It didn’t take long for the Miami Heat to be humbled to the point of their four-time MVP dropping an expletive when asked about his team’s defensive effort.
“It’s simple. These first seven games, we’re playing like shit defensively. It’s that simple. We’re not a sugarcoat team. We came in and got right down to it. We’re terrible on defense, and we’ve got to change that.”
The tirade came on the heels of a last-second 111-110 loss to a Boston Celtics team that had been ranked 28th in the league in offensive efficiency (per Hollinger) heading into the contest. Miami had its chances to pull away, but wasn’t able to limit Boston from shooting 51 percent for the game.
It’s also not the first time Miami has given up a large number of points to an inferior opponent in the early season. They also yielded 114 points to the lottery-destined Philadelphia 76ers, nearly allowing rookie Michael Carter-Williams to record a quadruple-double in his first-ever game.
My favorite aspect of this Heat team has always been their resilience and their ability to learn from their mistakes. They don’t enjoy losing and they’re willing to endure film sessions of their lowest moments in order to come out a better prepared and rightfully humbled team.
Still, the Heat have had their moments on defense. They put Derrick Rose and Chris Paul in straightjackets, and kept solid offenses in Washington and Toronto below 100 points. They also showcased their devastating ability to convert defense into offense in their recent blowout win over Milwaukee.
This alley-oop from Mario Chalmers to James was a perfect representation of the Heat’s high-octane offense. A deflection off a pass, an outlet pass up the court, and a monumental throwdown that shook the rafters of the American Airlines Arena.
That’s what we’ve become accustomed to over the past three years. What we also should have been accustomed to was this Heat team not displaying maximum effort on the defensive end in the early portion of the regular season.
In case you don’t recall, the 66-16 Heat from last year didn’t exactly set themselves apart from the rest of the pack until mid-February. Before then, they were an average defensive team that ranked in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency and were fighting with the New York Knicks for a No. 1 seed they would eventually win by 12 games.
Even after their big win over Milwaukee where they forced 18 turnovers and held the Bucks to 42 percent shooting, the Heat still rank 24th in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 103.3 points per 100 possessions. They’re also allowing 0.91 points per possession, ranking 27th in the league.
On top of those deplorable numbers, Miami also ranks 24th in field goal percentage allowed, 18th in three-point percentage, and 25th in three-pointers made. Not exactly the numbers you expect from a back-to-back champion that has prided itself on creating turnovers and scoring in the open court.
Neither is the 5-3 start. But don’t look too much into that record, especially once you realize those three losses have come by a combined six points, two of them by a single point.
In fact, akin to the defensive effort, this is certainly not the first time Miami has gotten off to a slow start. We all recall the struggles of the 9-8 start in their first season together, but does anyone remember the 8-4 start the next season? Or the 6-3 start from last year?
The Heat responded with a significant run following each slow start. They ran off a 12-game winning streak in 2011, had a nine-game winning streak in 2012, and, as we all remember, the famed 27-game winning streak from last year that separated themselves from the rest of the league.
Before that winning streak, the Heat were only 29-14 and were coming off a double-digit loss to Indiana.
Basically what I’m trying to say is don’t judge the Heat this early in the season. They recognize what they’re capable of and they can consider it as a gift and a curse. It’s a gift in the way that it only takes one significant run for them to create a blowout, but a curse in that it causes complacency for a vast majority of the game.
There are games such as their win against Toronto where a 78-74 lead going into the fourth escalated into a 90-74 edge within a span of three minutes, but there also contests such as the one against Boston, where the Heat can’t run off those patented runs and they end up paying for it.
Miami is going to escape most of the time because of their talent alone, but there are going to be times where the opponent is simply making shots that night. Many analysts failed to give any credit to a Celtics team that shot 8-of-13 on jumpers in the fourth quarter of that contest, instead noting Miami’s listless defense and Dwyane Wade‘s free throws.
Miami’s toughest opponent will always be itself. They’re constantly fighting themselves when it comes to exerting a certain amount of energy on defense and maintaining their focus long enough to complete a 48-minute game. It’s an extremely dangerous game to play, one the Heat constantly play, but we hardly notice it because they don’t lose many games. Because they don’t lose many games, they realize that they can coast, especially in games against the likes of Boston and Philadelphia in early November, and they end up winning with just a few turnovers that convert into easy points.
As I’ll keep reiterating, we’ve been here before. Remember when the sky was falling after their loss to Washington last year? Or those two 20-point losses to New York? Or that 13-point loss to Indiana I mentioned earlier? Of course you don’t remember those games because they don’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things, especially when you go on to win a championship. It’s all a matter of effort and if the effort is there, Miami is going to win 99 times out of 100.
Their defense is entirely based on effort. It’s a controlled panic that relies heavily on trapping at the top of the perimeter and forcing deflections that turn into turnovers thanks to those traps. However, if they fail to make the turnover, the player who helped double-team has to race back to their original assignment. If one rotation is off, the Heat are giving up a wide-open shot, which explains why their perimeter defense has been off to start the season. That lack of effort is also evidenced by the team’s poor transition defense, where they rank 29th in the league in points per possession allowed, per Synergy, giving up 65 percent overall shooting and 46 percent three-point shooting.
Plus, let’s not forget that opponents treat a contest with the Heat as if it’s their personal Game 7. They have to wake up for every game because there has been a target on their back since 2010. They have to do this, even though they’ve played more games than any other NBA team since the Big Three came together.
When Boston or Philadelphia sees the Heat coming up on their schedule, they’re probably going to go into that game far more focused and ready to come out guns blazing than if they’re facing off with Utah or Minnesota. It’s been like that with every single team since the start of the 2010-11 season. Miami is going to have some letdowns along the way when their opponents are putting more merit into an early November game than a Heat team that’s still recovering from one of the most arduous postseason runs in NBA history.
Just as it’s been the case every year since 2010, the defense will come. Miami hasn’t ranked worse than seventh in defensive efficiency in three years, even last year when they were ranked in the bottom half of the league in that category for nearly the entire first half of the season. And with the way the Eastern Conference is panning out, there doesn’t appear to be a heavy need for the Heat to establish their presence this early in the season. Outside of the Indiana Pacers, there appears to be no legitimate competition that could compete with the Heat for a seven-game series.
The defense wil arrive when it’s absolutely needed. In time, just appreciate what the Heat are capable of on the offensive end, where they lead the league in offensive efficiency, per Hollinger, and points per possession, per Synergy.
The scariest part of this team right now? The fact that they’ll begin to play defense and it’ll actually make their offense even more feared and prolific than it already is. Maybe we should get out of week two before we begin to make rash judgments.
Should we be worried about the Heat?
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.