MIAMI -- The distance Erik Spoelstra marches onto the court after calling a timeout tends to be directly proportional to his level of disgust. Typically, the Heat's head coach travels a few feet from the bench where he gathers his staff. But at the 8:55 mark of the second quarter of the Heat's 114-107 win over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night, Spoelstra was practically beneath the Heat's basket before the officials had even processed his request.
The Heat had just surrendered an easy run-out, as Warriors reserve guard Acie Law raced ahead in transition for a layup courtesy of a David Lee outlet pass. Now behind 49-35, the Heat were hemorrhaging points to a 13-19 team they shellacked in Oakland three weeks ago.
Transcripts of timeouts aren’t made available to the public, but Spoelstra described the general tenor of his message.
"Every timeout in the first half was a rant," Spoelstra said.
He had plenty of material. His team gave up 72 points in 46 possessions before halftime, the most points per possession against the Heat in the first half since the 1996-97 season. The Warriors shot 63.6 percent from the field, including 10-for-16 from beyond the arc.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty
Monta Ellis: One of many Warriors who had his way in the first half.
"What we did in the first half was simply not good enough," Spoelstra said. "You’re building bad habits playing at that level, really not competing defensively."
Time and again, the Warriors broke down the Heat’s defense.
Stephen Curry split pick-and-rolls with little resistance -- and there were no rotating Heat defenders to provide a last line of resistance.
Monta Ellis chewed up the Heat off the dribble. He got free along the baseline, then slung cross-court passes to a wide-open Dorell Wright in the corner.
Wright, making his return to Miami, burned his former teammates for 20 points in the first half. When he wasn’t draining 3-pointers, he made his way to the rim unmolested.
So what happened? How did a defense that was strangling opponents in the half court for the better part of a month all of the sudden begin to leak like a sieve?
"We weren't as aggressive as we should've been," Dwyane Wade said. "When you get guys like Curry and Monta and those guys an opportunity to have the ball and see the whole floor, you're asking for trouble."
Whether they were being lulled into a playground game against a fast-paced opponent or just sluggish on New Year's night, the Heat lacked focus and cohesion as a defensive unit. Spoelstra diagnosed the primary problem as an unwillingness to provide sufficient ball pressure.
Simply put, Heat defenders allowed Warriors with the ball too much space to operate.
"Their guards were able to come off screens and pick us apart," Spoelstra said. "They’re too good. They had 10 3s. Then we started to panic about the 3s, and they had 28 points in the paint. So they got everything they wanted."
Teams with multifaceted attacks can give the Heat -- and most opponents -- trouble. That Whac-A-Mole dynamic Spoelstra described, whereby the defense overcompensates for one facet of the offense only to leave themselves more vulnerable somewhere else on the floor, was on display in Houston on Wednesday night. The Heat ultimately held off the Rockets, but not without absorbing a blow or two defensively from another high-octane opponent.
Wade recognized the trend in the first half of Saturday night's game, as well. The Heat have established a proficient pick-and-roll defense, but Golden State's arsenal of shooters destabilized Miami's normally tight coverages.
"With their offense -- how they spread you out -- if they roll one guy to the paint, now our defense is moving," Wade said. "We weren’t putting pressure on the ball the way we needed to. We weren’t on the same line -- the 5s and the 2s, etcetera. You saw them split some of our pick-and-rolls. That’s what we’re good at. We’re a good pick-and-roll team, but we weren’t doing that in the first half."
To turn the tide, the Heat's coach gave his team a defensive imperative:
"Compete on the ball," Spoelstra said.
From the outset of the second half, it was evident the Heat had absorbed the message. After bludgeoning the Heat in the first half, the Warriors didn't record their first field goal after halftime until the 6:24 mark of the third quarter. Golden State didn't earn a second-half field goal in the paint until Lee drained a little jumper in the lane with 5:54 left in the game.
Overall, the Warriors scored only 35 points after intermission, less than half of their first-half total.
"We took a stand on the ball," Spoelstra said. "That doesn’t mean you’re going to stop them every single time, but ballhandlers and good players -- they have to feel a little bit of a presence."
The sharpness that defined the Heat's defense for most of December was back. Carlos Arroyo, Mario Chalmers, Wade, James Jones and LeBron James played directly into the body of their perimeter counterparts. Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony, James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas showed with authority when the Warriors initiated screens. Those weakside cuts the Warriors were able to make in the first half disappeared because the Heat's off-ball defenders were alert and ready to check any Warrior who tried to make a bold move toward the hole.
"Occupying and fighting over picks, having some resiliency, to play through things -- that allowed the back side of our defense to be much more active and to create some steals and deflections," Spoelstra said.
The Heat closed a deficit that was once as large as 20 in the first half to a single point by the end of the third quarter. When Chris Bosh sank a pair of free throws in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, the Heat grabbed the lead, one they'd never relinquish.
Home games against sub-.500 opponents shouldn't invite suspense, but teaching lessons surface at the oddest moments. The Heat sensed they'd experienced a little defensive slippage at Houston, and their first-half debacle on Saturday night confirmed their suspicions.
After the game, Spoelstra spoke about how precarious success can be in the NBA.
"I hope that malaise we were in first half was just an aberration and not a carryover from the last game," Spoelstra said. "It's always a slippery slope in this league. The momentum can change quickly and you don't even know that it has."
Spoelstra was speaking specifically about Saturday night's game, but he just as easily could've been referring to the grind of an 82-game season. Progress has an uneasy impermanence in the NBA. The kind of flawlessness the Heat were playing with only a week ago when they dismantled the Lakers rarely sticks around. Spoelstra understands that, which is why he's trying to preserve the mindset that produced that near-perfect flow of basketball coming out of the dispiriting loss to Dallas on Nov. 27.
"We talked about being humble, being hungry and having a sense of urgency like we did after the Dallas game, and to bottle that emotion up," Spoelstra said. "We want to make sure we're still playing to that type of urgency and not get complacent."