Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Miami Heat: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 47-35
2009-10 Playoffs: #5 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Boston Celtics in five games
Additions: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwon Howard, Eddie House, Jerry Stackhouse
Key Losses: Michael Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal, Daequan Cook, Dorrell Wright
Projected Rotation Players: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, James Jones, Juwon Howard, Eddie House, Jerry Stackhouse, Jamaal Magloire

As long as they’re even mildly interested, look for the Miami Heat’s devastating defense to actually outshine their work at the offensive end.

So… How was everyone’s summer?

It really wasn’t my intent to wait until the NBA season was a week old to finish writing these previews but that’s just the way things work out sometimes. With that said, for the purpose of this particular preview, I am ecstatic that things worked out as they did.

Ever since we learned about LeBron James’ intended destination for his talents, millions of words have been written about both LeBron and the Heat. We’ve seen venomous condemnations, spirited defenses, rationalizations, psychological analyses and countless prognostications as to level of success- or lack thereof- that the “instant dynasty” will achieve. The majority of this content was simplistic, redundant noise, while some of it was very thoughtful and well-written. Irrespective of its quality, however, every syllable written about the expected performance of the Superfriends shared a common trait- it was all based entirely on speculation.

The lack of precedent for this type of union- two of the NBA’s top three players and three of its top 25, in their respective primes, orchestrating a move to play together- and the lack of opportunity to observe this crew in its entirety in the preseason (what was it? Three, four minutes?) turned any attempt to forecast the Heat’s on-court future into nothing more than an uneducated guess. Having now seen this team play four times- once disastrously, once unremarkably and twice dominantly (one of these against a fellow contender)- we at least have a sample on which to base our predictions.

And just four games into the season, it’s becoming clear that everyone (myself included) neglected to discuss the most important aspect of this Heat team. For all the speculation about which of the three stars would have to sacrifice the most on offense and whether or not LeBron could average a triple-double, not a lot of thought was devoted to the Heat’s potential on defense. This is clearly the area where they’ve chosen to assert their dominance.

Early on at least, the stars on the Heat have chosen not to focus on touches and shot attempts, but on preventing their opponents from putting points on the board. Through four games, the Heat are allowing just 81.8 ppg and forcing nearly 16 turnovers per game. They have yet to allow an opponent to score 90 points in a game and have held three of four opponents to a field goal percentage of 43% or lower. In 16 quarters of regular season play, the Heat have allowed 20 or fewer points in a quarter nine times, they’ve allowed 15 or fewer four times and in their humiliation of Orlando on Friday night, held the Magic to just 10 points on 10% from the field (2-for-20) in the third quarter.

Even in their season opener, a disastrous showing in which they shot just 36.5% from the field and managed just nine first quarter points, Miami continued to put forth a strong effort on defense. Despite playing what will be one of their worst games of the year, the Heat held the Celtics to 88 points and managed pull to within one possession with just 69 seconds remaining. That’s gonna be pretty tough to beat.

It’s important to realize that this is not an old-school, grind-it-out defensive team. The Heat, LeBron and Dwyane Wade in particular, approach playing defense with an offensive mindset. They use their incredible length and athleticism to contest every shot, aggressively play passing lanes and, most devastatingly, smother smaller players on the perimeter, creating turnovers and easy runouts.

Between the LBJ-Wade-Bosh combo, Mike Miller, James Jones and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Heat possess the talent and the personnel to run a variety of sets at the offensive end. However, by focusing the bulk of their energy on defense and opting to run (initially, at least) simple pick-and-rolls, isos and drive-and-kick plays on offense, the Heat have made the game easier for themselves. There will be other brutal shooting nights that are reminiscent of the opening night disaster (probably not as bad, but still), but as long as the Heat are committed to being a truly elite defensive team, they will seldom, if ever, be out of a game. It’s been said countless times: your offensive game will go through hot and cold streaks, but speed, quickness, length and hustle never go into a slump.

Lesser talents have taken this mantra to heart and achieved great things. The notion of two top-tier athletes making this type of commitment is downright scary.

Bottom line: Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Heat at a staggering 64.5. What’s really crazy about this number is not just that seems to be right on, but that the smart money is probably on 65+. Look for the Heat’s final regular season win tally to be between 64 and 67.

It remains to be seen if the Heat have got enough size and muscle in the paint to survive seven-game series against both the Celtics and the Lakers (presumably) this year, but based on the early returns, it looks like this experiment is going to work. And in the words of Agent D-3, when it does, “this is gonna be fun.”

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