- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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OAKLAND -- In an effort to give their increasingly effective transition attack a name, the Miami Heat have introduced a new word into their team vernacular:
In most contexts, skirmish carries a negative connotation. It speaks to conflict, something you want to avoid. Not if you're a member of the Miami Heat in the midst of a season-high seven-game winning streak. In that case, you're on the prowl for the next skirmish.
In the glossary of Miami Heat basketball, what does skirmish mean?
Like many neologisms, that all depends on whom you ask. Several different definitions emerged following the Heat's 106-84 shellacking of Golden State in Oakland on Friday night.
1: What you saw in the third quarter, of absolutely defending and trying to turn those into dunks on the other end. -- Erik Spoelstra
Although the Heat showed glimpses of their transition game in the first 24 minutes, the first half was a choppy, disjointed affair for Miami. Chris Bosh continued to struggle with his face-up jumper and the Heat turned the ball over nine times. Miami was able to earn a few buckets on the break against Golden State's league-worst transition defense, but these were isolated flourishes. For every small victory, there was a subsequent hiccup. They'd force Monta Ellis into an ill-fated long heave at the shot clock buzzer, then push the ball ahead, only to have Erick Dampier miss a layup.
But in the third quarter, the Heat forced eight turnovers and produced a nearly perfect exhibition of transition basketball. In the Heat's nine transition possessions in the third quarter, they scored 16 points. The Heat resisted the temptation for pull-up jumpers and unassisted heroball. Instead, they relied on old-school fast breaks that featured smart outlets, breezy cross-court passes in stride and strong finishes at the rim. Virtually all of these possessions shared a commonality: They were the product of a crafty defensive possession.
"It starts at the defensive end," Spoelstra said. "If we’re taking the ball out of the net consistently, we won’t be getting those plays. There’s a trigger that’s gone off in the guys’ heads where they understand the relationship between the two."
Defense has guided Miami over the past seven games. With the exception of their 111-98 at Utah on Wednesday, the Heat have held each of their victims on the streak to well under 100 points per 100 possessions. And now there's a stated commitment by both players and the coaching staff to allow these defensive stops, especially those that result in turnovers or long misses, to precipitate a skirmish.
2: When you start the second half and you’re only up three points and you go on an 8-0 run, a 7-0 run. It makes the opposing team call a timeout. Then you go on another run. It starts with getting defensive rebounds and getting out on the break. -- LeBron James
We can forgive James for the smallest of clerical errors. Miami actually put together a 5-0 run to start the second half courtesy of a couple of steals. After a Monta Ellis 3-pointer got Golden State on the board in the third, Miami then unfurled a 10-0 run largely fueled by its transition attack. Whether it was an easy lay-in by Carlos Arroyo or a thunderous alley-oop from Dwyane Wade to LeBron James to give the Heat a 63-48 lead fewer than four minutes into the second half, the Heat continued to pressure the Warriors in the open court.
"We saw it possession after possession after possession in the third quarter," James said. "We got stops. We got out and ran and we got some easy buckets."
Even when they were struggling, the Heat were a comparatively sound defensive team. But this newfound focus on dedicating themselves to surgical strikes in the open court has given the team added motivation to be more active defensively. There's a common appreciation expressed across the locker room that these skirmishes can't happen out of thin air. They develop because Bosh deflects a Reggie Williams pass, or because Carlos Arroyo intercepts the ball in an open passing lane.
3: Making it kind of ugly. For us, skirmishes is getting our hands on loose ball, or getting rebounds. Then let’s get out and let’s go! Let’s get a skirmish going. Let’s get the defense on their heels. Let’s make people start talking to themselves and talking to each other. We try to do that in every quarter at some point. -- Dwyane Wade
A quarter into their season, the Heat have comfortably adopted the role of NBA arch-villain and the skirmish is their superpower. It's the force of destruction that will be unleashed on any unwitting opponent that gets reckless with the ball or gets lured into taking long contested jumpers against Miami's packed-in defense. As Wade describes it in his description of the term, a skirmish is designed to demoralize the opposition, to put it in an untenable defensive position -- backpedaling against the two most lethal open-court players in the league.
The positive effect on the Heat's morale can't be overstated either.
"Once we get those stops and we get out in transition, it puts a fire and energy into this team." Wade said. "We got some guys who can finish. When I throw that ball up to No. 6 and he goes and gets it that way, it just fires all of us up."
With Wade and James as the catalysts, the Heat have made their transition game the laboratory for their emerging chemistry.
4: It's our aggressiveness, athleticism and speed against theirs. A skirmish is intensity for short bursts. "Let’s see if we can make a stop. Let’s see if we can get out and get an easy basket. Let’s see if we can force them or speed them up." It’s a concentrated focus on specific segments or points in the game. -- James Jones
There's a potential hazard in igniting your transition attack against a fast-paced team like Golden State that prefers an open-court game. On Friday night, the Heat brilliantly sidestepped that concern. They forced an unstructured Warriors team missing Stephen Curry to play in the half-court, all the while helping themselves to as much transition basketball as they wanted. They held the Warriors to only 13 points in transition and collected 31 of their own.
Jones returned to Spoelstra's initial point, emphasizing that although skirmishes are intended to produce offensive highlights, their origins reside on the other end of the floor. The skirmish is born out of questions like these:
"When they get us into rotations and they attack the paint, can we stop them and get out and run in transition before they can recover?" Jones said.
As a brand new squad, the Heat didn't bring any team-building traditions into the season. They haven't had time to write their mythology. There's no "Ubuntu" or any Zen Buddhist tropes. Sacraments and dogma take time to develop.
But months from now, the Heat might just look back to their first road trip west and identify that as the moment when the skirmish was born.