Miami's offense this season is very different from last year. Last year, Miami were playing at a pace of 90.5 possessions per 48 minutes. This season, through Erik Spoelstra's new "pace and space" offensive system, the Heat are thundering along at 95.8 possessions per 48 minutes. They have found an extra gear worth five more possessions per game.
So, the Heat are playing faster. What does this mean in the grand scheme? It means that whenever the Heat are rebounding, they are already sending one or more players up the court to convert a fast-break. That has almost become option No. 1 in their playbook. On defense, their intensity has stepped up, forcing more turnovers via steals and causing missed passes, which, in turn, lead to more fast-break points.
The Heat will win games playing like this. But they will not win an NBA championship playing this way.
The playoffs are more deliberate. They require well thought through and effective offensive plays for teams to really be successful. The playoffs last season were five possessions slower at just 87 possessions per 48 minutes, fully 13 possessions slower than the Miami Heat's regular season pace.
This all circles back to the Miami Heat 2010-2011, the team that struggled in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. Why? Because you don't, in 99 games out of 100, get fast-break plays as game-winners. You need to run a play to get a good look at the basket. The Heat this season rely on speed and talent to get points in transition and bury their opponents early.
If their opponents thwart that, the Heat have to win in crunch time. They did convert two Dwyane Wade tip-ins and a Chris Bosh three-pointer earlier this season, but they also lost in overtime to both the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers. These losses were typical of Miami last year, and they were crucified for losing in crunch time with two (maybe three) of the game's top finishers on the court at that time.
Miami's offense won't help them out in close, late-game situations. The more they run their "pace and space," the less game practice they get of their actual offensive plays.
The other key principle of the "pace and space" approach? It requires fresh, healthy legs. That's fine during a normal, 82-game season played over the normal amount of time. The Heat are implementing it in a season where back-to-backs are the new normal and four games in five nights is no longer a reason for feeling tired.
That's right, a season where four-game weeks are going to be standard. The Heat simply cannot keep up this pace and this style of play, and they will, eventually, learn this the hard way. Dwyane Wade is already out indefinitely with an ankle injury, LeBron James has missed time with his own problems, leaving the Heat already struggling for consistency in lineup.
Once the playoffs roll around, not only will injuries have severely disrupted every team, but legs will feel like tree trunks, and those fast breaks down the court will feel like running a marathon. Even in a normal 82-game season, the playoffs are slowed down in part because of the fatigue of a lengthy schedule previously.
When the pace slows down for Miami and they are forced into structured half-court offense, they need someone who can run that (bad) offense. They were told this all season long, and they were shown this in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.
So they signed an established point guard this summer, right? Nope. So the Heat still haven't improved that aspect of their game, while rivals like Chicago have plugged their black hole at shooting guard with Richard Hamilton, a guy who can score in droves and can move without the ball.
When LeBron and Wade have to take the Heat to the victory in crunch time, the "plays" run by Spoelstra amount to nothing more complex than isolations for one of them. That's not a play; can someone tell Spo that please?
How Miami gets over its problems they declined to address this summer is still up in the air, but this year's playoffs will tell us so much about this team and whether they made the right decisions.