The Miami Heat are again the favorite to win the NBA title again in 2013-14. The main reason, of course, is LeBron James, the best player on the planet and already a top-ten all-time player.
But beyond James’ superstar production (so far this year, he’s averaging career highs in field goal, three-point, and free throw percentages) on the offensive end, team defense is what makes the Heat so hard to beat.
Sure, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh help, but there isn’t a whole lot else on the roster that qualifies as starting-level talent on most serious contenders. In 2012-13, the Heat finished in the top-five in the league in opponents points per game and field goal percentage, as well as turnovers forced.
Combined with LeBron James, you’ve got yourself a recipe for a team that’s sure to playing deep into the spring. Early this season, with the Heat starting the year 1-2 and eventually 4-3 before embarking on their current eight-game win streak, the defense was struggling mightily. Simple offensive maneuvers were eating the once-vaunted Miami defense alive, and even James took to the media to vent about his squad’s struggles on that end of the floor.
When the defense is going right, however, each player on the floor is a vital cog in the Miami Machine, grinding opposing offenses to a complete halt. So how exactly does coach Erik Spoelstra’s crew manage to do this?
In today’s NBA, it starts with pick-and-roll defense. Take, for instance, this sequence of events against the Chicago Bulls in last year’s playoffs. In the below screen-shot, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem both show above the screen being set by Carlos Boozer, nearly trapping Robinson along the sideline. Note that Bosh and Wade have already begun to rotate back towards the lane, where Boozer could potentially be rolling to the hoop and receiving a pass.
Boozer instead flares towards the wing, where an under-duress Chalmers finds him. Meanwhile, Noah inexplicably stops in the middle of the lane, allowing Wade to effectively guard both he and Jimmy Butler simaltaneusly, while James has Marco Bellinelli behind him along the baseline. This rotation by Miami allows Haslem to recover after the double-team outside the arc.
Finally, Noah starts to cut towards the rim, but Bosh’s defense on Boozer and James’ positioning in the lane causes Boozer to try and force a tough pass to the late-cutting Noah. The ball flies out of bounds for a turnover.
But it’s also help defense in general. Take this example from last year’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers. Each of the Heat defenders is either within an arm’s length of the ball or has at least one foot in the paint.
A couple of beats later, the four players not guarding the ball are all in contact with the paint. The Pacers spacing isn’t great, of course, but it’s also the Heat understanding the situation and reacting accordingly. This includes the player with the ball and location on the floor; Roy Hibbert won’t be making too many incredible, cross-court passes in this particular situation.
The play concluded with Hibbert not having a suitable passing angle, and he threw up a wild, closely-guarded hook shot along the baseline, with five Heat defenders in the paint and ready to rebound. There was exactly one Pacer in the lane (Tyler Hansbrough), and he was effectively sealed underneath the basket and in no position to collect an offensive board.
Defense is about more than a shot-swatter patrolling the lane (although Chris Andersen certainly brings some of that to the table for Miami, and it isn’t a bad thing). It’s about a unit moving as one and rotating at the proper time and in an under-control fashion.
The Heat rank second in the league in forcing turnovers, and a lot of it has to do with their exceptional help defense that fills the passing lanes and pressures opposing offenses to take low-percentage shots or throw risky passes. Miami is only middle-of-the-pack in blocked shots, with only Andersen as a real threat in the lane.
But as long as the Heat players buy-in to Spoelstra’s defensive system and play with a sense of urgency, this defense works. It helps that superstars like James play defense with the necessary aggression, and it’s just a matter of getting some of the fringe players to play with some consistency.
Spoelstra has a little bit of a larger challenge this season, with the likes of Michael Beasley and Roger Mason, Jr., both notorious for their lack of defensive effort and performance, but so far, the returns appear to be solid. Assuming that their attention to detail on defense lasts for the season and into the playoffs, the Heat defense will continue to back the most efficient superstar in the game and lead Miami to the NBA Finals once again.