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. (more…)