The Miami Heat haven't experienced early-season futility like this since the inaugural year of the "Big Three" when they started off 9-8.
Following an unbelievable, seemingly impossible defeat at the hands of a sub-par Boston Celtics team, the 2013-14 Heat have opened their run at a three-peat with a 4-3 start. Their two other losses came in similar fashion, a four-point loss to Philadelphia that should have been put away and a one-point loss to Brooklyn where effort for the first 36 minutes of action was brought into question.
There have been impressive wins along the way, a dominant season-opening win over Chicago and a solid win over the Los Angeles Clippers where they neutralized Chris Paul, but the losses have been jarring and have lingered. They contain recurring problems that the Heat claim they will fix in the solemn post-game interviews, but it has yet to occur.
Meanwhile, the Heat's stiffest competition, the Indiana Pacers, have opened up the season 7-0. Paul George is vying for an MVP award, Roy Hibbert is chasing Defensive Player of the Year, Frank Vogel is looking to earn Coach of the Year and Brian Windhorst is clamoring for stories he can utilize to incite hysteria in Miami.
I'm not hitting the panic button for Miami, nor am I making ambitious proclamations a little more than a week into the regular season. It should have been known beforehand that Indiana would be Miami's toughest challenge and that they would shoot out of the gate with something to prove. Don't think they didn't have that Game 7 loss at the hands of Miami collectively on their minds all summer.
Miami has less to prove. If you've taken in any Heat basketball early in their campaigns, it wouldn't come as a surprise to you that Miami starts out their season slowly. They didn't exactly rocket out to impressive starts in their championship seasons, starting out 8-4 in their first title run and 6-3 in their second.
Don't forget that the Heat weren't world-eaters for the first few months of last year. They were only 29-14 before they ran off 27 consecutive wins and ended the season 66-16.
Similar events occurred in their first season together. Following their 9-8 start, they ran off 12 consecutive wins and were 21-8, only a few weeks after it was said the sky was falling and the Heat were a failed, mutated science experiment.
No team faces more early criticism than the Heat, even though they have gotten off to underwhelming starts the past three years. Patience is thin when this team is involved; one half is writing stories about how the team is a failure and the other half dedicates itself to disproving those theories.
There's no reason why this Heat team should be judged before the All-Star break based on their track record. Let me reiterate that the team that won 66 games and was unarguably the best team in the regular season last year was fighting with the New York Knicks for the top spot in the East for nearly half the season.
However, there are several factors why the Heat are in this current predicament, and they could easily be 7-0 had they tweaked a few variables that prove significant in late-game situations.
Defense has obviously been brought into question, much as it has in previous Heat seasons early on. After ranking seventh last year and giving up only 100.5 points per 100 possessions, the Heat are currently relinquishing 104.3 points per 100 possessions, good enough for 25th in the league.
Since the 'Big Three' got together, the Heat have not ranked worse than seventh in defensive efficiency.
There is a sacrifice being made by Miami. The effort is there on the offensive end, Miami has scored at least 100 points every game and is first in the league in offensive efficiency, but they're doing it at the expense of low energy on transition defense and slow rotations that result in the opponent garnering open shots.
Per Synergy, the Heat rank 29th in points per possession allowed. They rank dead last in transition defense, allowing opponents to shoot 66 percent on 89 field-goal attempts and are also among the league's worst in defending cuts and offensive rebounds.
Surprisingly, Miami is the league's best at guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers. No surprise when you consider how well they corralled Paul and Derrick Rose. But that is the only aspect of defense the Heat have thrived at. They're allowing opponents to shoot 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from deep, 27th and 18th in the league, respectively.
Miami's defense entirely relies on effort. Double teams are constantly being thrown outside of the perimeter, and if a pass is made out of it, it requires one of the defenders to race back to their original defender. If the rotations are slow, the defense is likely either giving up an open shot or a drive because they have to race out to defend the perimeter.
