Celtics send the Heat into an identity crisis

June, 6, 2012
6/06/12
1:47
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Kevin Garnett
Nathaniel S. Butler
Miami was once a top defensive team, but Boston is routinely getting easy buckets like this one.

MIAMI -- Why did the Heat lose to the Celtics in Game 5?

Forget about LeBron James' fading down the stretch. Forget about Dwyane Wade's chronic disappearance before halftime. Forget about the fact that James and Wade were the only Heat players to score double-digits on Tuesday.

The offense was not the problem. After all, the Heat dropped 30 points in the fourth quarter when they needed buckets the most.

The real problem is something different. This is a team that is battling an identity crisis at the worst possible time.

If you created a word cloud that illustrated Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's most frequently-used words this season, the word "identity" would stand out like a polar bear on the warm sands of South Beach. Spoelstra has repeated ad nauseum that his team's "identity" will be defined on the defensive end. That's the standard they have established from Day 1 when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the Heat. That's the bar that Pat Riley raised when he joined Miami's organization almost two decades ago.

And for much of the season, they were just that, a defensive juggernaut. They ranked fifth in defensive efficiency rankings, despite not having a traditional 7-foot behemoth underneath. They created havoc in the passing lanes, instantaneously covered miles of ground and used their athleticism to compensate for their head-to-toe length. They pride themselves on getting stops, first and foremost.

But now?

They have struggled to stop a hobbled Celtics squad that ranked among the worst scoring teams in the league during the regular season.

Here's a breakdown of the Celtics' offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) this season and where it would rank among the 30 NBA teams.

Against non-Heat teams: 98.1 (27th)
Against the Heat: 103.1 (11th)

That's not what should happen when a top-5 defense faces a bottom-10 offense. Actually, we would expect quite the opposite. On paper, the Heat's athleticism and relative youth should asphyxiate the aging Celtics, but the Celtics have managed to flip the script.

How have they done it? Funny you should ask. After Tuesday's win, Celtics coach Doc Rivers fielded that very question to begin his post-game presser:

"Honest question: How are you doing this?"

Rivers responded:

"Well, we're just hanging in there."

That seems like a throwaway answer, but it really sums up the Heat's issue. Rivers was speaking to the Celtics' overall undying persistence on Tuesday, but you could also see their extra effort on a possession-by-possession basis. On a missed shot, the Celtics hung in there and battled for the offensive putback. On a loose ball, the Celtics hung in there and recovered the possession. When the Heat blew up their first attack, the Celtics hung in there and capitalized on the secondary action.

This has been the Achilles' heel all season for the Heat's defense, what Spoelstra commonly refers to as "closing out a possession." The Heat do a excellent job of defending the first action, but it's the second and third actions that often kill them. Or the offensive putback that should have been gobbled up by a defending Heat player. Or the 50-50 ball that never seems to be a real coin flip. The effort plays.

"The game came down to some offensive rebounds and some loose balls that led to open shots for them," Wade said after the game. "There were a lot of tough breaks, they beat us to the 50-50 balls and that was the difference."

Is it luck or is it effort? Was it luck that Rondo beat James to an offensive rebound and tapped it out to Mickael Pietrus for a 3-pointer? Was it luck that Wade failed to box out Rondo when the point guard missed a layup and Rondo grabbed the rebound and flipped it back in? Was it luck that the worst offensive rebounding team in the NBA produced 17 second-chance points on nine offensive rebounds?

"We allowed them too many relief points," Shane Battier said. "We weren't sharp."

Sure, luck has a lot to do with it. But it's also true that the Celtics are creating a lot of their own luck by just hanging in there and squeezing everything out of every precious possession like it's their last.

J. Meric/Getty Images
Rajon Rondo, basketball MacGyver.



This is a team that plays right into the Heat's defensive weakness of closing out possessions. Rondo is a basketball MacGyver, making something out of nothing seemingly every time down the floor. When the Heat have him in their grasp, he routinely manages to weasel his way out and extend the possession out of thin air. If you prefer an animal analogy, he is the cat with nine lives. He just hangs in there.

A late Celtics bucket in the third quarter said it all. For the entire game, the Heat were habitually slow and lazy in transition defense (Wade especially) and it was no more evident than on the Garnett and-1 that tied the game up at 60 apiece. Garnett trailed the play, no one picked him up and he sailed to the rim for a dunk that wouldn't have been contested had James Jones not desperately flailed at a soaring Garnett about three seconds too late. Foul and the basket.

It was Chris Bosh's fault; he left Garnett to double Paul Pierce on the wing for no apparent reason. But there was no communication, no collective focus on a critical trip down the floor, no effort to save the possession, . It was a play that probably induced a sleepless night from the entire coaching staff. Effort just wasn't there.

That's certainly not the first time that the 36-year-old Garnett has picked apart the Heat's defense. It's not just effort; it's on Spoelstra too to figure out a way to compensate for the 7-footer's length. Five games in and the Heat still haven't figured out a way to defend him. The Celtics just feasted on Bosh and Haslem in the pick-and-roll, lobbing it over the top when Garnett rolled to the rim or hitting Garnett with a jumper when he retreated to the perimeter. Either way, the Heat were defenseless and this is the fifth game. Garnett scored 26 points on the night -- more than he scored in any game during the regular season.

All in all, the Celtics scored 94 points in Game 5, scoring more points in each quarter than the quarter before. The Celtics scored more than 90 points for the fourth game in a row which matches the number of times they've crossed 90-point plateau in the previous 15 games. As Sunday's game progressed and the fatigue settled in for both teams, it was not the aging Celtics who eroded down the stretch; the buckets only seemed to come easier and easier as the clock winded down. Just hanging in there.

No two ways about it, the Heat are in crisis mode, down 3-2 heading to Boston. As the Celtics continue to pierce the Heat's defense, Miami continues to scramble for the answer to this essential question:

What is their identity?

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