Exploiting weaknesses of the Miami Heat is something that every team in the NBA is attempting on a nightly basis. However, finding a way to exploit a weakness means you actually need to identify one first.
That's not the easiest task where Miami is concerned.
At 11-3, the defending champions sit atop the Eastern Conference, owning the second-best record in the league after the season's opening month. They are still unbeaten at home (7-0) and are currently on a five-game winning streak.
To make finding weaknesses harder, they own the league's second-best offense (110.1 offensive efficiency), boast the NBA's best player, have an elite supporting cast and possess an indomitable will and belief to conquer all.
However, that's not to say there aren't any chinks in the armor.
Despite an impressive start to 2012-13, there are a number of ways in which opposing teams can attack the Heat to try to bring about their downfall. Although Miami is still capable of winning when their weaknesses are exposed, it's imperative for opposing teams to attack the areas in which the Heat's soft spots lie.
For a team blessed with outstanding perimeter defenders in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Shane Battier, it's enormously surprising that Miami is poor in their defense of the three-point line. After 14 games this season, the Heat sit 19th in the league for opponent three-point percentage at .362, well behind first placed Chicago at .307.
In two of their three losses this season, Miami saw New York and Memphis hold three-point shooting contests, draining 19 and 14 shots from deep respectively.
Two factors are primarily responsible for this. First, Miami's defense regularly collapses on opposition players who aggressively drive to the basket, leaving shooters open on the perimeter. Second, the Heat regularly double-team the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, with help rotating onto the roll player. A subsequent swing of the ball often finds a man open in the corner.
Examine the clip below, showing Steve Novak light up the Heat from deep at Madison Square Garden. The first three-pointer results from Rashard Lewis collapsing toward the paint to provide help to Udonis Haslem and Wade in their defense of the explosive J.R. Smith.
The second three is then a great example of the Heat's approach to the pick-and-roll. The Knicks run a pick-and-roll with Raymond Felton and Carmelo Anthony. Felton is doubled-teamed by Battier and Mario Chalmers as Anthony slips the pick, which sees Wade rotate to the Knicks star. As the ball is swung to the corner, Novak is left wide open for another easy look from downtown.
For teams blessed with great distance shooters such as New York, taking advantage of the Heat from deep by swinging the ball quickly out of double-teams is one method that can genuinely bring about their downfall.
Sudden Affection for the Three-Ball
Not only does three-point shooting have the ability to bring down the Heat at the defensive end, their sudden affection for hoisting up threes themselves has the ability to cost them at the other end of the floor as well.
With Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis joining Miami this season, it was inevitable that we were going to see the defending champions attempt a significant number of shots from deep. By bringing in two of the league's best ever three-point marksmen, it's perfectly logical to shape the team's offense into a system that utilizes their strengths.
However, their newly discovered affection for the three-ball is significantly harming their defensive ability. The following chart shows the major shift in the Heat's play as a result of three-point shooting.
By increasing their attempts from deep, the Heat are getting to the foul line less often and pulling down less offensive rebounds, hurting their ability to control the tempo of the game defensively.
Additionally, because three-point misses tend to result in long rebound opportunities for the defensive team, Miami has struggled to contain its opposition in transition, witnessing a significant increase in opponent fast-break points this season. These factors are a substantial component of the Heat's defensive decline.
While it's obviously not a smart idea to dare the Heat to shoot the three-ball with their league-leading percentage (.430) in mind, by utilizing lineups that are strong on the glass and quick out in transition, it's possible to use the Heat's affection for distance shooting against them.
Memphis made use of this beautifully in its dismantling of Miami, allowing Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to pound the glass, while Rudy Gay and Wayne Ellington ran a riot at the other end. Denver also pushed Miami to the limit on Nov. 3 by using the same method.
It's no secret that the Heat lack size. With Chris Bosh moving to center and James occupying the power forward position, Miami is vastly undersized against the majority of its opponents.
With Joel Anthony barely used this season, this lack of size is having a two-fold impact on Miami that is seeing them regularly beaten on the boards as well as broken down defensively in the paint.
Consequently, Miami sits at 28th in the league for both total rebounds (39.4 per game) and offensive rebound rate (22.4 percent), while the Heat are currently 19th in the NBA in total rebound rate (49.0 percent).
While their defense of the paint hasn't been quite as poor as their work on the glass—sitting at almost the league average—it has seen a significant decline from that of last season. In 2011-12, the Heat were second in the league for opponent points in the paint at 37.0 per game. In 2012-13, that number has blown out to 40.9, seeing them plummet to 15th in the NBA.
The following video showing Zach Randolph having his way down low with Miami, highlights the problems the Heat face by utilizing their preferred small lineups.
With Anthony seeing only 4.5 minutes per game, Bosh doesn't have the strength to guard the league's bigger inside players. Much the same can be said for Battier and Haslem.
Teams such as the Grizzlies, Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers own the size to trouble the Heat out west, while in the east, Indiana and Chicago both boast sizeable front lines capable of controlling the game down low.
By using significant size and length along the front line, it's possible to beat Miami by pounding the ball down low, taking advantage of their lack of size and controlling the game on the glass.
Ray Allen's defense
There has been some intense debate regarding Allen and his impact on the Heat's defense so far this season, with NBA observers split on whether he's the cause of their problems on that end of the floor or not.
Opinions will continue to differ, but statistically, it's hard to deny that Allen isn't a huge part of Miami's defensive decline.
In 2012-13, Allen's defensive rating has taken a battering. With the sharp-shooter on the bench, the Heat's defensive rating sits at a very respectable 97.0. When Allen steps onto the court, that rating balloons to 109.0.
Lineup stats do little to improve the picture. Erik Spoelstra has used 20 different lineups at various stages this season, with 13 of them outscoring their opposition per 100 possessions, the other seven being outscored. Allen is the only player on the Heat's roster to be on all seven lineups that have been outscored on that basis.
The following clip shows how Allen is struggling to track his man on the perimeter, resulting in the Heat's defense being broken down regularly while he is on the floor.
Allen's ankle clearly isn't 100 percent, and although Jamal Crawford isn't one of the league's quickest players, he's still able to move by him rather easily.
While Allen continues to struggle defensively in Miami, opposing teams would be well served to continue to attack him at every possible opportunity.
Complacency and lack and Eastern Conference competition
It's hardly tactical and it's certainly not complicated, but arguably the biggest threat to the Heat this season is themselves, and their lack of competition in the Eastern Conference.
The way it currently stands, Miami will barely need to get out of third gear to grab the first seed in the east for the playoffs. Head and shoulders above any other team in the conference, it's possible that the Heat could become complacent during the regular season, allowing themselves to fall into bad habits, relying solely on talent to get by.
With Chicago missing Derrick Rose, Indiana struggling to recapture last season's form, Boston treading water and Orlando disappearing, the Heat now lack a handful of genuine contenders in their own conference.
While it's likely the Celtics will prove harder to beat as the season draws on, New York and Brooklyn currently look best placed to challenge Miami despite being a considerable distance away from the Heat's level.
So, if as expected the Heat march into the NBA Finals, they will meet an opponent that has conquered the incredibly hard-fought Western Conference, brimming with confidence to up-end the defending champions.
We've already seen Memphis and the Clippers defeat Miami this season, and there's reason to believe that both they, as well as the Thunder, Lakers and Spurs could catch a sleeping Heat team off guard, given how easy their path to the deciding series appears at this stage.
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