Have the Miami Heat Flipped the Switch?
The buzzword around the Miami Heat all season has been “coasting.” You’ve heard it on broadcasts, seen it in print and heard the talking heads spouting off about it. The Heat have long been a team with an on-off switch, and for much of this season, that dial hasn’t been cranked all the way up.
To wit: they recorded their lowest win percentage of the Big Three era, along with their worst defensive rating since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in South Beach for the 2010-11 season. Obviously there are more things that go into those two numbers than effort though. For starters, D-Wade missed a third of the year, some with his maintenance program, others with minor injuries, while several Heat role players took some steps backwards.
Still, Miami dispatched Charlotte with relative ease in the first round, sending the Bobcats into the NBA abyss. But are they ready to take on a more formidable opponent?
The Other Two
Wade’s health is going to be a major question for the Heat as they truck on through the postseason. Luckily for Miami, Wade got plenty of rest coming into the playoffs. He sat out nine straight contests in late March and early April, recovering from a hamstring tweak, while simultaneously getting a chance to save his creaky knees. While Wade ranked just 40th in nERD this season, he was a machine in the 54 games he was on the court. He notched a career-best 58.8 true shooting percentage while hitting 54.5 percent of his shots from the field.
The question is going to be whether or not Wade can summon up the superstar within to carry the team for stretches in the later rounds. This seems weird to write for a guy who’s averaged 25 points or better five times in his career, but Wade hit that mark just six times all season, with the Heat winning five of them. Wade’s had plenty of rest this year, but the Heat are going to need him to throw his Flash costume on a couple of times in the next three rounds. He averaged 33 minutes per game against Charlotte, a sign that he’s ready to handle a heavier workload.
The bigger key to a three-peat is going to be Bosh. Like Wade, Bosh put up lower numbers than he did in first three years with the Heat while upping his efficiency to career-high levels in the process. Adding the three-pointer to his repertoire this year (he made as many triples this year, 74, as he attempted all of last season), Bosh has added some more spacing to the Heat’s offense, but it’s really the mid-range game that comes into play in the postseason.
As we’ve seen in the Houston-Portland series, teams are much more willing to concede that soft, inefficient middle ground as opposed to open long balls that they might let slide during the regular season. While Bosh’s shooting from deep was on point against Charlotte (9-13 in the series), his mid-range game suffered. After hitting over 48 percent from that range in the regular season, Bosh dipped down to 35.7 percent in the four games against the Bobcats, according to NBA.com. Granted, Bosh wasn’t getting the bounty of open looks he’s accustomed to against Charlotte - 17 of his 43 attempts in the series were contested, per NBA.com’s player tracking cameras.
The open looks probably aren’t going to come in the next round. The Brooklyn Nets allowed just 38.9 percent shooting from mid-range in the regular season, putting them 10th in that category, while the Toronto Raptors were the second stingiest defense in the league on mid-range shots, conceding only 37.5 percent from that distance, NBA.com tells me. Bosh is the Heatle most likely to launch from the elbows, and he’s going to have to capitalize when he gets those looks.
Of course, I’d be remiss to leave out Bosh’s clutch performance all season. In the last two minutes of fourth quarters and overtimes with the scoring margin at five points or less, Bosh was lights out, hitting 16 of 29 attempts, good for a 70.7 effective field goal percentage, per basketball-reference.com. While LeBron would get killed back in the day for finding open teammates for crunch time looks, he’ll absolutely be putting the ball in Bosh’s hands going forward.
Surrounding King James with knockdown shooters is a death sentence to defenses. We witnessed some Ned Stark-style executions over the past two years, as the Heat brought the Rains of Castamere down on opponents in several crucial moments in the playoffs. The bad news, though, is that Miami’s shooters aren’t quite what they were in their two championship runs. While Bosh has turned into an average three-point shooter, a guy that defenses have to at least respect when he steps out, some of the Heat’s other vets have fallen off.
Ray Allen, the most prolific deep threat in the history of the game, knocked down 37.5 percent from long range this season, a sharp decline from last year’s 42 percent. While he picked it up as the season went along, hitting 41.4 percent in March and April, he went ice cold against Charlotte - making just 3-11 from deep seems inconceivable for Jesus Shuttlesworth.
Shane Battier, a savior in the past, seems to be on ice for Erik Spoelstra. Set to retire at season’s end, the Dukie got on the floor in just one game for a whopping two minutes in Round 1. Battier is another guy who has tailed off after a banner year in ‘13, dropping from 42 percent to a more pedestrian 38 percent this year. Maybe Spo is trying to get the battered veteran (I swear, no pun intended) some rest before breaking him out in later series, but Miami is going to need some threes from Battier as some point, since Mike Miller ain’t walking through that door this year.
Spoelstra went to his bag of tricks against Charlotte, dusting off James Jones, who played in 20 games all season, for all four tilts against the ‘Cats. The Heat were a ridiculous plus-46 in Jones’ 64 minutes, so clearly something is working there.
Secondary weapons Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole combined to go 11-21 from beyond the arc against Charlotte after 38.5 and 34.5 percent, respectively, in the regular season. If their trusted old weapons aren’t going to be up to par, Miami will need the two point guards to be closer to their first round figures as the playoffs wear on.
Known for their frenetic, trapping defense for the first three years of the Big Three era, Miami significantly dialed that style back this season, playing two traditional big men far more frequently and not blitzing ball handlers anywhere near as much as in the past. The Heat were actually torched from deep more often than they were a year ago, but toning down the aggression may have preserved Miami’s legs for the postseason.
Even with their alleged coasting and scaled back aggression, Miami still led the league in opponent turnover possession during the regular season, and they cranked it up even more against the Bobcats. Charlotte had the lowest turnover percentage in the league at 11.7 percent, but Miami forced them into turnovers on 16.2 percent of their possessions.
It goes without saying that Miami is absolutely deadly in transition, so if they’re ratcheting up their pressure on ball-handlers, it points to good things. Of course, the caveat from their opening round win is Al Jefferson's diminished capabilities. With his foot injury, Big Al’s usage rate dropped four points from the regular season, and while he turned the ball over on less than two percent of his possessions, his diminished role (and Game 4 absence) led to more opportunities for shakier players to turn the rock over for Charlotte.
While shutting down the Bobcats to the tune of 99.8 points per 100 possessions isn’t a major accomplishment - Charlotte did have an offensive rating of just 101.2 post-All Star - it sure seemed like Miami revved their engine a little louder than they did all regular season.