- Beckley Mason, NBA
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Over at the Heat Index, Tom Haberstroh describes the play of the game in Sunday’s Heat victory over the Dallas Mavericks. It wasn’t that absurd double alley-oop touch pass between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade but an unremarkable LeBron-led fast break that ended in a Jason Kidd foul:
LeBron, the most explosive player of this generation, created a fast break off a make, which is more astounding once you consider that it was off a make from a 3-point shot -- the opposite of a fast-break trigger. Everyone was already backpedaling to the other side of the floor when Kidd launched his shot from 25 feet out.
It didn’t matter. LeBron blurred past the defense en route to one of his eight transition plays on the day. He scored 17 of his 37 points in transition in the season opener. Last season, LeBron scored 6.1 points per game in transition according to Synergy Sports, a data-tracking service used by NBA teams. He nearly tripled that figure in the season premiere of the Heat’s new “pace and space” offense. With 31 points on fast breaks, the Heat more than doubled their average of 14.2 points from last season.
Easy points? LeBron James on the break? That’s scary stuff for the rest of the league!
It’s all a part of Erik Spoelstra’s new philosophy, which promises to exploit the almost obscene speed advantage that the Heat will carry into just about every contest.
Fans might remember that running off made baskets was a staple of the Suns’ "Seven Seconds or Less" offense, but it was a rarity for last season’s Heat. An increased pace will produce more highlight-reel plays and should open up better scoring opportunities for the Heat’s stars before the defense can get set and gum up driving lanes.
But the emphasis on "pace and space" won’t supplant terrific defense as the cornerstone of the Heat’s identity. After spending much of last season defining defensive responsibilities and perfecting the airtight rotations that suffocated Chicago’s offense in last season’s playoffs, the Heat players enter this season armed with institutional knowledge on the defensive end.
Against the Mavericks, who replaced three of the top seven players from their championship team, that continuity was a killer. In fact, though the Heat employed a new offensive philosophy, it's one that meshes perfectly with their defensive system. As Anthony Macri notes:
The Heat play most possessions as if they are outnumbered, anticipating ball movement, sprinting to meet the ball with the closest defender, and then filling in the backside, rotating, and squeezing off passing lanes.
More than how well their D is playing in a vacuum, however, is how well the Heat are converting to the offensive side of the floor after any change of possession. One of the reasons that conversion to the offensive side is so important to their defensive effort is that it prevents the opponent from ever getting comfortable. The threat of Miami’s offensive conversion is affecting Dallas’ confidence when they have the ball. The Mavericks look tentative, so concerned with getting back defensively that they are taking poor shots and not rebounding the offensive glass as they should.
That it’s harder to hit a jump shot at the end of the shot clock when you know that, make or miss, you’ll have to deal with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sprinting right back at you is a powerful thought.
Then there’s this part: just creating more possessions is a great thing for a team as talented and fast as the Heat. The faster and crazier the style of play, the more players like Wade, James and even athletic role players like Mario Chalmers can capitalize on broken plays and unsettled situations.
And because there is no team more talented than Miami, adding possessions essentially reduces the likelihood that the other team will score more points.
Think of it this way: if a coin is weighted to land on heads 55 percent of the time, but you only flip the coin 10 times, the results won't be much different than with a normal coin. But flip that thing 110 times, and you're more likely to see a greater number of "heads."
The same idea applies here. If the Heat are better 55 percent of the time, they want more “times” so that advantage can bear itself out.
It won’t always go so smoothly as it did for the Heat in their Chrismas Day massacre of the Mavericks. But unlike the Suns of Steve Nash’s halcyon days, Miami boasts an elite defense that will win games all by itself.
The key is whether pace and space truly become the team’s philosophy, or buzzwords uttered in postgame news conferences. A philosophy isn’t a sometimes thing. It’s doctrinal and defined.
Last season the Heat's catchphrase was "skirmish," a term for the incendiary but brief stretches of play in which the Heat created loads of deflections, turnovers and fast-break points. What the Mavericks saw was more like a siege.
The sample size is minuscule, but it's worth wondering if any team can withstand such an avalanche of intensity and purpose.