Ever since their mind-boggling collapse against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat have been a different team. At various points in the past three years, LeBron James became the team’s clear-cut alpha dog, Chris Bosh stretched his offense farther and farther from the paint, and Erik Spoelstra developed devastating offensive continuity built on spreading the floor with shooters. Miami fully embraced its natural identity as a small-ball outfit, basically, and the result has been something close to a dynasty. It’s when the Heat have the ball that the merits of their speedy, undersized lineups are most obvious, but it’s on the other end of the court where Miami’s Finals rematch against San Antonio will be decided.
It’s no secret that the Heat took a step back defensively during the regular season. Their 102.9 defensive rating was 11th in the league, marking the first time in the Big Three era Miami has failed to rank among basketball’s seven best teams on that side of the ball. While the Heat have looked their aggressive, frenetic defensive selves at times during this postseason, too often they’ve let the tenuous commitment and frequent lethargy from the regular season creep into playoff games.
Miami has shown recently and in the past that it can flip the proverbial switch on that end when absolutely necessary; the question now is if the Heat can keep it flipped for an entire series against a team like the Spurs.
There’s no clear answer. Miami is a collective year older and step slower than last season: Shane Battier is sick of banging with power forwards, Ray Allen can’t be hidden, Dwyane Wade struggles to keep up with quick perimeter players whether he’s engaged or otherwise, and even LeBron – who was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team yesterday after earning a place on the First Team the previous five years – has received rightful derision for his defensive performance during the playoffs and regular season.
Still, there’s no team like the Heat when they’re swarming the dribble, rotating hard from the weak-side, and getting their cat-quick hands on the ball. Miami isn’t the group of rangy athletes it was in 2011 or 2012, and Spoelstra has dialed back its commitment to trapping high pick-and-rolls with all-out hedges. But the Heat will kill indecisive team offense and prey on weak individual playmakers nonetheless.
That’s what makes their matchup with San Antonio basketball nirvana. No team in the league is better served to exploit Miami’s defensive strategy than the Spurs. Their 19.1 assist rate during the regular season led the NBA, and they’ve averaged a staggering 421.3 individual ‘touches’ per game in the playoffs – over 24 more than the second-place Pacers. It’s just a single possession within a game of 100 or so, but the stats support legitimacy of this mesmerizing GIF:
Nobody moves the ball like San Antonio, a nod to the unparalleled intelligence of its coaching staff as well as the nuanced skill of its players. Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw are among the league’s most creative passers regardless of position, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan have long been underrated playmakers, and the other Spurs space the floor (Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Matt Bonner), finish inside (Tiago Splitter), or do both at levels close to elite (Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills).
Miami’s offense is superior statistically and has a burst that San Antonio’s can’t quite match. But San Antonio’s might be better; it’s hard to believe the Spurs would ever struggle to score the way the Heat do from time to time, a realization that gives them a crucial advantage in a series that seems bound to barely tilt either way.