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Miami Heat Defense Must Step Up to Claim 2014 NBA Title

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Miami Heat Defense Must Step Up to Claim 2014 NBA Title
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Standing directly between the Miami Heat and their third consecutive NBA title is the San Antonio Spurs' almighty offense, for which LeBron James and friends have no answer.

This has to change.

After splitting the first two games of these NBA Finals, the Heat returned home, where they hadn't lost all postseason. But San Antonio didn't care. 

Courtesy of their 111-92 Game 3 shellacking of Miami, the Spurs have regained control of this series. By going up 2-1, they have put all the pressure on the Heat, who must now win Game 4 or risk traveling back to San Antonio down 3-1 with their three-peat on life support.

Bouncing back in Game 4 is a legitimate possibility. Like Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated noted before Game 2, Miami won its last 12 postseason contests following a loss, a streak that now sits at 13 following Sunday night's victory. 

This team has been here beforeits back against the wall as external doubt and criticism mounts. The Heat can be the ones who land their next punch and return to their winning ways.

Provided their defense is up to the task.

 

Super Spurs

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Defending the Spurs is easier saidor writtenthan done.

Saying and writing it isn't even easy. It feels comical on some level. There is no dominating the indomitable. Their offensive system is near-perfection incarnate. It's old and familiar, yet it still functions like it has that new car smell. 

Except for Game 3. All you could smell was smoke.

Because the Spurs were on fire.

They shot 59.4 percent from the floor overall, an explosive outing that included a record-breaking first quarter and first half:

The Spurs hit 19 of their first 21 shots, which is absurd. Kawhi Leonard entered God Mode. Danny Green entered Danny Green mode. 

Offensive craziness has never been so crazy. 

NBA.com.
Spurs' first-half shot chart in Game 3.

Blame cannot be placed entirely on the Heat to that end. Not for Game 3. The Spurs went supernova on them, getting buckets on buckets on buckets. They shot 22-of-36 (61.1 percent) on contested looks, according to NBA.com. There's not much anyone can do when that happens. 

Superhuman offensive displays like that cannot be stopped. They're rarely seen, so they're not understood. And the Heat cannot stop what theyand even the Spurs themselvesdo not understand.

"That'll never happen again," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Game 3, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "That was crazy."

Miami can only hope he's right while preparing as if he's not.

 

Not-So-Hot Heat 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

What the Spurs did in Game 3 was incredible. How the Heat have combated them in Game 3 and for most of this series is not.

Through the first three contests, they haven't looked like the team that ranked 11th in defensive efficiency during the regular season. They haven't even looked like the team that ranks eighth out of 16 teams in these playoffs.

"D" Is Supposedly for Defense
Miami's Defense Def. Rtg. Rank
Regular Season 102.9 11
Playoffs 107.2 8
NBA Finals 116.3 N/A

NBA.com

Small sample sizes stink and yada, yada, yada. But the Heat have been uncharacteristically indecisive and confused on the defensive end this series. They've elected to switch on everything and anything, and it hasn't come close to working. 

The Spurs have topped 100 points twice. Both of their victories have come by at least 15 points, the first of which bears an asterisk—Crampgate—but remains impressive nonetheless. 

Unlike Miami's defense.

Switching can be a valuable tactic. Most teams use it as a last resort when the pace is too quick and screens are being set in jaw-dropping volume. Other squads—like the 2013-14 New York Knicks—switch habitually. Those clubs—like the 2013-14 Knicks, once again—typically yield disastrous results. 

Employing switches is different for the versatile Heat. They can get by running around like chickens with their heads cut off for stretches at a time. Mismatches don't hurt them as much, thanks to James, a point guard trapped in a forward's body who can guard any position.

Playing this kind of defense against the Spurs is going to hurt no matter the personnel, though. Coach Pop's crew doesn't let the ball stick and is going to find the open man off rotations and double-teams. If the Heat's defense isn't perfect, the Spurs are going to hang them like they did in Game 3.

