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Saturday, October 30, 2010
Breaking down the stifling Heat defense

By Kevin Arnovitz

LeBron James
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images Sport
One of the rare times on Friday that Orlando got anywhere near the basket area.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Hoop Schemes, in which TrueHoop editor Kevin Arnovitz takes apart NBA strategy and puts it under a microscope.

MIAMI -- The throat-clearing has been loud and painful to listen to at times, but the Miami Heat are starting to show glimpses of how they're going to win basketball games.

Despite all that offensive firepower on the wings with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Heat have established their trademark early as a stubborn, menacing defense, one that can cover for an offense that's still feeling itself out and occasionally susceptible to an unusual combination of anxious deliberation and hero ball.

"Right now the most important thing is the guys understand, one, our identity is the defensive side of the floor," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Secondly, get to know each other what we're trying to do offensively. That will take some time."

That stingy defense kept them in a game at Boston they had little right to be in, then clamped down on Philadelphia, yielding only 87 points in 95 possessions. On Friday night against Orlando -- the 2nd most efficient offensive outfit in the NBA last season -- Miami was dominant. After a reasonably effective first period, Orlando couldn't find anything in the half court over the final three quarters. For a team that understands entry angles, ball movement, how to stretch defenses and -- most important -- a team that has a deep sense of self-awareness about what they want to achieve on every possession, Orlando appeared desperate.

Last season, the Orlando Magic averaged 24.1 shots per game at the rim – a smidgen below the league average of 26.5. On one occasion during the regular season, they generated as few as 12 shots in the immediate basket area, and logged a season-low total of 11 attempts at the rim in their humiliating Game 3 conference semifinal loss at Boston. Against Miami on Friday, the Magic attempted only seven shots in the basket area and not one of the team's collective five assists led to points at the rim.

Ever since the Heat began to fill in their roster behind James, Wade and Chris Bosh, we've heard that their most profound vulnerability is thin personnel up front. Tout the Big 3 all you want, said critics, but how can you possibly go to battle in the Eastern Conference -- and potentially against the Lakers -- with a frontcourt composed of the power forward from the worst defensive team in the league last season (Bosh), an undrafted, unimposing stilt who has quick feet but little girth (Joel Anthony), a noble but undersized power forward (Udonis Haslem), a few pokey oldsters off the bench (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Jamaal Magloire, Juwan Howard), and an uninitiated rookie (Dexter Pittman)?

Given all that, the logical question is: How did the Heat defy the skeptics and limit Orlando to four field goals at the rim?

Help and Recover
Here is a textbook set where Miami -- with its bedrock defensive principle -- stifles Orlando's go-to stuff: Pick and Roll Defense
On the surface, the pick and roll  -- a staple for Orlando (and most NBA teams for that matter) -- is a perimeter action. But for a team like Orlando, that tactic is often the portal to working the ball down low to Howard and also getting Nelson and Carter into the lane with dribble-penetration. Here's an example of how effectively Miami defended one of the most fluid pick and roll attacks in basketball:
Being Everywhere at Once
"Orlando is a tough team to play because they put you in a position where you have to double Dwight at times, then you have to fly out to shooters," James said. "You have to do multiple things. You have to get into the paint, then get out to the shooters. We did both tonight."

This isn't the full repertoire of Miami's defensive attributes. They clog passing lanes. They collapse on penetration intelligently -- still being mindful of the space they've left behind. And they harass incessantly. With impunity. Joel Anthony still poses challenges for the Heat staff, especially on the offensive end, but his anticipation and happy feet defending the pick and roll are helping his team make stops. For all of Arroyo's failing, he, too, is making smart decisions as a half court defender. And Bosh? We might have a Ray Allen effect -- a guy who arrived into a new situation with a horrible defensive reputation, but just needed a coherent system to show off his instincts. Don't expect Bosh to take home any hardware this season for his work on the defensive side of the ball, but he's far, far better than advertised.

Whatever cohesion the Heat still lack on offense, Spoelstra has already instilled a fluid brand of defense that maximizes his team's uncommon quickness and smarts. Fans will tune in to watch the offensive exploits and the dazzling Top 10 fodder -- and who wouldn't -- but the Heat are going to succeed on the strength of their defensive system, one that has a chance for a historic season.