It was just two weeks ago when the running game was all the rage in Miami.
After routing the Sacramento Kings on December 11 with 21 fast break points, the Heat informed the media about head coach Erik Spoelstra’s scheme to incentivize good defense: get stops and go. At the time, the Heat had won eight straight games by running their opponents out of the gym. The Heat had embraced their new identity as an uptempo team.
Or so it seemed.
Since Sacramento, the Heat have slammed on the brakes.
Ending with the Kings win, the Heat’s transition rate (percentage of offense generated from transition) had averaged 17.2 percent in their previous eight games, according to Synergy data. But the Heat have eased off the accelerator in their most recent five games, averaging just 11.5 percent with a season-low of 8.2 percent mark in Los Angeles. For perspective, the league average transition rate stands at 12.5 percent -- or every eights possession.
But the change of pace hasn’t slowed them down in the win column. After beating the normally high-octane Phoenix Suns by 12 points, the Heat methodically dismantled the Lakers 96-80 with just four points coming on fast breaks. And it wasn’t from lack of opportunities, as the Heat caused 12 turnovers while pulling down 39 defensive rebounds on the day.
The latest downshift has put all efforts to wrap a tidy description around the Heat offense on hold. From what we’ve seen, they’re nothing if not versatile; they have the patience to grind teams in the half court and the explosiveness to annihilate teams in the open court.
One byproduct of the Heat’s “figuring it out” phase is that the Big 3 have now learned it’s perfectly OK to pass up a good shot for a great one later in the possession. This is unfamiliar territory for the former franchise cornerstones. In their previous lives, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were responsible for initiating the offense. That often meant taking advantage of the first shot opportunity that presented itself. In terms of shot creation, the drop-off from LeBron James to Mo Williams, for example, was far too great to restart the offense if the James’ first option didn’t pan out. Even if James’ look on the primary action wasn’t ideal, the alternative -- passing it out and resetting the possession -- would be even worse.
But now they don’t have to do it all by themselves. Wade, in particular, has exhibited more self-discipline, choosing to pass out if he doesn’t get a clear window at the basket. We saw it several times in Saturday’s game against the Lakers.
An early first quarter possession illustrated the power of his patience:
With 16 seconds remaining on the shot clock and the Heat up 14-10, the Heat run a pick-and-roll with Wade and Bosh on the left wing against Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom. Wade dribbles away from the screen to generate a one-on-one isolation with Bryant as the shot clock ticks away into single digits. From here, it looks like Wade will try to beat Bryant off the dribble to finish the possession. Instead, Wade pump-fakes a shot from beyond the 3-point line, successfully drawing Bryant off his feet to contest it. But rather than stepping into Bryant for an off-balance leaner, he passes it back out to Bosh with four seconds left on the shot clock who calmly swings it to James for a spot-up 3 on the right wing. James’ shot splashes through the net as the shot clock expires.
In the past, Wade may have forced that contested shot against Bryant as the clock wound down -- but not with Bosh and James waiting in the wings. Now, he can use his pump-fake as a decoy for a hockey assist, much the same way Paul Pierce does in Boston to set up his teammates. With all the weapons in their arsenal, the Heat are not afraid of using the entire 24 seconds to get what they want. When they’re not running up the floor, they grind their opponents down with their sets.
Over the next few days, we’ll learn if the Heat’s tempered pace is nothing more than a mirage. They face the Knicks and the Rockets on back-to-back days starting Tuesday night, the second and fifth fastest teams in the league respectively.