November 7, 2012

Heat defense far from hot

Commentary: The NBA's defending champions can't keep winning on offense alone.

By DAVE HYDE Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel

MIAMI - You know, of course, the Heat are built on defense.

Luis Scola, Michaely Beasley, Dwyane Wade
click image to enlarge

Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat tries to get a shot over the Phoenix Suns’ Luis Scola on Monday night. Long a defense-first team, the Heat have so far been far from the stingy outfit that won the NBA title last season.

The Associated Press

"Since Pat (Riley) started this whole thing rolling, it's been defense first around here," Coach Erik Spoelstra said.

And you know, by now, why that is.

"To win the big prize, you have to be committed defensively," Spoelstra said.

You also know if you've paid attention this is stressed every day.

"Within 15 minutes of any meeting or practice, guys realize the importance of defense," he said.

So here's what you don't know: Why aren't the Heat playing any defense? Why are they surrendering the second-most points per game in the NBA over this opening stretch?

Why is it seen as great progress when the Heat hold Phoenix, lowly Phoenix, to 99 points on Monday? That's the fewest points scored by a Heat opponent this year. It's nearly seven points more than the Heat gave up last year.

Yes, it's just one week, just four games, just the kind of small sample size that leads to over-analysis or rash conclusions. And if the previous two Heat seasons taught us anything, it's that you jump to conclusions at your own silliness.

But the legitimate question on the table is how the Heat go about incorporating two offensive-minded newcomers while remaining true to their defensive-minded roots.

Are the Heat having too much fun outscoring teams? They lead the league in scoring, after all. Is there a fundamental shift in philosophy among the players that no team can match their offensive firepower?

"No, we know you can't contend or win a championship without defense," LeBron James said. "Everyone here understands that's our bread-and-butter. We need to improve, and we will."

A year ago the Heat rotation involved Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, two guys who provided defense and rebounding. Now the first players off the bench are Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, two players known for shooting.

Let's not go crazy here. Allen is a proven champion whose 3-point shooting fits perfectly in this team's offense. You'd be crazy not to understand why he should work wonderfully here. That's the hope with Lewis, too.

But a fundamental tenet to The Heat Way was steering away from one-dimensional players. Spoelstra said the Heat did their homework on Allen and Lewis, too.

Allen played for great defensive teams in Boston, so the value isn't lost on him. Lewis played for Orlando when Stan Van Gundy had it in the top five defensively.

"That's the lure of these players to us," Spoelstra said. "Everybody looked at the offensive package, but we saw the other part of it, too."

Allen said the biggest transition defensively is "communication." Lewis puts it in more laymen's terms.

"You see the great shooting of LeBron and (Dwyane Wade) and you get caught up in that," he said. "You have to make sure you concentrate on the defense."

Pat Riley would slice up seasons into 20-game segments for analyzing. That seems the thing to do here. Note, observe, give a chance for this year's team to involve the new personalities and develop.

Wednesday night, the Heat play Brooklyn. It's just the fifth game of the year. Too early for a crisis. Too soon for a conclusion. But it's not too much to ask for some effort at the side of the court the Heat always made their signature. Defense, anyone?

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