t allow this pass. Still, in case Rip does sneak a pass by Bosh and James, Haslem is there to rotate.

But wait! Look at Joakim Noah, hands at the ready and flashing to the near-side high post.

Bulls 1a

Rip Hamilton has someone to pass to! The Miami double team, in fact, intentionally opens that passing lane: except the key difference, unlike other classic Miami pass-baiting, is that Dwyane Wade has no idea Joakim Noah is about to flash right in front of him. This is crucial, because it allows Noah to catch the Hamilton pass without disruption. Not to mention the secondary genius: Miami’s pick and roll double team, by design, forces the ballhandler away from the roller, making that pass as difficult as possible. Chicago’s play, however, turns this into an advantage by allowing Miami to run Hamilton towards the middle of the floor, closer to Noah, making that pass even easier.

Bulls 1b

Now with the ball in the middle of the floor, Noah finds Boozer wide open with a little dump off pass for a dunk. Or, if that was somehow cutoff, Deng’s wide open in the corner as well. And so the Bulls easily turn a 3-2 disadvantage on the perimeter into a 3-2 advantage below the foul line.

Now let’s revel in the pretty.

And just for kicks, here it is again. And again. (Note: It doesn’t work either time because of various mishaps – explained in the video descriptions – but better execution would have created an open shot both times.)

Variation 2:

Late in the 4th quarter, Chicago ran a second variation on this play – whether by design or simple awareness, it’s difficult to tell. But the principle is just the same, a second big man flashing to the high post for the ball. Once Hinrich dribbles widely around the Shane Battier hard hedge, Joakim Noah flashes from the weak side (marked by the black “x”) to the free throw line.


LeBron James, who must also keep an eye on Jimmy Butler on the right wing, is not able to step in front Noah in time. Noah then collects himself, takes one dribble and fires a terrible lefty floater. Bad play, you might say. Well, no. Just poor execution. Had Noah instead decided to briefly survey his options instead of blindly putting his head down, he would have noticed Luol Deng wide open for a three-pointer.

Bulls 2b

Again, Chicago turns their perimeter numbers disadvantage – 2 against 1 – into an advantage below the free throw line, 4 against 3. Ray Allen, who is now guarding the cutting Jimmy Butler, must overplay that dump-down pass to prevent a dunk. This means his back is completely turned to Deng, and probably has no idea where he is. And so Deng is wide open in the corner. But alas, Noah ignores him, and Miami is credited with great defense when in fact it was Noah’s, shall we say, imprudent running left hook that sabotaged an otherwise solid play.

Which you can now watch:

Deng really, really wanted the ball there.

Variation 3:

And finally we have a third variation, coming exactly one play later, in which Hinrich intentionally backs away from the pick and roll double team (as opposed to dribbling around it towards the middle) to create room for the pass to the roller, Boozer. Chris Bosh, as he’s supposed to, rotates over. Meanwhile, on the weak side, Joakim Noah sets a screen on Ray Allen as Jimmy Butler curls towards the hoop and Luol Deng clears out to draw LeBron over to the weak side.

Bulls 3a

With Battier and Wade stuck on the perimeter, James out of the way on the weak side and Ray Allen completely pinned down by Noah’s screen, the paint is wide open for Boozer to hit the cutting Butler.

Bulls 3b

LeBron James then decides to do his superhuman thing, altering Butler’s shot. Still, that should be finished with more strength, and at the very least Butler should be shooting free throws.

See here:

Though these Chicago Bulls plays are beautifully designed, ultimately it’s a matter of execution through precision cuts and passes. Miami’s swift rotations don’t help matters, and often their speed and pressure fluster opponents who have otherwise executed well. But the pattern of these plays shows with certainty that the middle of the floor is open on the pick and roll (if the roller stays wide), and it’s only a matter of having a player flash to that area to wreak havoc for Miami.


  1. I’ve read a lot of good to great stuff on this site, but this one was by far my favorite. Great job.

  2. Strange. Of all the Bulls PnR examples here only one worked. There was even one where the PnR double team forced a turnover off a bad pass and led to a fast break, exactly why Miami does it. So, while Thib’s did discover ways to get the ball into the paint on Miami’s defense on a fairly easy pass, he still hasn’t figured out how to get the ball in the hoop when they get inside. The article says Chicago just needs to execute better – what it’s really saying is that Chicago has to play perfectly each time they run it or else it’s not going to work – the perfect pass to the right man is required each time or else it’s going to get blown up, the perfect finish is also required or else it’s going to get blown up. So there are still too many variables when it comes to Miami’s defense to account for them all. The Butler curl is a good example of that: Chicago got the ball right at the front of the rim for what looks like a wide open layup… instead it’s an altered shot and a miss.

