5 Miami Heat Weaknesses to Exploit in the NBA Playoffs
There Will be Blood was narratively slack at points.
Infinite Jest confused complexity with value.
The DeLorean had a top speed of a well-built go-cart.
Point being, even unambiguously excellent things—society’s creative pinnacles, its masterworks—are riddled with flaws. Nothing’s perfect. Few things are particularly close.
Which brings us to the Miami Heat. Despite two titles in as many seasons, the league’s best offense and LeBron James, Miami has significant weaknesses—soft spots ripe for exploitation, chinks in their impressive armor.
And with the start of the NBA playoffs just a month away, and the champs floundering a bit in the home stretch—before winning consecutive games against the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Heat had lost five of six—these blemishes are becoming more conspicuous.
As in: The team is old and tired. Its defense has slipped. A once-great supporting cast isn’t what it once was. There are problems on the boards and in three-point defense. There’s an occasional malaise that sets in that feels deeper than the usual doldrums even the finest teams fall into periodically.
Many of these vulnerabilities are intertwined—it's difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins—but if Miami's quest for a three-peat falls short, one, or several, of these liabilities is likely the culprit.
The Bench Is Pressed
There was a time when Miami’s supporting cast was the class of the NBA. There was also a time when no one knew or feared gluten. Times change.
Today, the Heat's stable of peripheral parts is an interesting assemblage of names and personalities, but lacks the production of its predecessors.
Greg Oden has been helpful when he’s played, but that hasn’t been often.
Michael Beasely is a high-ceiling and occasionally useful player, but he’s unreliable and played his best basketball before Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile Ray Allen is posting the lowest win shares per 48 minutes of his career, per Basketball-Reference, Mike Miller is gone and Shane Battier has imploded—offering career lows in nearly every category of consequence. The “No-Stats All-Star” is now just a guy who doesn’t have any stats.
The only bench player who’s exceeded expectations is Chris Andersen.
This could prove to be a problem for Miami in the playoffs. In each season of the title run, the Heat were lifted, at a high-leverage moment, by an unlikely hero. Mike Miller's Game 5 three-point barrage in the 2012 clincher against the Oklahoma City Thunder was outstanding, but considering the superlative Heat bench play in that and the following postseason, it wasn't an outlier. It was the rule.
LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade won’t each be playing 48 minutes a night in May and June. If the Miami subordinate parts can’t hold up their end of the bargain, the three-peat bid could be upended.
The Defense Rests
The Heat D has always been a key, if underappreciated, component of the Big Three's wild success.
In the three seasons preceding 2013-14—each of which culminated in an appearance in the NBA Finals—the Heat defense finished fifth, fourth and seventh in the NBA in efficiency. But this season, Miami has slipped to a tie for 12th.
Part of this is, likely, due to simple exhaustion. Miami plays a hyper-frenetic, attacking, trapping style of defense. It takes a lot of work to play that way. And it’s a style that, during the regular season, doesn’t necessarily suit an aging contender that’s just trying to make it to June in one piece.
“The Heat have moved away from the blitzing defensive style that made them special—the manic trapping that ended Linsanity, flustered Tony Parker, and goaded Indiana into an endless reel of ugly turnovers in Game 7 of last season’s conference finals,” Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote in January. “There are stretches of games in which Miami’s defense looks very much like the basic conservative defense most of the league plays.”
In season’s past, the Heat have elevated their defensive intensity by the end of the season. In 2013-14, there’s no indication that’s happened. Can Miami just turn it back on? If it can’t, opposing offenses will find a Heat defense that’s considerably more generous than usual.
Three Is the Magic Number
While the D is a problem in general, the three-point line has been a problem in particular for Miami. Opponents are hitting 8.5 threes a game against the Heat in 2013-14, which is the fifth-worst figure in the NBA. And the problem seems to be accelerating.
During their recent 1-5 skid, as SBNation’s Dane Carbaugh underlined, the Heat allowed each opponent to make good on at least seven three-pointers. In those five losses, Miami opponents shot 38.4 percent from deep.
Carbaugh, in attempting to explain the issue, suggested that NBA offenses may have simply figured the Heat’s trapping tactics out.
Rotationally, the Heat have suffered as teams have come prepared for their pick-and-roll defense, which often involves doubling the ball handler in an effort to force turnovers. But with their strategy known, teams have started to gameplan for counteracting Miami's defense by slipping screens and sending more than two players to set ball screens.
This could prove to be a regrettable area of weakness, as teams are increasingly three-point happy these days. Postseason teams especially. According to NBA.com, the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls are the only playoff-bound teams that aren’t in the top half of the NBA in three-pointers attempted per 100 possessions.
It’s also a weakness that acts in unfortunate concert with the subject of the next slide.
Board to Death
The Heat don’t hit the offensive glass.
This is, to some extent, a matter of choice. Like several teams, Miami has long forgone chasing O-boards to get back on defense. This is a questionable strategy, but fine, we’ll overlook it, and we won’t fret over the fact they are last in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate so far this season, per ESPN’s Hollinger Stats.
But let’s talk about defense. Miami is also 28th in the NBA in defensive rebounding rate, pulling down just 72.3 percent of available boards. This deficiency makes the Heat vulnerable not only to burlier teams that, unlike themselves, don’t eschew the offensive glass—the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets come to mind—but to teams that shoot a lot of three-pointers.
About that: According to the SportVU analysis Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry and others have performed, not only are three-point shots more efficient than long-twos—they count for 50 percent more points and don’t go in 50 percent less—but they lead to offensive rebounds at a higher rate than misses from midrange.
So a team like Miami, which doesn’t defend the three-point line well or grab rebounds reliably, is in a double-bind. Teams can fire away from three-points against the Heat, secure in the knowledge that they have a better-than-average chance of making good on the shot and, if it falls short, a great chance to get an offensive rebound and retain possession.
This explains why, despite playing at the seventh-slowest pace in basketball, per ESPN's Hollinger Stats, the Heat have faced the fourth most three-point attempts in the league. Shooting threes against Miami works even when they don't go in.
A Tired Team
The Heat have played a lot of basketball these past four years. In addition to the regular season grind, the team has competed in 67 playoff games since the Big Three joined forces before the 2010-11 season. And LeBron James—the straw that stirs Miami’s Mai Tai—also led Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics.
This would be something of an issue for any group. The NBA season is a long, unforgiving one—82 games, erratically-spaced, and interspersed with long flights. And a hardwood basketball floor, as any exercise physiologist worth his salt will attest to, is not exactly an idea surface to run on. But it becomes especially problematic for a group that is the oldest team in the NBA. Which Miami is.
There’s some evidence that this exhaustion is having an impact in South Beach.
"It's a long and grueling season for all of us, not just us because we're the champs," James admitted to CBS’s Ken Berger back in January (H/T Adam Fromal). "We've played a lot of basketball in our four years together. It's taken a lot of wear and tear on all our bodies. It's mentally fatiguing. And you just try to find the motivation the best way you can as an individual and as a collective group."
The Heat have gotten no respite since.
Now this exhaustion—which underpins a lot of the other problems in Miami—might be temporary. The playoff schedule is much more forgiving than the regular season. The back-to-backs are gone and the travel requirements are generally a lot more manageable. A team that looks tired now might be downright spry come June. But this languor, if it lingers, will pose a mighty problem for the Heat. And an opportunity for any opponent they face.