HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Since their 27-game winning streak came to an end 16 days ago, the Miami Heat have been taking it kind of easy.
The only Heaters to play all seven games since then are Chris Andersen, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Rashard Lewis and Mike Miller. Starters Mario Chalmers (3), Dwyane Wade (6), LeBron James (4), Chris Bosh (3) and Udonis Haslem (1) have missed a combined 17 games in the seven-game stretch.
Yet the Heat have gone 6-1 since that loss in Chicago, having no problem clinching the league’s best overall record and home-court advantage throughout the postseason. The schedule hasn’t exactly been harrowing, but they did win in San Antonio without James, Wade or Chalmers and handled likely first-round opponent Milwaukee without Bosh or Wade.
The Heat have maintained their standing as the No. 1 offense in the league, but they’re also playing their best defense of the season.
Since the streak ended, the Heat have been the second-best defense in the league, behind only Memphis. They’ve actually allowed fewer points per 100 possessions over the last seven games (97.9) than they did during the streak (99.0).
It’s obviously a small sample size (against a few bad offensive teams), but it’s a continuation of a positive trend. Miami has also been the third-best defensive team since the All-Star break, and when you compare pre-break numbers to post-break numbers, the Heat have been the most improved defensive team in the league…
Most improved defenses (points allowed per 100 possessions) since All-Star break
Consistency on the defensive end of the floor was an issue as the Heat cruised through the first half of the season. They ranked fourth defensively last season, but were just 11th on that end at the time their streak started. That’s not championship-level defense.
Since mid-December though, the Heat have been trending in the right direction. They’ve basically improved defensively month by month, with a blip in February (a month in which their offense carried them to a 12-1 record).
Comparing pre-break to post-break numbers, the Heat have improved in multiple ways. They’ve been defending the 3-point line better, they’ve been forcing more turnovers, and they’ve been keeping their opponents off the free-throw line…
Heat defense, before and after All-Star break
DREB% = Percentage of available defensive rebounds obtained
OppTmTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = FTA/FGA
The Heat play a very aggressive style of defense, attacking the ball and using their quickness, length and athleticism to recover to the weak side. And when it’s not sharp, opposing teams can take advantage from beyond the arc. Miami struggled to defend the 3-point line early last season as well, but improved as the season went on and allowed their opponents to shoot just 30 percent from downtown in the playoffs.
The numbers are further confirmation of something I wrote about when addressing the Spurs’ improved defense a few weeks ago: Rebounding isn’t all that important. Miami has been the third-worst defensive rebounding team since the break, yet still ranks third overall on that end.
Erik Spoelstra talked about rebounding (finishing defensive possessions) last month…
“Possessions are at such a premium in the playoffs. So we understand that it’s very important. Look, my boss came up with the term ‘no rebounds, no rings.’ That’ll always ring true in my ears, but we have some things that are very important to us, and our identity, and how we play. We have to get to those things, and then obviously finish it off.
“Our guys understand that we have to finish, but we also understand what our identity is. And when we’re getting to things that make us successful, that’ll trump a lot of other things. But we certainly have to finish.”
It takes both great offense and great defense to to win a championship. We never really doubted the Heat’s ability to repeat, but their improved defense over the last couple of months certainly makes it more difficult to pick anyone else to dethrone them.