Truthfully, the Heat didn't do a terrible job of working within this system. More than 28 percent of the Spurs' Game 3 field-goal attempts were spot-up opportunities, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). They only converted 43.5 percent of those shots, as the Heat did an adequate job of chasing players like Green off the three-point line and closing out on open shooters. 

Real problems have been caused by the Spurs' off-ball movement and rim attacks. When they're aggressive off the catch, the Heat tend to flounder. Lanes open up, assignments get blown, and contests are halfhearted, come late or not at all.

NBA.com.
Spurs NBA Finals shot chart.

Water-faucet interior defense has plagued the Heat all series. In their two letdowns, they've lost the points-in-the-paint battle 96-78. Nearly 50 percent of the Spurs' shot attempts are coming inside the paint this series, too.

Take Leonard's Game 3 outburst as well. He was more aggressive, attacking the basket constantly and forcing the Heat to rotate on the move, which is far more difficult than recovering on standalone shooters.

Six of Leonard's made field goals came inside the paint, but it wasn't so much the results as it was his activity, like Project Spurs' Paul Garcia explained:

Whether it was James, Dwayne Wade, Mario Chalmers, or Ray Allen guarding him, Leonard didn't settle for mid-range jumpers, instead he attacked the paint to try and get to the free throw line, or kick out for opportunities for others. Along with his two assists, Leonard was also credited with two secondary assists, and one free throw assist per the SportVU data.

Another key for his offensive production was his movement off the ball. Leonard was constantly moving or cutting into positions to either get the 3-point shot, or catch-and-drive with his defender a step too slow. With his constant moving, it may have affected James on the opposite end of the floor.

Constant movement disrupts switching. It put the Heat at distinct disadvantages in Game 3 by creating more wide-open looks. Twenty-eight of the Spurs' shots were uncontested. They sank 16 of them (57.1 percent).

Many of those easy looks were being given to key offensive components. Leonard and Manu Ginobili combined to go 8-of-12 on uncontested shots. Give the Spurs—any of the Spurs—unimpeded opportunities, and they're going to start burning your defense to the ground.

The Heat know what we're talking about by now.

 

The Dangers of Being Imperfect

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This isn't a series that will be won on one side of the ball.

Offense hasn't eluded the Heat during the NBA Finals. There have been anemic spans—mostly when James isn't in the game—but they've done enough on that end to win.

Defensive pratfalls have cost them two games. They submitted to the Spurs' fourth-quarter onslaught in Game 1, which included a 26-9 run in the final seven-and-a-half minutes that cost them a win. And in Game 3, they made the mistake of folding once the Spurs got hot early.

Amid San Antonio's hot shooting, the Heat panicked. They began taking unnecessary chances that only the Spurs' offense can provoke, as Grantland's Zach Lowe detailed:

But the Spurs force those kinds of choices upon opposing defenses, and they are smart and talented enough to make sure a lot of those choices turn out wrong. San Antonio is constantly finding those little in-between windows and smashing through them with the kind of decisiveness required against an athletic beast of a team like Miami.

And when enough shots start to fall, even champions can panic.

Covering Spurs players is like cupping water in your hands or walking a tight rope made of string cheese: It's not possible. Not for 48 minutes. The Spurs are going to create opportunities, and they're going to score. That's a given.

Will the Heat recover against the Spurs?

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All the Heat can do is limit their mistakes, tighten up their coverage in the paint and cease and desist in their unruly attempts to cause turnovers that ultimately result in wide-open jumpers or clear paths to the basket.

Adjust and adapt, then hope for the best. That's what the Heat can do. It's all they can do. 

"We were too casual," Ray Allen said, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick.

Casual defense won't beat the Spurs. Half-baked defensive strategies won't win the Heat a third straight title. There needs to be more urgency, more structure to what they're doing.

Chaotic and lethargic defense does nothing—except guarantee them two more losses and a botched three-peat.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.


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