The most defining characteristic of the Miami Heat since Pat Riley arrived from New York in 1995 has always been their defense.
Alonzo Mourning embodied this from head to toe, but for the most part, every year’s squad may not have been elite, but there was no mistaking their defensive DNA.
This year’s Miami Heat team is a bit different. They have the league’s most efficient offense, but they struggle at times to contain even the league’s weakest teams.
After initially struggling out of the gate, even at one point owning a losing record (a rarity in the "Big 3" era) after back-to-back losses to the Philadelphia Sixers and Brooklyn Nets, the Heat have now secured 12 victories in the last 13 games and eight straight. But has their defense actually improved, or are they simply outscoring opponents thanks to their tremendous firepower?
Last season began largely the same way, with little explanation as to why the Heat’s early season defense was suddenly so porous. Head coach Erik Spoelstra had initially struggled in the beginning of the "Big 3" era to get the most offensively out of his superstars, who were still learning to work together, but defense was always something his teams could hang their hat on.
This year, the Heat entered training camp with the spoken goal of avoiding last season’s early defensive struggles, and they chose to concentrate almost obsessively on it for the duration of the week. Yet, the Heat stumbled out of the gate anyway, allowing opponents to score easily from close-range and from beyond the arc.
It got to the point where LeBron James called his team’s defense “terrible” seven games into the season, after the Boston Celtics scored 111 points on them.
Even with their impressive 12-3 record, the Heat are still allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from long range, ranking 24th in the league. They ranked dead last in rebounds last season, and they continue that dubious distinction this season as well.
They have had to work extra hard during their current winning streak to get their opponent field goal percentage at a respectable 44 percent, but it’s nowhere near the Indiana Pacers, the league’s best defensive team, who top the leaderboard with an impressive 38.6 percent.
The story is the same on opponent points per game, with the Pacers’ opponents averaging almost 10 points less than the Heat’s opponents with a league-leading 86.5 points per game, and opponent PPS (points per shot), where the Pacers again lead the league with just 1.03 and the Heat are 21st with 1.23.
The Heat average a respectable 4.9 blocks per game with just Chris “Birdman” Andersen as a consistent threat, good for ninth in the league, but guess who leads the NBA with eight blocks per game?
Yes, the champs will always face teams gunning for them with something to prove every night. There is also something to the notion that one of the NBA’s oldest teams just got a year older with little in the way of any sort of youth movement on the bench.
But teams have also figured out that crisp ball movement, while adequately spreading the floor can be enough to unglue the Heat’s pressure defense system and eventually find the open man. To be fair, Heat players may have been shaking off the rust at the start of the season, trying to cover their man but also providing help defense for each other. But will fatigue, after playing this sort of system for 82 games, be a factor once the playoffs roll around?
As designed, the Heat’s pressure defense relies on all five players acting as one, forming a cohesive unit that applies constant pressure to the ball-handler, prevents easy trips to the basket (a must considering their lack of height inside) and forcing turnovers, such as getting into the passing lanes and picking off passes.
But earlier this year, teams were easily combating this by swinging the ball to the open man, usually in the corners for threes, or getting into the lanes for buckets once the expected defensive rotation arrived too late. Holes were opened as a result.
Replacing a struggling Udonis Haslem for Shane Battier in the starting lineup helped matters, as has an improving Michael Beasley, who is realizing he can get more minutes if he applies some of his considerable talent on the defensive end.
Birdman’s conditioning has also allowed him to play more minutes off the bench, something he could not do last season after joining the Heat and trying to get back to NBA playing shape. LeBron is back to his MVP form on both ends of the floor, and Dwyane Wade has also played well as of late and is more engaged on defense.
There are several other signs that the tide is turning and the defending champs are getting back on track defensively. The Heat’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers represented the sixth-straight game in which the Heat have held their opponent to under 100 points. Opponents are averaging just 89.3 points in that six-game span. The team now ranks first in opponent turnovers with 18.6 and sixth in steals with 9.1 a game, two critical components to their offense with all those easy buckets they get in transition.
In the weak East, the Heat may only have to worry about the Pacers in their quest to get to their fourth-straight Finals, but it will require the team to play at its highest level to get past them. LeBron will certainly do his part to match up with Paul George’s work on both ends of the floor, but will Greg Oden be ready by then to have an impact on the floor to battle Roy Hibbert?
Regardless, Heat players must all continue to buy into Spoelstra’s defensive system and give maximum effort on the defensive end if they want to raise yet another trophy at the conclusion of this season.