It's resulting in uncharacteristically bad offenses to have incredible performances, as seen in Boston's 111-point effort against Miami. Before that game, the Celtics ranked 28th in the league in offensive efficiency, were shooting 26 percent from beyond the arc as a team and had not gone over 100 points in any of their first six contests of the year.
Also, they scored less than 90 points in three of those games. They scored 77 points against the Detroit Pistons earlier in the week.
But, they were scorching against the Heat, shooting 51 percent from the field and 10-of-21 from beyond the arc. This has to do with Heat opponents simply making difficult shots they don't usually make because not only is effort further exerted against Miami, but also because Miami's defense at the moment is slow and not in midseason or postseason form.
Frankly, the Heat don't need to be playing postseason defense this early in the year. They know what they're capable of, and they understand they can win a lot of these regular season games by not playing their championship brand of defense for 48 minutes. There are times when a brief stretch of turnovers could turn a close game into a blowout, and Miami relies on those moments to put games out of reach.
The win against the Toronto Raptors was a prime example of this dangerous practice. A 78-74 lead going into the fourth transformed into a 90-74 lead four-and-a-half minutes in. The Raptors committed seven turnovers and attempted a single field-goal attempt in that span.
Why worry about the Heat's early-season struggles when we're all perfectly aware that they're still capable of this? There is no other team in the NBA that can run off a 12-0 run in less than five minutes that features the defense forcing the opposition into seven turnovers and only one attempt at a shot.
The Heat played mediocre basketball that entire game outside of the opening of the fourth quarter and won convincingly. This is dangerous for so many reasons. In one way, it's an absolutely devastating and energy-efficient way to beat your opponent. On the other, it's extremely risky and doesn't always work.
Sometimes, you get teams like Boston or Philadelphia that don't feel like missing shots that night. No matter how bad some of these teams appear to be at times, they are still NBA players, the best of the best, and they contain that capability to hit a lot of shots.
Especially when it comes against the Heat. It's been a phenomenon to see guys like Wayne Ellington or Austin Daye have career games against Miami, but a lot of it has to do with who they're facing. Let's just say that seeing the Heat on the schedule is going to cause a far different reaction than looking up and seeing the Milwaukee Bucks.
So, naturally, the Heat are going to get the best out of every opponent, no matter how good or bad. That's why 114 points from the 76ers or 111 points from a Celtics team whose leading scorer is averaging 15 points per game shouldn't raise your eyebrows if you've watched this team long enough.
The defense will come. It always does. Even last year, when the team ranked in the bottom half of defensive efficiency for a good part of the first half of the season. It is entirely up to the players on Miami if they want to win or not simply because of how much effort and energy they want to instill into their defense.
Many will also cite the starting lineup as a problem on account of Miami's slow starts. The lineup that has played 48 minutes together in four games is garnering only 90.1 points per 100 possessions, the lowest among the seven Heat lineups that have played at least 15 minutes together, as seen on stats.NBA.com. Those numbers skyrocket once Udonis Haslem, who has the 14th worst plus/minus rating on the team, exits.
So bench Udonis, right? It's not that easy. There's no one who can replace him, especially on the defensive end. Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley, the strongest candidates to replace Haslem, are both liabilities on the defensive end, Joel Anthony doesn't know how to play offense and Shane Battier cannot weather the wear-and-tear that would come with playing the 4 for an extended amount of time.
Udonis is going to continue to be a fixture in the starting lineup, unless Beasley really turns a corner and proves to be efficient on both sides of the ball. The key to earning minutes in the Heat rotation is not through offense, but with defense. You don't stand to earn many minutes if you can't play quality defense, which is why Lewis's days in the rotation could be numbered.
But, Udonis? Doubtful. The Heat starting lineup is only giving up 99 points per 100 possessions. As long as the defense isn't suffering, he'll remain within the starting five.
Offense will be nothing to worry about, and that should go the same for the defense. It doesn't come as naturally as the Heat being able to exploit mismatches on the offensive end, but the defense will arrive once it is necessary.
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