The Return of Rose and the HEAT's Defense

by Couper Moorhead

One year ago after receiving their championship rings, the Miami HEAT beat the Boston Celtics. It was a thorough, decisive victory as the HEAT led by double digits for most of the second half. But it was also representative of an issue that wouldn’t be resolved for months.

After a full year spent retooling the offense into one of the most dynamic, flexible systems in the league, the defense had yet to show up. The HEAT gave up 113.2 points per 100 possessions that Opening Night to a team that would finish 20th in the league’s offensive rankings, and for two months Miami’s oft-vaunted defense would remain decidedly below average.

“Everybody last year wasn’t ready for the season to start,” Chris Bosh said during training camp. “I know I wasn’t. Especially coming off that first championship, you have that hangover. It’s tough. This year, I was like, ‘OK, I know what to expect, I’m going to be ready and it’s not going to sneak up on me this time.”

Below average, even for a relatively anonymous portion of the regular season, doesn’t cut it. So after two camps spent building and refining an entirely new offense, Erik Spoelstra refocused his group on the other end of the floor. The trip to the Bahamas became a defensive clinic.

“Coming off [2010-11], our offense package wasn’t as good as we’d have liked it to be so we preached offense. ‘Let’s open it up a little bit. Let’s open it up,’ Dwyane Wade said. “Now we understand offensively what we need to do, and [Spoelstra] wants to be a top-5 defensive team. We didn’t want to wait too long to work our way there this year. So we practiced a lot of defense.”

We’re just one game into the regular season – season openers are often overrated for impact despite being relatively useless for predictive purposes come playoff time – but so far these best laid plans have stayed the course. With a little bit of luck helping to deflate the Chicago Bulls’ shooting percentage at the rim (where they missed 12 shots), the HEAT held their opening-night opponent to an offensive efficiency of 97.9.

Had this been last year, when the Bulls were one of the least efficient offenses in the league, the performance wouldn’t be nearly as encouraging. But this was the return of Derrick Rose from an ACL tear. These Bulls could be and should be a different breed of two-way team. As far as first games go, this was a true test.

The results for Rose were simple: 4-of-15 shooting, four free-throw attempts and five turnovers. In the context of Rose’s history against the Wade-James-Bosh core – 36.4 percent shooting in 11 games – those numbers aren’t entirely notable, which in turn is exactly what makes them worth paying attention to. The HEAT held serve, again limiting the one player that can consistently keep Chicago scoring at pace with Miami.

No, Rose cannot be reasonably expected to be back to his usual self so soon after a long layoff. But Tuesday night the HEAT employed the same tactics against Rose – and most other elite scoring guards – that they always have. Rose was undoubtedly rusty despite some vintage early rim-attacks, but Miami wasn’t going to give him any oil.

“I think we had a lot to do with [Rose’s poor shooting],” Ray Allen said. “We contributed two to him on the ball most of the night, especially in transition. Early he got to the basket. Our antennas were up, but they went up even more when he made those layups. We just made sure we kept pressure on him. It’s early in the season, for both teams, so I don’t think we can say anybody played great, we just got the win, which is the ultimate goal.”

Two on the ball against Rose looks the same as two on the ball against most guards. In the pick-and-roll, the defender guarding the screen-setter blitzes or hedges the ballhandler to get him to take a retreat dribble or give up the ball. Being aggressive with Rose is dangerous as he’s adept at splitting the defenders should one player overcommit to an angle, but after a couple early scores the scheme had the desired effect on most of Rose’s possessions.

And once or twice, even long after a pick-and-roll action had fizzled out, the HEAT committed that second defender at the hint of Rose attacking the paint again.

If two defenders wasn’t enough, they then shaded a third towards the ball – even off the strongside corner as the HEAT are often loathe to do.

“I thought we did alright,” Dwyane Wade said. “He’s a dynamic player. There are going to be times where the defense is going to be good and he still is going to attack and score. But I felt, for the most part, we made him see all guys’ numbers and just tried to make it tough on him. We did our defense. He stretches your defense and makes you work hard, but it’s our job to make him work hard as well.”

Again, there’s nothing particularly novel about what the HEAT were doing. This is their core, basic defensive package. It just happens to be a defensive package that continues to bother Rose, and that makes it a non-development that will be relevant should these teams meet in the postseason.

If that matchup happens, there will be at least one new addition to this relationship. Norris Cole may be entering his third year in the league, but before Tuesday he had only once shared the court with an active Rose. While Cole displayed an increased sense of maturity as a playmaker against the Bulls, the one skill he has proven to have time and time again is the ability to play some of the best on-ball defenders in the league. Such a skill comes in handy against a ball-dominant scoring guard like Rose, and Cole’s usefulness manifested itself as expected in the opener.

“We did a fairly good [job on Rose],” Cole said. “He did hit a couple of gaps on us when we relaxed. He’s an explosive player. You’re just not going to take absolutely everything away. For the most part we kind of corralled him, kept bodies in front of him, kept bodies on him and that’s all you can do. And then contest the shot and live with the results.”

Cole is by no means a Rose-Stopper. He’s simply something new. When healthy, Rose had yet to crack the Miami defensive code. Now they have two capable guards in Cole and Mario Chalmers – who swarmed the passing lanes like a man possessed in the first few minutes – to swap shifts on Chicago’s All-Star before Spoelstra even has to consider giving LeBron James the more taxing assignment. There may not be anything broken to fix, but the HEAT have more tools now than they did two years ago.

This week, however, that is almost beside the point. There will be a time for matchup analysis, but for now we can just be happy that one of the game’s best players is playing basketball again. Rose may have struggled in his first regular-season game back against a defense that wasn’t about to give him any breaks, but everyone watching saw the flashes of brilliance.

“His speed was surprising,” Shane Battier said. “You forget how explosive he is. It’s going to be a couple of games before you see D. Rose. But he’s back. There’s no question about it. He’s a monster and he’s going to be a force to be dealt with for the rest of this season.”

And the league is better for it.

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