When the Miami Heat signed LeBron James to play alongside Dwyane Wade, speculation centered on what two of the league's best scorers could do playing together. As it turned out, more attention should have been paid to the other end of the court.
In the regular season, Miami was the league's most balanced elite team, ranking third in the NBA in Offensive Rating and fifth in Defensive Rating. The Heat's run to the NBA Finals, however, has been powered more by defense than by its offense. Miami has allowed just 101.8 points per 100 possessions, best of any team that advanced past the first round.
The success of the Heat's defense could be diminished because Miami did not match up against an elite offense in the first three rounds. The 11th-ranked Chicago Bulls were the best of the three offenses the Heat beat on the way to winning the Eastern Conference. The Dallas Mavericks, who boast the NBA's best offense in the playoffs by a wide margin, represent a significantly greater challenge in the NBA Finals. Miami met it in Tuesday's series opener, holding the Mavericks to barely more than a point per possession--Dallas' second-worst offensive performance of the playoffs.
Overall, the Heat have held playoff opponents 7.2 percent below their regular-season efficiency. That puts Miami in elite territory. Only the Boston Celtics (8.3 percent) have been better. The Heat has surpassed the vaunted Bulls (6.6 percent), earning praise from ABC's Jeff Van Gundy as the league's best defense. So, what is it that makes Miami so effective? Here are four things:
Team Adj. Def.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, schooled under defensive mastermind Pat Riley, has been able to reproduce the strong defensive rotations typical of Riley and his disciples. This is most evident in Miami's shot defense. The Heat ranked third in the regular season in opponents' effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the additional value of three-point shots. That has improved to second in the playoffs.
Perhaps the ultimate testament to Spoelstra's defensive principles came before he had a star-studded roster. Last season's placeholder Miami team, anchored by an aging Jermaine O'Neal, ranked fourth in the NBA in defense and was second in effective field goal percentage allowed. Now, after "The Decision," Spoelstra has added length on the perimeter to sound rotations. This allows the Heat to give help, recover and contest shots that would be open against other teams.
Anthony might very well be the league's worst rotation player in terms of offensive skills, but his defensive IQ allows him to not only play regular minutes but also help Miami when he is on the floor. Anthony's increased playing time is the single biggest reason the Heat's defense has improved in the playoffs. According to BasketballValue.com, Miami has allowed 9.7 fewer points per 100 possessions in the postseason when Anthony has played.
Where the increase in minutes for Anthony has made the biggest difference is in keeping opponents off the free throw line. He has averaged less than a foul per 10 minutes in the playoffs, an excellent rate and one much better than he or any of Miami's other centers managed in the regular season. Anthony has cut down on his fouling without sacrificing his aggressiveness in contesting shots. He has averaged .76 blocks for every personal foul, a rate surpassed in the postseason only by Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As a team, the Heat ranks second in the league in fewest free throw attempts per field goal attempt in the playoffs. In low-scoring games, keeping opponents from getting easy points at the foul line has been crucial for Miami.
Individually, none of the Heat's big men, save for little-used reserve Jamaal Magloire, excels on the glass. Yet as a team, Miami is excellent in terms of defensive rebounding, ranking fourth in the league in the regular season. After the Bulls caused some early problems with second chances, the Heat were able to control the glass later in the series. The reason? Contributions from the wings.
All three players Miami uses at shooting guard and small forward are terrific rebounders for their position. Wade's defensive rebounding is about average for a small forward, and James and Mike Miller rebound more like power forwards than wings. Wade contributed 5.4 defensive rebounds per game in the Eastern Conference finals, and Miller added 4.0 a night in just 17 minutes per game, making up for the fact that Chicago's front line was able to overpower its Heat counterparts at times.
James and Wade
Rebounding points to the biggest factor that differentiates the Miami defense: the superhuman ability of James and Wade at both ends of the floor. At times in the playoffs, James and Wade have been downright disruptive. They've blocked a combined 2.7 shots per game, nearly as many as the New Orleans Hornets managed as a team (3.0) in their brief playoff stay. James and Wade also have set up transition opportunities with their steals, as during a crucial mini-run when the Mavericks appeared to be taking control in the third quarter of Game One.
Because of the minutes they play, James and Wade can coast defensively for stretches of the game. In the closing moments, though, they become equally effective as stoppers. James' versatility has been invaluable to Spoelstra, who has used him against a diverse group of opponents, including Derrick Rose and Jason Terry. James can blanket smaller guards without sacrificing anything in terms of quickness.
Teams that play the kind of defense the Heat has in the postseason are almost always led by an elite defender in the middle, such as Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett or Ben Wallace. Anthony, because of his limited role, doesn't qualify. Instead, the Miami defense operates from the outside in because of the ability of James and Wade to supply help defense, rebound and even protect the rim.
Looking through NBA history, there's only one comparable team: the Chicago Bulls dynasty, which relied on the duo of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. James and Wade haven't earned the defensive honors that Jordan, who won NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-88, and perennial All-Defense fixture Pippen did. But their defense is a big reason the Heat is three wins from joining those Bulls teams as champions.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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