MIAMI—It's not easy to coach the Miami Heat's frenetic style of defense, to harp on the same habits over and over and over again, only to watch as a single error leads to an easy hoop.
As coach Erik Spoelstra told Bleacher Report for our companion piece, "Every single day when I come into the gym, I'm uncomfortable about it. Even knowing that we still feel steadfastly that it's the right system for us."
But what's it like to play?
"It is challenging," said Dallas Mavericks forward Shawn Marion, who played for the Heat from the 2008 All-Star break until the 2009 All-Star break. "You do have to put energy into it, and that's pretty cool. It keeps you engaged, they keep everybody engaged. They gonna show out, and they're going to protect and rotate immediately."
So it was different from what he encountered playing for Phoenix, or later, for Toronto or Dallas?
"It somewhat is," Marion said. "Their defensive principles never really change. They stay consistent with it. They believe in showing. And when they show, they're gonna show. It works, though."
As Spoelstra acknowledged, the system has changed some since the Heat lost to Marion's Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals—it has actually become more aggressive.
So, it is now very different from the rest of the league?
"Very much so," said Dwyane Wade, who has only ever played for Miami. "Very much so."
Rashard Lewis, like Marion, has been around. He played for Seattle, Orlando and Washington before joining the Heat last season.
"A lot of the NBA defensive systems are pretty much all the same, with the defensive rotations," Lewis said. "When I came here last year, I knew some of it because I played for Stan (Van Gundy), but I didn't know the extent of it. I've got it now, but it took me a while to kind of learn the system of the way they like to play defense."
Yes, he pointed to the rotations, such as the way that a secondary helper needs to cover the trap man. But also, he pointed to the "activity."
"The way you pressure guys, and playing the passing lanes," said Lewis, the 16th-year vet. "Not necessarily getting steals, but being active and trying to make it tough for the opposing team to pass the ball, and get deflections. There's definitely a difference."
Some of the distinctions have been predicated by the current personnel.
"Well, we don't have a one-guy defensive guy to protect the rim," LeBron James said. "We don't have a Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan, those guys, you get in that lane. Tyson Chandler, where you know if you get around someone, there's going to be someone to meet you at the rim. Obviously when (Joel Anthony) plays minutes, he's a rim protector for us for sure. But with the lineups that we play, we just all have guys that have to play on a string, and we rely on each other."
They can't merely funnel everything to a Roy Hibbert, as the Indiana Pacers do, and count on him to clean up any mess. So Spoelstra has tried to accentuate their attributes: quick hands and feet.
Instead of retreating, it's about attacking. That partly explains the one statistic in which the Heat have sometimes been deficient.
"We're not a big team at all, but our system doesn’t allow us to just sit there and stay underneath and try to get rebounds," Wade said. "Our system is about moving, it’s about getting our bigs out, so our bigs are not all the way down. In the paint a lot of times, it’s guards down there."
Those guards are athletic but occasionally overmatched.
"Our system is not set up for this team to be a top-10 rebounding team," Wade said. "We still have to do our job and take care of business. But our system has all moving parts. And trying to blitz, it doesn’t really have bigs dropping back to the rim, trying to meet a guard there. This system, it’s not easy to play. If you just want to be out there defensively, this is not gonna be the system for you."
Especially if you're one of those "bigs."
"If you watch a lot of other teams, the big is all the way back," Chris Bosh said. "We cover a lot more ground."
Side to side.
Back to front.
For 24 seconds, and sometimes more.
"The bigs are going to be from the top of the key all the way down to the paint, to the weak side," Lewis said. "The bigs can be almost all over the court, as well as the guards. The big has to be up to make it a hard trap, or make a show, or a zone blitz."
Bosh notes that two things can happen when a "big" is up on a screen.
"It's more space that your back side has to cover," Bosh said. "And it's more ground that the big has to cover—from trapping above the three-point line to making his way back and potentially getting into another situation. It's tough, but we're tough. That makes us tough. That's why when it comes down to it, we can do things that nobody else can do. We can always make adjustments to make it easier. But for right now, if you're learning how to do it the hard way, everything else will seem easy."
But in the meantime, if the Heat are not engaged, it can appear too easy for the opponent. Shane Battier explains that, like the Heat's offensive system, their defensive system is "based on precision."
"A, because we're not very big, so rebounding is always an issue, no matter who we play," Battier said. "So our rotations and our defensive spacings have to be very precise."
As James put it, "We get put in some difficult challenges because of our system here. And because of our knowledge, because of our camaraderie, and because of the cohesiveness that we have, we are able to cover up a lot for some of the mistakes that we make."
But some mistakes can be difficult to overcome. For example:
"When we say you have to be at the nail to discourage a middle drive, you have to be at the nail, the middle of the lane," Battier said. "Because if you don't, there's a middle drive, shot, collapse the defense, offensive rebound, it leads to a slew of other problems. A lot of other teams say, 'OK, I'll meet a team at the nail.' But here they remind you constantly, constantly, constantly, and you're supposed to do your job and be in the spot you're supposed to be in."
That's true especially when the opposition runs a play to create confusion and an open shot.
"Physically, you're expected to fight through every screen," Battier said. "I've been through defensive systems where you switch or you can shoot the gap on a lot of things and play it a certain way. Here everything is physical, everything is hard. It's tiring, no question. It's not a passive defense; it's a disruptive defense. And that takes tremendous energy."
So you need to stay in great physical shape.
But it's even more important to stay mentally in tune.
"It's not rocket science to figure out, but it takes amazing concentration and effort to do it for 48 minutes," Battier said. "That's why I think a lot of guys struggle or say it's difficult. When we're at our best, we have five guys playing, doing their job. And it's cliched to say, 'When one guy's not doing his job, everything else collapses.' But it's true. Especially when it pertains to dribble penetration and the ball gets in the middle of the paint. Because then all bets are off, and we're scrambling and we're small. And we don't have a great mitigator inside. So it all works together."
"You've just got to string them out," Marion said. "They play passing lanes very well. That's what fuels their offense a lot. If you can make them pay when they gamble, you can do some good things out there."
Still, even after their early struggles this season, Heat players are still confident they make things more and more uncomfortable for offenses going forward.
"As the season goes on every year, we normally get better and better," Wade said. "And we want to do that this year."
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.