With a record of 32-14, the Miami Heat are having by any account a successful season. However, unlike in years past, their victories aren't coming by the way of their defense.
The Heat currently rank 12th in defensive rating. That's a sizable downfall after finishing as a top-five defensive team (based on defensive rating) in each of the past two seasons. It's not a coincidence that the Heat made the NBA Finals in both of those seasons, either.
Considering Miami is a championship-or-bust team again this season, their defensive shortcomings are a big issue.
The good news, though, is that the Heat absolutely have the potential to play top-level defense. Let's take a look at the Heat's defense more in-depth and figure out how Miami can turn potential into reality.
Beyond just points allowed, a statistic that indicates the Heat aren't the defensive juggernaut they once were is turnovers. Last season Miami forced 16.8 turnovers per contest. This year, that average has fallen to 15.1.
The reason why such a shift has occurred stems from the Heat simply not pressuring ball-handlers to the degree they used to, which is also reflective of their overall defensive issues.
Take a look at the first play in this James Harden highlight video from the Houston Rockets vs. Heat game on February 6.
The Rockets are able to move the ball around the court against the Heat's nonexistent pressure. After the ball has switched hands a couple of times, Harden ends up with the ball at the three-point line and makes his way to the basket with very little resistance. He finishes the play with an uncontested layup.
Here's another play (starts at 0:43 mark) from a February 2 game against the Indiana Pacers in which David West scored 30 points against Miami on only 15 shots.
In this second-quarter play, Lance Stephenson isn't pressured well at all by Dwyane Wade in the backcourt. Stephenson beats Wade moving to the basket. This forces Shane Battier to try to stop Stephenson from an easy layup, which results in David West standing under the basket by his lonesome waiting for an easy dunk opportunity. West gets the pass and then converts for about the easiest two points one can get.
That's not Miami Heat basketball. Or at least it wasn't.
Watch this play from last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers.
Notice how much energy the Heat are devoting defensively and how well they are pressuring every ball-handler on the play.
Once the first pass is made, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier trap and harass West. Still, West is able to get out of it and find Stephenson open for a seemingly easy corner three.
Then, LeBron James darts to the corner to close out on the shot. Stephenson, no longer able to shoot, has to drive the baseline. LeBron stays with him, and Battier joins LeBron to force Stephenson into a horrible pass that ends up being a turnover.
Throughout the entire 10-second sequence, the Heat are swarming ball-handlers with a ferocity that just hasn't been seen often during the 2012-13 season.
The Heat have been accused of coasting and not taking this regular season seriously, and the amount of intensity they have played with defensively absolutely strengthens those two arguments.
These plays from the Rockets and Pacers game (from this year's regular season) unfold the way they do not because the Heat aren't as talented defensively as they once were; it's all about effort. Miami is perfectly capable of playing defense like they did throughout the first two years of the Big Three era, but they don't want to. At least not until the playoffs, it appears.
The Heat's defensive issues are easily solvable, which is obviously great. Once the Heat flip the switch from off to on, Miami should be swarming ball-handlers like they did last season. Just don't expect them to flip that switch anytime soon.