Quick: How do you beat the Miami Heat?
Although, I could not hear you through the computer screen, I'm pretty sure that you said, "you must pound the ball inside and take it to the rim against their weak interior defense." If that was not your first answer, I'm confident it was your second.
And in theory, when you take a glance over the Miami Heat roster at its frontline, it would seem that this theory was pretty solid.
Afterall, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier are aging centers who don't have the quickness to stay with athletic limber big men like Dwight Howard and Lamar Odom right?
Chris Bosh is more of a jump shooting big man and has never been a fan of heavy contact in the paint. Plus, Joel Anthony, while currently 18th in the league in shot-blocking, is undersized and has been abused by opposing bigs.
However, despite what we have been insistently told about the Miami Heat's primary weakness, it simply has not played out in the regular season, especially since the 9-8 start.
How could that be?
The typical NBA team converts about 63 percent of its offensive opportunities in the paint; however, against the Miami Heat's supposed "porous interior defense" the conversion rate is only 58 percent which is the best in the league.
Right now, no team in guarding the paint better than Miami.
I can sense skepticism, because that's not what the consensus belief is about the Heat. There is the perception out there that a team needs are great defense center like a Gerald Wallace to be an elite interior defensive team. But this theory ignores the fact that defense is rarely a one-on-one concept. Usually, the entire team must collectively work within a system to protect the paint, and Miami's system of rim protection is one of the NBA's best.
Synergy Sports Technology also reports that the Heat rank first in defending post-ups. Centers and assorted bigs are shooting just 38.1 percent on post-up plays versus the Heat and score a mere .74 points per post-up play, that's even including trips to the line, which is an incredible stat.
Least you doubted, take a look at Dwight Howard, the game's consensus best center, against Miami in the previous meeting. Howard, who scored 40 points in the paint against the Bulls, one of the league's best defensive teams, was held to only 17 points by Miami including one point in the entire second half.
Close observers of the game could see the reason for the Heat's success in paint defense despite the lack of an elite center...their athleticism.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took turns blocking Howard's shots, plus they denied the paint beautifully. When Howard had a post-up on Anthony or Dampier, he saw a hand in his face or a palm altering his shot.
The Heat swarm the paint better than any team in the league.
Nevertheless, despite the Heat's solid interior defense, team's are still planning to "attack their interior" in order to beat them, perhaps playing into Miami's hands.
Even Stan Van Gundy noted how great Miami's interior D really is:
“It’s hard to get to the rim,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “They have very, very athletic wing people. And they have great size. Anthony’s a great defender. That’s why he’s in the league. That’s why he’s playing as much as he can. And while Z isn’t a great defender in some ways – he’s slower than he was earlier in his career – he’s 7-foot-3. It’s not easy around the basket.”
Nevertheless, despite all the evidence disproving this insistent myth, word around the NBA will continue to be that "Miami can't guard the paint," and big men are going to continue to find themselves in the midst of subpar outings looking to prove the theory correct.
Pau Gasol was expected to dominate the paint against the Heat's interior defense, but he shot only 8-17 against the Heat's D and scored a quiet 17 points in the Christmas Day game and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls power forward who has been having a strong season, was held to 12 points on 6-14 from the field in the first Heat-Bulls matchup of the season.
Right now, the Heat’s centers have simply not proven to be a glaring weakness for the team, and big men like Howard (who was 7-13 in the game) have not been able to score at will in the paint against the them like they were expected to.