Coaching the Heat Defense: Different, Demanding, Disruptive and Distressing

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterNovember 19, 2013

USA Today

MIAMI — You're the coach of the Miami Heat.

You have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

You have won the past two NBA championships.

You have a defensive system that has proven its worth over that period, with many of these same players, including Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Norris Cole and Shane Battier.

And here's how you feel about that system, every single day that you enter the gym:


"Uncomfortable about it. Even knowing that we still feel steadfastly that it's the right system for us."

This is Erik Spoelstra's self-imposed stress, a consequence of committing to a strategy that creates considerable risk on a regular basis—and sometimes looks ragged at the start of the season, as it has again this season.

But it's all in the name of a big-time playoff payoff.

"We want to be aggressive, and we want to be disruptive," Spoelstra told Bleacher Report, after a practice in preparation for his team's Tuesday game against the Atlanta Hawks. "When you do that, you extend your defense a little bit further out. And sometimes if you are not fully engaged and fully active and fully focused, you can be exposed—and give up more areas of the court. But it's a style that we felt fits this group more."

Understand that is not necessarily how it was planned, not even when the Big 3 first came together in the summer of 2010. Since Pat Riley arrived in 1995, Miami had always emphasized defense, as well as certain specific principles, such as keeping a foot in the paint and locking and trailing around screens.

But it also tended to have an eraser on the backline, first Alonzo Mourning, then Shaquille O'Neal and, for a spell, both on the same squad. Spoelstra ascended to head coach, inheriting a team without an elite rim protector. So during the 2008-09 season, according to Spoelstra, "we started the evolution of it when we had Dwyane and Shawn Marion, just dabbled with it, put our toes in the water with it, and started to learn more about it."

CHICAGO - MAY 04:  Shaquille O'Neal #32 and Alonzo Mourning #33 (R) of the Miami Heat enjoy the final moments of game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Chicago Bulls during the 2006 NBA Playoffs on May 4, 2006 at the United Center in
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Then came the 2011 Finals, and the Dallas Mavericks celebrating a championship on the Heat's floor.

"We all had to embrace a growth mind-set," Spoelstra said. "And to do that, we all had to get uncomfortable, and that started with the staff, and that started with finding a style on both ends of the court that fit this group more, not necessarily what fit us or what we understood."

The offensive changes have received more attention.

But they weren't implemented alone.

"I had been part of a defensive system for many, many years that was very successful—but was not a system necessarily for this group," Spoelstra said. "So we had to learn and tweak it."

Until it became, in Spoelstra's words, "dramatically different."

Dramatically more aggressive, to fit the team's speed and makeup. 

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 10:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat defends against Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers as LeBron James #6 watches on March 10, 2011 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

"With this group, we had to sell out with this," Spoelstra said. "We have allowed our playmakers to make active, anticipation reads. More than my comfort level would like. But it fits their personalities, with Dwyane, LeBron, Rio, all of them. It's made me wholly uncomfortable for three years."

Why's that?

"When you're not engaged, dialed in and focused, we can get picked apart," Spoelstra said. "And our mistakes are more glaring than if you play a more conservative defense. If you're playing more conservative and you make a mistake, it might not lead to a wide-open shot. Ours will lead to a wide-open shot, and 'Who the hell's got that guy?' You know, that kind of thing."

The perception may be different too.

"If you were packed in the paint, you might make a mistake and give up an open jump shot, but at least you're in front of it, and you might be able to contest late, where the average layman fan might not even notice there's a mistake," Spoelstra said. "With (the Heat system), everybody knows there's a mistake, people might not understand why there's a mistake or who made the mistake, but there's a mistake."

There's one mistake that Spoelstra would put above all others:

Significantly changing course simply due to a stretch of struggles.

Through Sunday, the Heat ranked 18th in field-goal percentage against and 11th in points per game against, even after a stifling performance against the offensively inept Charlotte Bobcats.

"Emphasizing defense is difficult, whatever your system is. It's emphasizing every single day, and particularly when you are getting scored on, are you going to show the resolve, are you going to show that commitment to that side of the court?" Spoelstra said. "That is the toughest thing in this league, it doesn't matter what system you coach. But with us, it's those habits, every single day, and so even if it's challenging and sometimes you are getting picked apart or have that game where the other team just does a tremendous job of passing the ball and lights you up for 15 threes, game after game after game after game, you continue to build it and emphasize it and push forward, by the time you get to the playoffs, we can really be disruptive."

What does that mean for December through April?

It may mean some suffering, for the coach, for the players, for the fans.

That's because Spoelstra is averse to making many adjustments now, or anytime soon.

"We build the habits from six months," he said. "The habits come from burning the boats, where you have no other option but to do it, and OK, yeah, there is nowhere else. We're not going to change it and do something easier to help us with these next five possessions against this team. We're going to keep on doing it until we get it right, do it hard enough. By the time when we really have to turn it on, in the playoffs, when we have to go to another level, we can."

Tough love to create a tough D.

And a tough stomach for the tough times.

Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.

(For the players' perspective on the Heat system, check out this companion piece).


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