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Wednesday, June 13, 2012
The vicious cycle of the Miami Heat

By Tom Haberstroh

Dwyane Wade
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Dwyane Wade and the Heat walked all over the court in Game 1. And that's a problem.

As basketball observers, we tend to undergo a certain postgame ritual of peering at the box score and identifying a singular reason that explains the outcome of a game. But basketball is a complicated web of moving parts, and sometimes a losing team's diagnosis isn't so crystal clear.

In Game 1, however, the reason why the Heat lost comes down to this: The Thunder pounced on the Heat in the open court, scoring 24 fast-break points to the Heat's four. This was the first time in Miami's "Big Three" era that it played in a game in which it was outscored by 20 points in that column.

It all starts there. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra implemented his pace-and-space high-octane offense about seven months ago, but after Tuesday, it felt more like seven years ago. The Heat did not play especially well in the opening game of the series, but it's the way they played that should be most concerning.

With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the cockpit, this is a team that normally thrives in the open court and punishes opponents when they turn the ball over. But on Tuesday night, the Heat forced just two turnovers in the second half and didn't score a fast-break point after halftime. The offense looked stagnant and increasingly reliant on uninspired jumpers.

Such is the vicious cycle for the Heat. As the saying goes, a good offense starts with good defense. Youth basketball coaches everywhere should use film from Game 1 as an instructional video on how defense and offense go hand-in-hand. What's the hardest way to get out in transition? By taking the ball out of the opponent's basket. The Heat needed to create triggers for their offense, but they couldn't stop the Thunder from getting what they wanted. According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, the Thunder scored on 21 of their final 29 possessions. Eight stops in 29 possessions won't cut it.

"We have to get stops," Spoelstra said. "When we're not defending, we don't get opportunities in the open court, and then when we don't attack, we don't get as many opportunities in the paint or the free throw line. They're fast, they're explosive, so we'll have to adjust to that speed."

Spoelstra's adjustments in Game 2 will be tougher in this series against the Thunder than the aging Celtics. The Thunder are better, younger and, as Spoelstra said, more explosive than a Celtics team that was also hobbled by injuries.

As the Heat are finding out, stops are harder to come by against the scorching Thunder offense, but stops are where it all starts. First you make a defensive stand, then you get out on the move in transition, and the inertia carries the offense toward the rim. If you don't get stops, the easy buckets are harder to come by and settling for a jumper becomes that much more tempting.

After the game, Spoelstra pointed to the 50-50 balls going the Thunder's way as a primary reason why the Heat weren't able to get stops, but the unlucky results may been more about energy than effort. James already went public with a desire to get him and Wade more rest, and the Heat will need that duo to be fully energized in Game 2, if only because they're the two best options at slowing down Durant and Westbrook.

The thing is, James barely even guarded Durant in Game 1 even though the OKC star was mostly neutralized this season against the Heat when James was his primary defender. According to ESPN Stats & Info, James guarded Durant on only five plays in Game 1, which led to two missed shots and two turnovers. When guarded by a host of defenders led by Shane Battier, Durant scored 34 points and shot 12-for-18 from the floor without turning the ball over once. In fact, all of Durant's 10 turnovers against the Heat have come while James was the primary defender.

This comes full circle. The Heat were desperate for turnovers and stops in Game 1, but they struggled to get any without James guarding Durant. Spoelstra's decision to save James' energy and assign him to guard everyone else on Oklahoma City may have done more harm than good. The stops were nowhere to be found, and Durant ended up making a living at the free throw line.

It's not sufficient to look at the fast-break disparity in the box score and simply say the Heat need to run more. The Heat can't play their brand of basketball unless they get stops, and they're not going to find it easy to explode in transition if they have their best perimeter defender guarding Perkins -- a point made that was also made clear by former NBA player Speedy Claxton.

With the game of basketball, it's all interconnected. The domino effect of getting stops should propel the Heat to a more efficient style of play in transition compared to the half-court game. All those contested jumpers from James and Wade might slowly disappear if they started going downhill in the open court, and thus, the Thunder might not have as many long rebounds to spark their own fast breaks.

The key to the Heat getting back on track in Game 2 is turning their defense into offense. The bigger question is whether they can defend the Thunder. So far, no team has.