What has separated the Miami Heat from the rest of the NBA during their back-to-back championship reign hasn’t been their offense. You can argue that a big part of it was LeBron James, but without a defensive backbone the Heat don’t win any championships. It was instrumental in their win over OKC and over the well-oiled machine that was last season’s San Antonio team.
After all, defense wins championships. And the Heat have rode their’s to back-to-back ‘ships. However, slowly and slowly, year after year, that much acclaimed championship defense has begun to falter a little more with every passing second this year. Part of that can be chalked up to an up-and-down Dwyane Wade and the fact that Eric Spoelstra has been playing a game of musical chairs with the team’s rotation.
Despite that, what has remained constant has been the Heat’s ability to take their defense to another level once the NBA playoffs start.
Miami has held an under-100 defensive rating for the past three seasons in the NBA playoffs. Here are the totals of the regular season vs the Heat’s playoff defensive ratings during the “Big Three” era in Miami:
*Through one series against Charlotte
That begs the questions, can the Heat keep this up and, if so, how long will they be able to maintain this high level with a somewhat limited Dwyane Wade?
There’s really no clear answer yet, though, what we do know is that they’re about to get tested.
Enter, the Brooklyn Nets.
We know the story. We know the narratives. We know THE stat that everyone is going to bring up today. 4-0.
The Nets are 4-0 this season against the back-to-back defending champions. And they also have, what many to believe, LeBron’s kryptonite on their team — Paul Pierce. And the stats kind of support that. This season, Paul Pierce only averaged 13.5 points per game and shot 45 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range. Against the Heat (and LeBron), Pierce averaged 21.3 points per game and shot 55 percent from the field and 45 percent from three-point range.
Then there are the team stats.
Predictably, if you look at the stats it’s pretty astonishing. Against the Nets this season, the Heat only managed a defensive rating of 104 and only average 94.3 points on offense. It’s not encouraging at all.
But the Nets have beaten the Heat the only real way you can — by making the right basketball plays. By playing smart, strategic and taking advantage of opportunities. Especially when it comes to the Heat’s defensive side of the ball.
LeBron James gets beat off the dribble (honest mistake, he was in the midst of a hard closeout and slipped).
Help defense then comes via Roger Mason Jr, who was caught on a switch guarding Mason Plumlee. LeBron has recoved and they’ve trapped Williams’ drive. Still, Williams has two open players. He can either dish it to Plumlee or hit Shaun Livingston on the high post.
Williams decides to hit Plumlee. The Heat’s defense rotates, but because LeBron slipped on the initial move by Williams the Heat’s defense is now lost. Bosh, who was on Livingston before is now covering Plumlee. Mason Jr, who was on Plumlee is in no mans land, trying to cover both Plumlee and Williams. LeBron never rotates over to Livingston and he makes a cut towards the basket.
It results in an easy dunk for the Nets.
Similarly, this play stars the same. Paul Pierce swings the ball to Marcus Thornton. Mario Chalmers closes out hard (because Thornton is on the court for his shooting) and slips. Ironically, as the same spot as LeBron.
Chalmers’ slip will cause Bosh, who is guarding Plumlee, to help out a little further that he would like to. But the slipping Chalmers also opens the middle of the Heat’s defense like the red sea.
The entire Heat defense collapses, Chalmers is now out of the line of defense and the entire Nets team is open. Thornton can literally throw the ball anywhere and hit an open Net. He chooses Plumlee, and Brooklyn gets an easy dunk.
Here we have a simple pick n roll game by the Nets. Deron Williams uses a simple high screen by Mason.
The Heat do what they normally do and trap Williams, leaving Plumlee with the ability to roll cleanly. Plumlee is left with Ray Allen on him, LeBron stays on the three-point shooter. The Nets get another easy layup.
Pierce takes his defender one-on-one, beats him and finds himself in the heart of the Heat’s defense. Naturally, they collapse and leave basically five options for Pierce. He can either find one of his other four open teammates or he can take the contested layup.
He chooses to pass to one of the open shooters and Chalmers’ closeout isn’t good enough, Nets get an easy three.
Finally, another basic high screen and roll with Williams and Plumlee. This time, from the right wing. After the successful screen, the Heat attack the dribbler (predictably) and leave the entire right side of the court vacant. Plumlee simply rolls to the open area and awaits a potential pass from Williams.
Williams hits Plumlee with the pass; no one is within arms reach of Plumlee and he simply drives to the basket and dunks over some late LeBron help defense.
The reoccurring themes in all these Heat defensive lapses is the fact that Brooklyn makes the “right” basketball play, hits the open man and flat-out beats the Heat’s defense at their own game. Miami likes to crowd the ball handler on PNR’s, so the Nets act quickly and hit the roller. After that, the Heat’s defense struggles to reestablish itself and if it manages to do, it’s too late.
It’s smart basketball, it’s why the Spurs gave the Heat so much trouble in last year’s Finals.
Before, the only way to beat the Heat’s defense was great three-point shooting. And while that remains true to a certain extent, it’s much easier and efficient to simply beat Miami’s much-touted defense by playing textbook basketball. Many times the Heat simply rely on athleticism on D. Eventually that loses out to experience and cohesiveness.
Sure, the Nets are probably going to have to play near-perfect basketball to beat the Heat four times, but if they manage to play patient, and calculate every offensive possession, they have a shot.
But it’s going to begin and end in their ability to solve the Miami’s defense. And, ironically, perhaps the best way to beat the Heat’s defense is to just be there when they beat themselves.