Are LeBron James and the Miami Heat Really Coasting?

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Are LeBron James and the Miami Heat Really Coasting?
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If James was coasting, would he have such intense reactions?

Nearly a month has gone by since the question graced seemingly every sports TV and radio talk show in the country: Are the Miami Heat coasting through this NBA season to the playoffs?

The accusations came on the heels of a three-game losing streak to the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards in mid-January. Miami hadn't dropped so many consecutive games since January 2012.

Proof pudding began emerging.

The New York Times' Benjamin Hoffman, among many others, cited "rhythm" issues due to injuries.

Tim Bontemps of the New York Post pointed to Wade's minutes maintenance, stressing that coach Eric Spoelstra purposely plays the 32-year-old in "one half of back-to-backs." Indeed, Wade has only played games on consecutive nights twice this year.

Zach Lowe detailed on Grantland how the blitzing defensive effort that fueled last year's success has yet to resurface.

"There are stretches of games in which Miami’s defense looks very much like the basic conservative defense most of the league plays," he wrote.

The most popular reasoning: simply because they have to. To call the competition in the Eastern Conference night in and night out underwhelming is, well, underwhelming. Here are the average number of wins by the East's non-Miami playoff teams since The Big Three joined up in 2010 (*numbers from 2011-12 lockout season extrapolated to 82 games):

Average wins by Eastern Conference teams (excluding Miami)
Year All teams Playoff teams only
2013-14 (exp.) 35.0 46.5
2012-13 36.5 48.3
2012-11* 38.0 50.5
2011-10 37.0 49

ESPN

That a team like the Chicago Bulls sits a half-game out of third place without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng speaks volumes about the level of competition the Heat face.

Put another way, the Phoenix Suns hold a half-game lead over Memphis for the West's eighth spot. If the season ended today and Phoenix magically moved to the East, it would be the third seed behind Miami.

This graphic surfaced during Miami's game against Chicago last Sunday and appeared on Sports Grid via Reddit:

Reddit

If the Heat are coasting, then they've been doing so for four years.

Another graphic ran January 24 on Business Insider Sports under the headline, "One Stat That Shows The Heat Are Just Coasting Through The Regular Season."

Business Insider

The article asserts that both LeBron James and Chris Bosh are playing career low minutes, yet James' 37.3 minutes per game still ranks seventh in the NBA.

While the Big Three are playing less minutes combined per game than in the previous three seasons, the Heat are actually the best they've ever been as a whole. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Miami's plus-4.8 rating per 100 possessions without James on the floor marks the first time that number has been positive since the 2010-11 season and is the best it's been in four years. The same goes for Dwyane Wade.

And those two guys are playing pretty well themselves.

Pick a category with the words "shooting" or "field goal" and "percentage" and King James is probably doing it better than he ever has. James, in his evolution from volume shooter to efficient playmaker and scorer, is on pace to shoot 60 percent from the field a career-high 18 times. He's never taken less shot attempts, yet is scoring as well as he ever has in Miami.

If Kevin Durant ruled January, February belonged to James. He topped 30 points in seven of 10 games while contributing 8.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.7 steals as the Heat went 9-1.

The Heat did alright in the one game James missed with a broken nose, beating Chicago handily on national television.

Wade, who fell three assists shy of a triple-double, had quite a February himself. Out of nine games played, Wade shot less than 50 percent once en route to a .609 clip. He tied Stephen Curry for eighth in scoring (21.0) among guards for the month, his best all season.

And the team dogged for its defensive lapse has picked up the effort. Since that January three-game losing streak ended, the Heat have let teams score 100 points just seven times in 17 games while doing it 13 times themselves.

In the first month of the season the Heat ranked in the mid-20s in defensive efficiency. That number has been on the decline ever since. They now sit 12th at 102.5 and are tied for sixth with 98.1 points allowed per game. The only other teams in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed? Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Golden State.

Six weeks ago, Sipho Mangoye of Hoops Habit broke down the Heat's defensive struggles:

The team often cruises for the majority of the game on defense and opposing teams have been able to make the most of it by averaging 37.1 percent from 3-point range (which is fifth worst in the NBA) while shooting 45.9 percent overall from the field – 10th worst.

In February Miami allowed the second lowest opponents' field goal percentage to Indiana, per NBA.com, and were the seventh stingiest in three-point defense.

So, no, Miami is not taking it easy as they search for a third straight title. The only coasting done by the Heat lately was the 15-day West Coast trip they took on either side of the All-Star break.

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