Prized Possession: Pacers - HEAT

MIAMI, February 10 – On the offensive side of the floor, the Miami HEAT have been trending way, way up during their current seven-game winning streak. Blending elements of Hubie Brown’s “Hawk” offense, high-post sets from the Rick Adelman-era in Sacramento and the triangle together, the HEAT have relied less on basic high pick-and-rolls, earning opportunities with ball movement, player movement and variety.

The defense, however, has been a different story.

First quarters, in particular, have been problematic. Though slow first periods are hardly uncommon during the pre-All Star break portion of the winter schedule, the HEAT allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions in those quarters is still noteworthy – even if that mark would still be above league average if stretched out for an entire game.

Against Orlando and Charlotte, it was preventing opposing players from running freely through the paint. Against Indiana, it was preventing dribble-penetration and finishing defensive possessions. Against Oklahoma City, it was a little bit of everything as they gave up 38 points. Rarely were there complete breakdowns, but it’s become commonplace for Erik Spoelstra to mention dissatisfaction with early defense in his post-game comments.

Lest we paint too dark a picture, the HEAT remain in the league’s top five in defensive efficiency, allowing 102.7 efficiency possessions with an effective field-goal percentage of 46.2 (weighted for the value of the three-pointer), the second-best mark.

But the key here is that in each of these games, wins, the problems have been fixed. Even including Orlando’s comeback bid in the final five minutes of that contest, the HEAT have held opponents under 20 points in five of their last seven fourth quarters with a defensive efficiency of 93.5 – a mark that would far and away lead the league stretched out to an entire game.

“When we find something that we’re not doing well enough, we’ve proven so far this season that we’ve been able to figure it out, be objective about it and work together to fix it,” Spoelstra said.

Considering the strange circumstances the regular season can bring – back-to-backs and early-Sunday start times among them – the ability to adapt appears much more significant than early defensive miscues.

This was especially true in Miami’s 117-112 win over the Pacers. After surrendering 29 points in the opening period and near 60-percent shooting through the third, one complete, finished possession in the fourth-quarter provided a visual marker for the HEAT’s adaptation.

Indiana begins with a slow-developing pick-and-roll up top, with Eddie House and Chris Bosh defending. Bosh has plenty of time to hedge out on AJ Price while Eddie House fights through a non-screen, and with no passing lane available to Tyler Hansbrough, the first option is nullified.

Price and Hansbrough try again from the same spot, and again Bosh thwarts the effort by cutting off the ball-handler as House goes over the top of the screen. But notice this time how Dwyane Wade picks up Hansbrough as he slow-rolls to the rim. Wade’s man, Dahntay Jones, is less of a threat in the corner being two passes away from the ball, and the help gives Bosh ample time to recover back to Hansbrough.

With no options, the Pacers swing the ball around the perimeter in a non-threatening manner, and the ball ends up in Hansbrough’s hands, just inside the three-point line, with three seconds left on the shot clock.

Normally, this would already be a successful possession for the HEAT. But time and again in this contest, the Pacers found a way to ruin a fine defensive stand with a leaning jumper, an offensive rebound or by drawing a foul. This time, Bosh contains, cuts off Hansbrough’s dribble, and the shot clock buzzer sounds. As the camera cuts away, you can see Bosh’s emotion at finally putting the clamps on the Pacers.

Granted, Price and Tyler Hansbrough are not Chris Paul and David West running the pick-and-roll – Hansbrough slips the screen too early – and this was not Indiana’s prime scoring unit, but the defensive mechanics are there nevertheless. From this moment on, the Pacers would score on just six of their next 17 possessions for 11 points, and the HEAT would win the quarter by 12.

“In the fourth quarter we did a much better job containing the ball - keeping it in front of us, which allowed us to put bodies in front of them for the rebound,” Spoelstra said after the game.

He went on to say that the HEAT have yet to achieve that next level of defense, that greatness is consistency. But even with first quarters holding them down, Miami is consistently making the right adjustments. Come playoff time, there’s also something great about that.

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