How Miami Heat Can Rediscover Their Elite Defense

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How Miami Heat Can Rediscover Their Elite Defense
USA Today

There’s nothing mysterious about the overwhelming success the Miami Heat have enjoyed these last four seasons.

The reason for their dominance is as clear as a bell—or, in this case, a towering 6’8” forward with a combination of speed and power so galling that he seems to be a video-game creation by a bored 17-year-old with a relaxed attitude toward virtual fairness.

LeBron James is great in a way that seems almost unfair.

And then there’s Dwyane Wade. And Chris Bosh. And Erik Spoelstra. And a motion offense that’s capable of scoring in bunches.

But the linchpin of Miami’s run is actually somewhat overlooked, to the extent anything can be overlooked in this omnipresent sports media environment. Tuesday night’s 111-92 drubbing at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs notwithstanding, the Miami Heat—more than occasionally—play some pretty stellar defense.

The numbers paint a compelling picture of what the Heat have managed to do on the less glamorous end of the floor. Since James rolled merrily into town four years ago next month, Miami has finished fifth, fourth, seventh and 11th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, per ESPN. In that time, the Heat during the playoffs have placed no lower than eighth among the 16 qualified teams.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
The Heat usually manage to ratchet up the defensive intensity in the postseason. Well, usually.

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell devoted a chapter to the story of a humble Indian immigrant with effectively zero hoops knowledge who took over his daughter’s ragtag youth basketball team from Redwood City, Calif. and, thanks to an ingenious wrinkle, led them to a berth in nationals.

Their wrinkle was simple: They trapped and pressed the living daylights out of their more skilled opponents. (Fun fact: That immigrant, Vivek Ranadivé, went on to own the Sacramento Kings. A more careful writer might have chosen a better descriptor than “humble.” You get what you pay for, folks.)

It’s not clear if Erik Spoelstra read David and Goliath—though probably, because even my mom read David and Goliath—but the Heat have employed a similar defensive tack as the one that catapulted the Redwood City girls to glory.

They trap, and trap and trap. Except for when they get tired. Then they trap.

In January, Grantland’s Zach Lowe had this to say about the raison d’etre of the Miami defense:

When the Heat are at peak mania, their big men trap pick-and-roll ball handlers with an unmatched fury—sometimes chasing them all the way toward midcourt, driving them backward, arms spread wide, awaiting deflections and steals.

It’s a risk-reward thing. The risk comes in placing two defenders on one opposing point guard, so that if the point guard can unload the ball cleanly, Miami will be facing a temporary 4-on-3. Dealing with that kind of crisis requires pitch-perfect rotations, crazy athleticism, and insane effort levels. Miami has met that test more often than not.

But this hyperenergetic approach is becoming a bit too much for a team in Miami’s circumstances. The Heat are the oldest team in the NBA and, after playing 67 extra games the previous three playoffs, their legs seem, understandably, tired. As Lowe noted above, the Heat's gambling defensive tendencies need to be supported by an unusually athletic roster. And with more than half the playoff rotation older than 32, Miami may not have it anymore. 

To wit, the Heat allowed opponents 102.9 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, according to ESPN—the most in the Big Three era—and were yielding 106.0 per 100 in the playoffs entering Tuesday. 

And then Tuesday happened. The Spurs hit 19 of their first 21 shots en route to an all-time NBA Finals best 76 percent in the first half and a commanding, and ultimately decisive, 71-50 lead. The Heat defense didn’t look slow and old as much as bewildered in the face of the San Antonio attack.

It’s a bad look for Miami, but it’s one that, again, the Heat have worn disconcertingly often this postseason. As 8Points9Seconds.com’s Tim Sartori spelled out during the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat’s aggressive help defense has been backfiring during the playoffs. The Heat have been doubling the ball-handler so often, and at such inopportune times, that they’ve been unable to recover.

The result has been a smorgasbord of open looks for Miami opponents.

And outcomes like Tuesdays.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Aggressive help defense is an essential ingredient for the Heat, but with the influence of old age and lots of extra games, should the Heat play more vanilla?

“We didn’t defend anything well,” Bosh told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick after the loss that put the Heat down 2-1 in the Finals. “Any defensive questions, just throw it in the trash.”

But as ugly as Game 3 was, Miami has the capacity to recover. Though James arguably struggled defensively this season—or, more accurately, didn’t expend as much energy on defense as he has in years past—he’s still capable of, in a pinch, defending all five positions. Few teams have such a luxury.

And Bosh himself has developed into a stalwart stopper in his own right.

“Bosh is quickly becoming known as maybe the best defensive power forward on the perimeter, and Miami uses his rare quickness and agility to great advantage; it’s the best overall pick-and-roll defensive team in the league,” ESPN’s David Thorpe wrote in a December article (subscription required).

But in order to stop the powerful and versatile San Antonio attack, the Heat need to find a way to return to form. Miami has to play its signature brand of defense to win, but with advanced age and the wear and tear of so many additional basketball games these last few seasons taking its toll, it’s clear the Heat need to be more judicious in their aggression.

But it isn't obvious how, precisely, Miami should do this. There isn't a satisfying unifying theory of what's ailing the Heat. It really is about, in the flow of the game, making smarter decisions. Reacting to situations well. Responding more intelligently to the unique pressure San Antonio can put on an opposing D. 

Writing in Grantland Wednesday, Lowe broke down a Spurs possession that came late in the first half of Game 3. With 34.3 seconds till the break, and a 66-48 lead, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan ran a pick and roll from the top of the left elbow while Kawhi Leonard, flanked by LeBron James, ran baseline the opposite way, toward the left corner. Just like that, the trap was set.

Chris Andersen, Duncan's man, can over to help on Parker, while LeBron rolled off Leonard and on to Duncan in the post. Parker then curled slightly toward the hoop, opening up a passing lane and forcing LeBron to choose between sticking with Duncan or blanketing Leonard. Assuming Andersen would retreat back to Duncan, he chose Kawhi. Whoops. Parker slipped a pass into Duncan, who scored. 

But as Lowe pointed out, what should Miami have done here? It isn't clear that LeBron made the wrong decision, he simply got beat.

It's possible that the best thing Miami can do is tone down the switching and help defense slightly—San Antonio is the best passing team in the NBA—and just hope the Spurs don't set another NBA Finals record for first half field goal percentage. 

Given the circumstances, tinkering at the margins might be the best Miami can do.

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