By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
VIDEO: Pacers vs. Heat: Game 3
MIAMI — The Miami Heat needed a jump start in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday. After a brutal first quarter, they had just 38 points and trailed by four points at halftime.
Their defense was decent in the first 24 minutes, but still could get better. It has come and gone all season, often suffering from a lack of energy. And when a defensive scheme that’s built around activity is played without it, the results … well, they speak for themselves.
“When we lay back,” LeBron James said, “everything that we’ve built, it just doesn’t work.”
And at this point in the postseason, the Heat can’t be counting on fourth-quarter offense to win them games.
Early in the second half on Saturday, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra had his team initiate its defense in the backcourt, a decision that led to a 61-45 second half and a 99-87 victory for the Heat, giving them a 2-1 series lead.
The initial results weren’t good. The first time the Heat sent a second defender at George Hill as he brought the ball up the floor, he went straight to the basket and got an and-one on a running bank shot. On the next possession, he did the same thing and drew Chris Bosh‘s fourth foul.
But a third straight press-breaking drive by Hill resulted in an offensive foul. Two possessions later, the Heat trapped Paul George at midcourt. He got the ball to David West, who found a cutting Lance Stephenson with an open lane to the basket. But Stephenson’s feet came out from under him as he rose for a layup, and he tossed the ball into the bottom of the rim, a botch that led to a James dunk and the Heat’s first lead of the game.
The pressure defense got Indiana out of sorts.
“They just pressured us,” Stephenson said afterward. “We collapsed. We just turned the ball over and we just never responded – we were too late to respond when they put pressure on us.”
More important was what the pressure defense did to the Heat themselves. It got them engaged. Spoelstra essentially forced his team to play with more energy, and they responded.
That James dunk was Miami’s seventh straight score. The Pacers were unable to cut off the paint and James and Dwyane Wade were taking the ball right at Roy Hibbert.
Defensively, they didn’t pick up in the backcourt much after those first few minutes of the third quarter. Like a zone, that scheme can’t sustain you long-term against NBA talent.
But the defense still picked up. The Heat were more active throughout the second half. They kept the Pacers from initiating their offense by denying easy catches at the elbow. And their rotations were sharper and quicker.
One fourth quarter possession stood out. With Indiana down just five, Chris Bosh met West’s roll out high and Wade rotated from the weak side to deflect West’s pass to Roy Hibbert under the basket. Though the Heat were playing small, their quickness and energy didn’t allow the Pacers to take advantage.
Stops led to early offense, drives to the paint, trips to the free-throw line, and Ray Allen draining 3s. The Heat’s forte, basically.
That’s what Spoelstra had been looking for. He said that the Pacers dictated the pace and played their style more than the Heat played theirs in the first two games of the series.
“For the most part,” Spoelstra said, “for the first two games and even for a large part of the first half of this game, it was played in their wheelhouse, on their terms.”
Not so in the second half of Game 3. The switch was flipped, and it started with the coach’s decision to start defending in the backcourt.
That move could have backfired if the defensive energy wasn’t there or if the Pacers could have executed better. Instead, it was just what the Heat needed to raise their energy level on both ends of the floor.
“We looked like we were stuck in mud in the first quarter,” Spoelstra said. “That’s a big credit to how they dictated the game. We can’t play this series on their terms. So that was just to get our energy going, to force us to make multiple efforts, and it activated our guys for this game.”
The Pacers’ offense was actually more efficient in the second half than they were in the first. But that energy carryover from defense to offense helped the Heat score 61 points on 41 possessions (149 per 100) over the final 24 minutes.
They’re a better offensive team than they are a defensive team. But the two ends of the floor are linked. When they defend, they start going downhill offensively. And when they’re at their best, the Heat can overpower the No. 1 defense in the league.
“We have to play our type of basketball,” James said. “We have to be disruptive. We have to speed up the team that we’re going against, and we have to fly around defensively.
“We’re an attack team. When we get into our game, so many things happen for us, and we’re even able to cover up for some of the mistakes we make both offensively and defensively.”
Now, they have to do it again in Game 4 on Monday.