When the Miami Heat came together during the summer all anyone could talk about was how their three stars – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – would mesh together offensively. How would James and Wade share the ball? Would either of the two have trouble adapting to playing with fewer possessions? How would Chris Bosh handle the transition from the first option on an offense-first, defensive-optional Toronto team to the third option behind two of the league’s five best players on a team that valued defense first?
It didn’t take long for any of those questions to be answered. As soon as the season began it was pretty clear that Wade and James were going to mesh together just fine and even though their initial record wasn’t spectacular, Bosh soon fell in line as Erick Spoelstra adapted his offensive scheme, making Bosh the focal point of most of Miami’s sets. In addition to some early offensive chemistry within an offense the Heat also delivered a fair share of alley-oop dunks featuring Wade and James working together on the fly and one-on-one hero plays that we grew accustomed to before the stars came together last summer.
You can probably make a case saying that the Heat relied a bit too much on those superstar plays in which Wade, James or eve Bosh bailed out the offense with a tough shot – Miami did not hesitate to jack up 20 footers this season – but the Heat also finished third in the NBA in offensive efficiency, scoring a potent 109.3 points per 100 possessions, putting them just .2 points behind the first place Nuggets. It may not have looked pretty but the Heat were easily one of the best offensive teams in the league last season. There were no chemistry issues with Wade and James and both players were fine sharing their touches with the other and rather than arguing about who took the famed “last shot” that was talked about for months during the off-season, Erick Spoelstra went to both players late in games (with minimal success with both until the post-season).
Even though it’s been impressive to watch Wade, James and Bosh have their way offensively during the regular season and the playoffs, the secret to success for this Heat team is how versatile they are on the defensive end of the floor. Watching Wade and James sky through the air on their way to the rim may be the most exciting display of their athletic gifts but the most impactful and important showing of their athleticism comes on defense. And I’m not talking solely about LeBron’s unique and uncanny ability to chase an opponent down, I’m talking about the little things that don’t make the highlight reels. The little things that have made the Heat into a defensive force.
James, Wade and Bosh have all learned to use their athletic gifts to act as a cohesive unit defensively. Rather than working to get stops by using their individual athletic advantages on their opponents, the Heat do a lot of gambling, attempting to fuel their collective jet in transition. When those gambles pay off, the Heat get easy buckets and generally those easy buckets get their stars going. Now, you can say that about a lot of teams that take chances on defense in hopes of getting out on the break but what makes Miami different is that they’ve fixed the odds on sneaking into passing lanes and corrected any chance of giving up an easy look if they come up short on their steal attempts.
Miami’s stars may be able to run fast and jump high but they are also incredibly smart. Once Wade or James makes their break for a crosscourt pass, their teammates behind them are ready and willing to rotate over to cover their man in case they fail to come up with the ball. There aren’t a lot of teams in the NBA that has a roster filled with players that don’t mind giving 100% on defense but the Heat are one of them and whether it’s LeBron James or Mike Bibby, everyone on their team rotates hard and quickly on every defensive possession, which prevents the opposition from getting any free chances when the Heat gamble.
The Heat’s versatility is what makes their effort pay off. As we saw in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron is capable of defending any position on the floor. At times we saw him defend Joakim Noah and in crunchtime we saw him render the league’s Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose completely ineffective. James’ length prevented Rose from getting off clean jumpshots and his incredible footwork and instincts prevented Rose from getting by him, making him just about the only player in the league that can stay in front of Rose without help. Of course, Dwyane Wade is no slouch himself and is one of the league’s best defenders ever for someone his size and Chris Bosh is one of the NBA’s most mobile big men, perfectly capable of rotating out on to the perimeter and staying with most of the guards in the league.
Having three superstars working as hard as James, Wade and Bosh do defensively inspires the Heat’s supporting cast to join in on the cause. The Heat have some players that are excellent defenders that complement their stars well as well as some defensively challenged players that don’t have the physical tools to be a great defender but do work just as hard as the big three on that end. Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem are two excellent examples of defensive complements to Wade, James and Bosh that complement them perfectly. Anthony and Haslem are two of the most versatile bigs in the league and are more capable than Bosh when it comes to rotating out to guards and holding their own. Anthony is a bit more of an interior shotblocker than Haslem but both players move their feet well and rotate expertly when Wade, James or Bosh find themselves out of position.
Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, James Jones and Mike Bibby may not seem like defensive specialists but they can also find themselves being assets. They all have their weaknesses but they are also rarely liabilities. Because the Bulls lacked a scoring two guard the Heat were able to live with Bibby or Chalmers on Rose for the majority of the Eastern Conference Finals. Not only did they do a good job of containing Rose individually by using positioning but even when they did get beat, there was that vaunted help defense, rotating over ever so swiftly, forcing Rose into tough shots or to make passes to incompetent outside shooters.
The Miami Heat may be the most popular, most watched, most followed, most Youtube’d and most hated team in the league because of everything LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh do offensively but the Heat are a championship caliber team because of what they do on defense. Not just their stars, but every single player on their roster is committed to going all out defensively, to rotating hard, to helping and recovering swiftly and to closing out on every shot attempt. And it’s those defensive habits that gives Erick Spoelstra the weapons to succeed to defensively.