Commentary

Heat defend, then get out and play

Originally Published: December 12, 2010
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

Erik SpoelstraMike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesIf Dwyane Wade and Co. clamp down on D, Erik Spoelstra calls fewer set offensive plays.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Everybody loves recess. The running around, the yelling, the fun with friends. It was the highlight that often made the school day bearable.

It is that sort of dangling carrot that the Heat's principal -- well, coach Erik Spoelstra -- has figured out during his team's eight-game win streak.

The philosophy?

If you do your homework, you'll get to play. That means you, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and anyone else who is on the floor.

Like many of today's coaches, Spoelstra is obsessed with defense and drills it into his players at every juncture.

This is a yearly exercise in the NBA. Coaches scheme for ways to get their players to buy into the importance of defense. For the Heat, who will continue to have some matchup issues at several spots as the season goes along, getting a consistent effort is rather important.

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra
Rocky Widner/Getty ImagesErik Spoelstra has seen consistent effort on defense lift his team to eight straight wins.

Especially because when Miami does give maximum effort, it is one of the best defensive teams in the league. Early in the season, when they were basically a .500 team, the Heat's defensive efforts varied nightly and it was a factor in their unsteady play.

So Spoelstra has come up with a deal. It is not an unheard-of proposition. In fact, it is right in the coach's handbook. But originality isn't important -- execution is. And during the Heat's winning streak, their execution has earned a solid A.

Here's how it works: If the Heat get a stop on defense, there will be no play call. In general, the players can just run, jump and play. Like good old recess.

But if they take the ball out of the basket, then they've got to look over at the bench for instructions.

"Coach has said if y'all get rebounds, y'all can do whatever you want," Wade said. "As players we enjoy that. When the ball goes through the basket then we have to do what he wants us to do."

If it seems elementary, well, it is. As elementary as elementary school. Behave in class and it's recess after lunch.

The Heat have been thriving with this program. During their winning streak they have locked down defensively and backed that up with excellent rebounding. Those two factors have allowed their speed and talent to translate into easy offense, and fun transition offense.

Here's how it folds together. During the eight-game streak the Heat have allowed opponents to shoot just 39.1 percent from the floor, which has Miami ranked as one of the most efficient defensive teams in the league.

Those misses have meant a lot of rebound chances, and the Heat are claiming them. They have won the rebound battle in each of the eight wins, and outrebounded the opposition by a combined 80 rebounds, including hammering the Kings 57-36 on Saturday night.

The Heat have averaged 18.6 fast-break points per game during the stretch and they've been remarkable on the break. They are shooting 79 percent on fast-break possessions.

That is because Wade and James are often finishing, and when they run the break together, they are rather hard to stop. Wade now has 127 field goals this season inside 5 feet, second in the NBA to Blake Griffin. Wade has picked up 18 of them in the past two games running against Sacramento and Golden State.

Overall, James and Wade are the two leading transition scorers in the league. James has 164 points in transition, while Wade has 149.

So the Heat's recent success is a direct product of their game plan. And they've been following it diligently because it gets them what they want.

"I like to see the guys having fun defending and rebounding because they understand what comes after that," Spoelstra said. "They're enjoying it, but more important, they are understand the correlation. You can't get out and run unless you get those stops.

"It is an easy way to try and win the game offensively and can be perceived as the fun way to do it. Our guys are buying into defending."

The Heat have gotten better in their half-court offense as Wade and James have been able to find some old favorite spots and Bosh has found a niche running offense from the high post. But ultimately the Heat are excelling with their speed, which may be their greatest strength.

That speed, as Spoelstra seems to have successfully reinforced for the moment, is predicated on playing active and effective defense first.

"There aren't that many teams who can stay with us speed-wise," James said. "When we get out and run we're going to be tough to beat."