Defense the key for the new-look Heat
PHILADELPHIA -- A perturbed Erik Spoelstra called two timeouts during the fourth quarter of the Miami Heat's first victory of the season -- once when his team was up 17 points on the Philadelphia 76ers and another when it was up 15.
There's so much focus on the offensive chemistry and scoring balance of the Heat's juggernaut trio and with good reason. For many observers, Miami's success is an inevitability if the central cast can figure out how to share the spotlight and the ball.
The first two games, a loss in Boston on opening night and a 97-87 win over Philly on Wednesday, saw a nice illustration of this potential: LeBron James scored 31 points in the opener. Dwyane Wade then came back with a smooth and impressive 30-point performance in Philly while James struggled with turnovers.
But the reason Spoelstra called those timeouts is the Heat's central focus at the moment, even if it isn't as interesting to the standard fan. Spoelstra was frustrated with some breakdowns he saw on defense and bolted into the huddles twice to let his team know about them.
That has been the Heat coach's mandate since Day 1 of training camp and he's not wavering on it. There's no hiding from the fact that Spolestra is under a significant amount of pressure to make the talent he's been given work as a unit. But his base principle is to get them functioning at the defensive end, knowing that the offense will eventually come together on its own.
"We've spent a majority of our time on defense and that's by design," Spoelstra said. "We want to have a [defensive] disposition."
So far the Heat are merely 1-1, with the victory coming against an overwhelmed 76ers outfit that saw its starters combine for just 30 points. But the Miami defense, that central tenant, already seems to be following the path Spoelstra wants it on all season.
Save for that unsettling fourth quarter when the Heat got a little lazy after getting up 28 points and allowed the 76ers to score 33, the Heat are off to a strong start.
They allowed only 88 points to the Celtics, though Boston's 46 percent shooting was higher than desired. It was because the Heat were able to deny the Celtics and create turnovers that they were still in the game in the fourth quarter.
Wednesday night, the 76ers managed those 87 points on 43 percent shooting, which was closer to ideal. Through three quarters, Philly had only 54 points and was hitting at a 36 percent clip from the floor.
Miami has forced 39 turnovers, creating 46 points in their two games. The Heat have allowed an average of 39 points in the paint as well.
Indeed, Miami's interior defense has the potential to be a weakness during the season. But any team would like to post those types of averages for the long haul. It certainly would give them a chance to win most games against the strong inside games of the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls.
"We will be one of the best defensive teams in the league," Wade said. "Our defense will be above our offense."
That is exactly what the Heat coaching staff wants Wade to say, and they'll be more impressed if he and his teammates stick to that agenda. Spoelstra's been drilling it into them since long before Hurlburt Field and training camp with the hope that it becomes an emphasis on a nightly basis. And that's why he called the two timeouts, to let them know he means it even in potential garbage time.
Spoelstra teaches what is known as a "shrink the floor" style of defense. It is a common approach and more teams have been using it since the San Antonio Spurs made it a key part of their four titles.
Protecting the paint is the main strategic imperative. When the ball does get in the middle, all the defenders collapse to help defend or "shrink" the defensive footprint. As a result, the ball will often get kicked to the outside, where the Heat are encouraged to close out to jump shooters. The defense is willing to give up jumpers -- hopefully contested -- instead of one-on-one matchups inside.
With highly athletic and long players such as James, Wade and eventually Mike Miller, Miami has the personnel to make it effective. And if they're successful, the Heat should be able to give their challenged big men as much help as possible during the season.
So far it has been working. The Heat have created numerous deflections and steals (Wade has six in the two games) as they use their athleticism to get in passing lanes. The plan is for that to become the norm.
"It is going to be our backbone and it is going to help us win a lot of close games," Chris Bosh said. "After all the hard work we've put in to it, we need to see those results."