    • Marcus,

      I can’t exactly disagree with much of what you said. The object of the game is to put the ball in the basket, which Chicago doesn’t do. But the larger point I’m trying to make is that the design works: yes, it requires the point guard to make an on-point pass, and yes it requires Chicago players to finish around the rim. But no play design in the NBA will earn you a dunk or a layup every time: the best plays put your team in a position to succeed with consistency, which is what this high pick and roll flash does. Now Miami’s defense is stellar and can make execution difficult – but finishing around the rim (or at least drawing a foul when you’re wide open to begin with), and making on-time passes, that’s not too much to ask of an NBA player. Tom Thibodeau can’t put the ball in the bucket for his players.

      And remember all of this is the Chicago Bulls – Kirk Hinrich, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, etc. – not exactly the most offensively skilled players. But they still made it work for the most part.

      • P&R 1: Worked perfectly
        P&R 2: Turnover
        P&R 3: Turnover
        P&R 4: Turnover
        P&R 5: Creates a situation where it’s Butler vs LeBron at the rim. LeBron wins.

        If Miami’s defense is designed to force turnovers then how can anyone say that Thib’s designs, as presented here, counters it in any sort of meaningful way?

        Maybe it’s just me, but the design doesn’t seem to work against Miami at all.

    • Toni Robinson says:

      No, the writer isn’t saying that the Bulls have to be perfect every time, he is saying that they need to execute better, which is a difference. Also, they still won the game, so they executed pretty well overall. The problem is that either Bulls players do not go up strong OR they do not follow through with the shot, which are big problems if there guys who are aggressively defensively. The Bulls do well when they make the extra pass, which Noah did not do–he usually looks for the open man before making the shot. Or the Bulls will miss open shots because none of their players are offensive threats. The only thing that is holding the Bulls back is offense regardless of the team–Miami did nothing special.

  3. Welp, I guess I’ll just crawl back into my mother’s basement then.

    • Haha those options are as good as it gets when your dealing with a team that shows aggressively. But yeah Captain Negative why don’t you offer a solution?

  4. Nice. Tom’s plays being discussed in this post did exploit on Miami’s weakness in their PnR defense by the principle of outnumbering the defense on the weak side, especially closer to the basket; turning the advantage to the Bulls.

    The no-scoring in the example videos could easily discourage people to believe that Tom’s play will even work; however I thought those were purely execution issues which do not discount the fact that its a good play design -> For P&R 4: Noah should know his option in Deng rather than forcing his shot, For P&R 5: Bulter’s cut may have executed way too early or alternatively Boozer could have made the long pass to Deng when James shown his intention to cover Bulter’s cut (0.10). The executions can be fine tune to be more effective.

    I see that these sets of play will be very helpful in increasing scoring options for the Bulls when Rose is back with the team. And this will address the problem of Rose not having scoring options when the bigger Heat’s defenders hedge Rose on PnR during playoffs 2 seasons ago. Rose and Hinrich will see some playing time as backcourts together and with Hinrich bringing the ball up, Rose can play the weakside wing finishing strong to the basketball. And while Rose (the better passer) is setting the PnR, he will able to hit Noah near the basket punishing Heat’s smaller lineup (he just need to start learning his options).

    Overall, the plays are very well drawn up I thought. Good job for point this out, Dylan.

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  1. […] across this from HoopChalk which outlines how Chicago tried to take advantage of Miami’s pick-and-roll defense. It didn’t […]

  2. […] in opposing defenses to give Chicago every offensive advantage possible. During the regular season, Thibodeau drew up a counteraction to Miami’s trapping pick-and-roll defense that required a big man to flash to the high post […]

  3. […] in opposing defenses to give Chicago every offensive advantage possible. During the regular season, Thibodeau drew up a counteraction to Miami‘s trapping pick-and-roll defense that required a big man to flash to the high post […]

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