SAN ANTONIO — It’s the difference between a team that has done enough to get by and a team that will win a third straight championship.
Defense is the big variable for the Miami Heat and has been all season. It comes and goes. And whether they win or lose, defense is usually the reason why.
The Heat’s fourth season with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was their worst of the four on the defensive end of the floor. After ranking in the top seven in defensive efficiency each of the last three years (and in the season before James and Bosh arrived), they ranked 11th in 2013-14, allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions.
The highest the Heat defense ranked in any month was seventh, and that was in November. They finished with the second best record in the Eastern Conference and knew that they could get a playoff win on the road when needed, but for most of the year, they did just enough to get by.
They held the Charlotte Bobcats under their regular season offensive numbers in a first round sweep. But Charlotte’s offensive threats consisted of Kemba Walker and a hobbled Al Jefferson.
The Brooklyn Nets had more guys who could score, and after taking a 2-0 series lead, the Heat didn’t do much to stop them, allowing the Nets to score more than 114 points per 100 possessions over the final three games of the series. But they took care of business with offensive execution and big fourth quarters in Games 4 and 5. Again, they were doing just enough to get by.
Then, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, they played one of the worst defensive games we have ever seen them play. In the first game of the series, there was little incentive for the Heat to bring their best. They had three more chances to get the road win they needed and their lack of urgency was clear.
“I don’t know if we’ve been that poor,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the next day, “certainly in the way we’ve graded it, since we put this team together. Across the board, that was about as poor as we’ve played defensively. And all aspects of it. It was the ball pressure. It was the commitment on the ball. It was the weak side. It was finishing possessions. It was doing it without fouling. It has to be much better, a much more committed effort, across the board.”
LeBron struggles on defense
At the center of a lot of the breakdowns was James, who couldn’t handle the obligations of defending one of Indiana’s big men. His pick-and-roll defense was poor, he got beat back-door more than once, and he even got bullied under the basket by Lance Stephenson.
A year ago, James was upset about finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. But if he wanted to win the award this season, he didn’t show it. He had what was clearly his worst defensive season since before he was ever an MVP.
Maybe the absence of Wade for 28 games put more of a burden on James offensively. Maybe three straight trips to The Finals had taken their toll. Or maybe he wasn’t in peak shape at the start of the season. Whatever the reason, the Heat’s defensive regression started with their best player.
Things got better after Game 1 in Indiana. James went back to defending perimeter players (sometimes the Indiana point guards), Rashard Lewis took on the West assignment, and the effort all around was more consistent. The Heat got the road win they needed by getting stops in the second and fourth quarters of Game 2. It wasn’t a complete game, but again, it was enough.
“I think we’re alert and awake,” Shane Battier said late in the series, “which is something you really couldn’t say about our team defense in January. So that’s an improvement. Where it stacks against historical Miami Heat defenses, I can’t tell you. But we’re more awake than we were in January.”
Battier acknowledged that there was a point in the season when he didn’t know if his team’s defense would ever reach the level it needed to be at to win a third straight championship. The Heat have shown that they can defend at a high level at the most crucial times in years past, but that doesn’t mean that they can cruise through the regular season and turn into the league’s best defense overnight.
“Defense is not a matter of flipping a switch,” Battier said. “Defense is habits. And we were developing some really poor habits that we didn’t have the last two years. So yeah, I was concerned, no question.”
The Heat allowed the fifth-fewest fast break points per game in the regular season, but Battier says it was transition defense where he saw bad habits forming.
“We didn’t show any effort or any passion for playing transition defense,” Battier said. “And that’s sort of a microcosm of greater defense. If you get back in transition defense, you’re going to play great half-court defense, because you care. For a while there, it seemed like we didn’t value possessions.”
Defensive woes may hurt three-peat bid
Spoelstra has made some concessions with his defensive scheme. The Heat have been more selectively aggressive with their pick-and-roll coverage. In the Indiana series, the big man defending pick-and-rolls didn’t hedge as hard as he did in last year’s conference finals. Still, the Heat want to be “flying around,” a term that both Spoelstra and James have used to describe their trap-rotate-and-recover scheme at its best.
“If we’re not aggressive, we’re just not big enough,” Battier said. “We’ll be overpowered. I think we’re smarter using our aggressiveness.”
Only three teams in the last 36 years (since the league started counting turnovers) have ranked outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency and gone on to win a championship. All three – the 1987-88 Lakers, the 1994-95 Rockets and the 2000-01 Lakers – were defending champions who ranked in the top six defensively the prior season.
While the Heat defense passed the eye test over the last few games against Indiana, the numbers still weren’t great. For the series, the Pacers scored 5.6 points per 100 possessions more than their regular-season mark, which ranked 22nd in the league. The Nets had scored 3.8 points per 100 possessions more than their regular-season mark, which ranked 14th.
Both Brooklyn and Indiana posed matchup problems, but these were not very good offensive teams. And the Heat allowed them to put up good offensive numbers. In the previous three years, they had never allowed more than one playoff opponent to score more efficiently than it did in the regular season.
Perimeter problems a big issue
The numbers show that the Heat’s biggest issues in the playoffs have been on the perimeter. From outside the paint, their opponents have an effective field-goal percentage of 51.5 percent, highest in the postseason. Spurs playoff opponents, in comparison, have had an effective field-goal percentage of only 43.7 percent from outside the paint in the playoffs.
According to SportVU, the Heat have contested 43.2 percent of their opponents’ jump shots, a mark that ranks fourth in the playoffs and is basically equal to the Spurs’ mark (43.3 percent). But their opponents, though they were poorer shooting teams in the regular season, have shot much better on both contested an uncontested jumpers than San Antonio’s opponents have.
So maybe it’s just a matter of those numbers going more the Heat’s way in the next seven games. Wade believes his team’s defensive issues are behind them.
“It’s at the level it needs to be right now,” he said of the defense during the Indiana series. “The season’s over with. The only thing we can focus on right now is how we’re playing right now.”
The Spurs, of course, are far better offensively than Charlotte, Brooklyn or Indiana were. They have one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in the league, a post-up threat, brilliant passing, and a bevy of 3-point shooters. They’re a fine-tuned machine.
The Heat’s offense has been even better. They have their own weapons, just tore up the No. 1 defense in the league for most of six games, and may not have to be at their best defensively if the Spurs can’t figure out how to stop James, Wade and Miami’s own perimeter shooters.
But San Antonio has been the much better defensive team over the last seven months. They ranked fourth defensively in the regular season and just held both Portland and Oklahoma City – two top-seven offenses – well under their regular season offensive numbers.
The Heat’s defense is better than it was six weeks ago. We’re about to find out if it’s good enough.