The NBA Finals have taken a strange turn as the Spurs poured it on the Heat in Game Three with a record-breaking first half offensive performance to take a 2-1 series lead. It is clear the Heat will need to get some stops to win this series. So we turn our focus on Miami’s defense.
Philip Rossman-Reich: What signs did you see from the Heat last night that suggests they can turn their defense around? Why aren’t the Heat as good on defense as they have been the last three years?
Matt Zemek: There was nothing I saw Tuesday night from the Heat which suggests they can turn their defense around . . . but their history in the Big Three era suggests they can turn their defense around.
The Heat lost consecutive playoff games in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics . . . and have not lost consecutive playoff games since that point in time. The Heat are so good at shrugging off bad nights and frustrating experiences. They could have become irritated and disjointed after LeBron’s cramps in Game One, but they calmly answered the bell. The Heat have white-collar talent, but their blue-collar resilience is precisely why they are trying for a three-peat . . . and should not be viewed as an underdog in Game Four.
Why are the Heat not as good on defense as they have been in the past? It is a combination of factors. Accumulated strain from four straight Finals appearances has made this team less energetic. The players on this team — superstars and role guys alike — have to take on all sorts of difficult matchups across the spectrum. It is hard to think that the amount of minutes LeBron has logged is not affecting his defense to some degree.
What is also at work is simply that Mario Chalmers is declining in quality. He was a much steadier player for this team in seasons past. Shane Battier is getting older, and whether or not you agree with Erik Spoelstra’s decision to keep him on the bench in this series, it is clear that he is not as much of a presence for this team. Udonis Haslem has also not been able to make an impact the way he did in prior seasons. The Heat clearly need a substantial makeover as far as the non-Big Three portions of their roster are concerned.
Philip: I think you touched on some of the reasons for the Heat’s decline on defense, Matt, but kind of indirectly.
The issue with the Heat is that their level of depth is not at the same level it was in year’s past. That makes it harder for them to blitz and press in the way the Heat need to create turnovers and suffocate opposing offenses. Miami thrives on that kind of chaos. And they simply cannot create it anymore.
It is not only the lack of depth, but the lack of athleticism up and down the roster too. This is an older roster — actually has an older average age than the supposedly aging Spurs — and so they cannot play with the same kind of defensive chaos that the Heat have previously caused. The pressure Miami used the last three years was also in combination of some pretty good defenders. As that has gone away, Miami’s half-court defense has certainly gotten worse.
The Heat saw its defensive rating increase from 103.7 last year to 105.8. That put them 11th in the league. The defense that has made the Heat other worldly and fed that devastating quick-strike offense has not delivered. And that is why it feels like something is off with the Heat.
It is not part of this team’s identity. Not in the same way it was the last three years. And, since that is the case, it is tough to say the Heat will be able to turn that switch for Game Four. The defense has to get better for the Heat to get back into this series.
Josh Burton: To be honest, I did not see much from the Heat that makes me think anything is going to be different in Game Four. The mix of lackluster Miami defense and insanely potent San Antonio offense led to a Spurs rout that the Heat could not stop from happening at all.
However, as Matt noted, the Heat’s recent history speaks for itself, and they have shown the ability to bounce back from brutal performances to play like the championship team they have been. But I do think this season is different in terms of how much more versatile and adaptive the Spurs are this season as Marco Belinelli is now in the mix while returning players like Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, and Kawhi Leonard among others have improved greatly.
On a night-to-night basis, as exhibited by Kawhi’s offensive explosion on Tuesday night, any Spur could go off on offense, a fact that makes the Heat’s defensive job that much harder. That is why this Finals is different and why San Antonio has already won two games this series. It is also why I think the Spurs have a good chance to win Game Four and take a dominant 3-1 lead.