Well, that didn’t last long!
Not long ago- at halftime of Tuesday night’s game against the Utah Jazz, as a matter of fact- the Miami Heat looked like they’d shrugged off a totally understandable and explainable opening night loss in Boston and discovered the identity that would make them championship contenders.
Vanilla offense, devastating defense.
That was it. That was the plan and it was working. Brilliant.
By deploying two of the NBA’s fastest, longest and most athletic defenders on the perimeter, the Heat were suffocating opposing offenses and cruising to one easy victory after another. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were wreaking havoc every time they’d converge to trap an opposing ballhander. The rest of the team was moving on defense, whether it was to crowd Dwight Howard in the paint or play passing lanes on the perimeter. The way that these guys approached defense, with an offensive mentality, was really impressive and beautiful to watch.
The Heat were creating an abundance of fast break chances, which led to some blindingly quick scoring runs, which led to some joyous fourth quarters on the Miami bench, which in turn made the Superfriends’ “check your egos at the door” motto much easier to live up to. When this system is clicking, it also leads to the Heat having no use for a real offensive system.
When opponents are struggling to score 85 points and the Heat are lapping the field in a track meet of their creation, 16 & 8 from LeBron and 11 points from Chris Bosh are seen as “doing what it takes to win.” When the system is working, the Heat can dominate without having to run anything more complicated than an elementary school offense (basic pick-and-rolls, isos and drive-and-kick).
And just when it looked as though the Heat had grabbed the NBA by its scrotal detachments and were poised to usher in a new era of dominance in the Eastern Conference, the worm began to turn. Over the past week, a couple of factors- one out of their control, the other very much within it- have combined to put some chinks in the Miami Heat’s aura of invincibility.
First, they started facing the league’s elite point guards. No longer was it Luke Ridnour, Devin Harris or even Jameer Nelson- a very nice player on a good team- running the point against the Heat. The lead guards that have helped hand the Heat three losses their past four games have been Chris Paul, Deron Williams (Millsap got the win, but D-Will drove the comeback) and Rajon Rondo (33 assists in two wins v. MIA), a trio that’s capable of getting to any spot on the floor, at any time, and is not going to lose its composure against any opposing defender or scheme. Four times this season the Heat have faced a top-five point guard, and four times they’ve lost, three times in rather humiliating fashion.
Second, and far more troubling than the Heat’s inability to stop a truly great point guard, is that level of effort put forth on the defensive seems to have waned. This to some extent, this is to be expected over the course of a long season. It’s tough to keep the intensity at a fever pitch for 82 games. There are going to be lapses- some worse than others- during which the Heat will have to rely on raw talent to get by. However, great teams are able relegate these stretches to the “dog days” of the season (February-March). These guys are only human, and are going to have the occasional sluggish night.
What’s problematic, however, is just how quickly these guys went from having the eye of the tiger and feeding off of being the villains of the NBA to a dog days mentality. For a great team to falter during a late-February road trip to (for example) Denver, Minnesota and Indiana is not uncommon (hell, it happens to every team), but for a team that’s been sold as one of the greatest collections of young talent in NBA history- and one that’s playing with a chip on its collective shoulder- to begin to coast before Thanksgiving is a bit silly.
It’s as though they failed to realize just how long a road this is going to be. It’s as though they though that a summer of hype and four dominating wins (one of which came against a good team) qualified as some sort of achievement. It’s like they’d talked themselves into the idea that were already one of history’s great teams and that their mere presence would be good for 60 wins.
With all of that said, there is no reason to think the Heat can’t right the ship. Some cracks have been exposed in the façade, but these issues are far from terminal. Unchecked, they could torpedo the Superfriends era, but don’t need to be anything more serious than growing pains. The Heat still have two of the NBA’s best players (we can all stop pretending that Bosh matters, right?) at the peaks of their respective powers. Thing is, they’ve got to stop acting like this is the case. This team (well, Wade and James) needs to take a step back, humble itself a bit and recommit to giving max effort every night on defense. In my Miami Heat season preview, I wrote that “your offensive game will go through hot and cold streaks, but speed, quickness, length and hustle never go into a slump”- despite the Heat’s attempts to disprove this statement, it is no less true today than it was two weeks ago.