- Tom Haberstroh
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MIAMI -- They call it a skirmish.
The Miami Heat pride themselves on the defensive end of the floor, but not by doing it in a traditional sense. There are no 7-foot trees anchoring the frontline. Instead, they overwhelm their opponents with blinding speed and relentless tenacity with only one goal in mind: get stops and inflict turnovers.
When they string a bunch of those stops together like they did en route to a 33-5 run in the second half of Game 2?
That's called a skirmish.
The Heat defense hadn't unleashed one of those lately and coach Erik Spoelstra hadn't uttered that word in a long time. Definitely not in Game 1, in which the Spurs coughed up the ball only four times, tying an all-time playoff low.
It was a different story in Game 2.
Turnovers are the lifeblood of this Heat team since they lack the size to plug the paint like the Indiana Pacers and the Memphis Grizzlies did this season. When the Heat can blitz the opponent and create transition opportunities, it's like lighting a fuse and throwing it in a pool of gasoline.
The San Antonio Spurs held a 62-61 lead with 3:49 left in the third quarter. The Heat's defense went on a tear from then on. The stranglehold tightened its grip with each Spurs possession and, nine minutes later, Gregg Popovich waved the white flag and ripped all of his starters out of the game.
"Midway through the third quarter, we were losing every skirmish, every loose ball, every tipped ball, every broken play," Spoelstra said.
"Then it changed."
The strange part about the Heat's second-half run was the personnel on the floor. LeBron James and Mario Chalmers were supported by three bench players in Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen. Only one of those reserves is known for his defense (Andersen), but they were still able to wreak havoc against a Spurs lineup that featured three future Hall of Famers.
During those decisive nine minutes (8:36, to be exact), the Heat caused five turnovers and forced the Spurs to shoot two for 10 from the floor while never surrendering an open shot. Many will talk about the first number in the 33-5 run -- and all of the 3-pointers and dunks that led to it -- but the second number was just as integral to the Heat's win. Holding the Spurs' offense -- which had scored over 100 points in nine of its 14 games before the Finals -- to just five points in nine minutes was unthinkable going into this series, but the Heat's undersized group pulled it off.
The James block on Tiago Splitter will dominate the highlight reels and conversation over the next two days until Game 3, and rightfully so. But the play that was most indicative of the Heat's versatility came just a few possessions earlier.
Tony Parker ran a high pick-and-roll with Splitter, but Andersen walled off his penetration and forced Parker to pick up his dribble, a rare occurrence for him. Parker swung it to Danny Green, who ran another pick-and-roll at Andersen on the other side of the court. Andersen snuffed that out, too, and Green lobbed a pass over the top to a rolling Splitter.
James and Andersen were stuck at the perimeter, so Splitter should have had an easy bucket ahead of him. But upon catching the ball, he was met by the trapping duo of Miller and Chalmers. Splitter turned toward the basket and leapt in the air for a shot, but Chalmers rose up and stripped the ball away from above the 6-foot-11 center's head.
Chalmers recovered the loose ball with 9:24 on the clock and fired off a quick pass to the streaking James, who dribbled three times down the floor and ended up with a layup on the right side of the hoop with 9:21 on the clock. Three seconds was all it took for the Heat defense to turn a vulnerable moment into an easy bucket on the other end.
The saying goes that the best offense is a great defense, and that holds true for this Heat team that has struggled scoring in the half court with injuries to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh's wheels recently. The Spurs finished the night with 17 turnovers that led to 19 points for the Heat. The final deficit of the game? 19 points.
Over the first two games, the Heat's defense has held the Spurs to 92 and 88 points in Games 1 and 2, respectively. It's the first time that the Spurs have been held under 95 points in back-to-back games since April 1. If there was a turning point in the series, it hinged on that 33-5 run and the multiple loose balls that led to easy buckets for the Heat.
"This series," Spoelstra said of the Heat's skirmish, "will be defined by those plays."
In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Heat's defense was the difference.