The Next Day

What Mattered For The HEAT On A Night That Mattered
Justise Winslow
Issac Baldizon
by Couper Moorhead

When a team comes into your building with 16 wins in a row and leaves with a one-game losing streak, that’s usually something to celebrate regardless of any surrounding context.

And yet following the Miami HEAT’s 104-98 win over the Boston Celtics the message was unmistakable.

“I don’t even care about the result right now,” Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s all behavior and habits. The test will be what we do for the next 48 hours.”

Fun though this win may be for those who watch for enjoyment and know the history between these teams this wasn’t really about the HEAT beating the Celtics. That they were on a winning streak is largely beside the point. Wednesday night was about the HEAT playing the way they need to play in order to beat Good Team X.

When the HEAT lost 120-95 to the Indiana Pacers last Sunday night, at home, it appeared to be a low point for this early stage of the season. Not a player or a coach in the locker room was pleased with the effort level put forth that evening and the response was a pair of training-camp like practices that, according to some players, might have been even tougher than an actual training-camp practice.

What changed?

“Our physicality. Our motor. Our intensity. Our want. Our hunger,” Wayne Ellington said. “The things that we say we’re supposed to have every night. We had two very intense practices and got to work.”

“I thought we wanted to defend,” Josh Richardson said. “I thought we got up for the game. I don’t think everyone got up for the game [against Indiana], and it showed.”

Boston finished the game with an offensive rating of 98.1 points per 100 possessions, a far cry from Indiana’s of 128.3 a few days prior, but those numbers are only going to reflect makes and misses. What about whether or not the shots taken should make or miss? Thanks to Second Spectrum’s player tracking data we have a Shot Quality metric that essentially measures what a team is expected to shoot based on the shots being earned.

The HEAT allowed an expected effective field-goal percentage of just 47.3 on Wednesday, a significant step down from Boston’s season average of 51.0 – the gap between the best and worst teams in Shot Quality is usually only 2.6 percent or so – and better yet, it was the lowest Shot Quality allowed in a single game all season for Miami.

Yet if you comb through the film it doesn’t feel like the HEAT’s best defensive game of the season (that would probably be at Golden State, despite the end results). Physicality had something to do with it but Boston wasn’t particularly sharp in running what they normally run. That’s not to take anything away from the HEAT, only to deemphasize the importance of the opponent.

“Obviously this is a very good basketball team that we beat, but it has nothing to do with that right now,” Spoelstra said. “It’s all about our behavior, our habits, our consistency before you even get to the final result.”

Miami’s formula, always but especially for this roster, is to be a consistent, sustained elite defensive team and to let that defense give them a chance on any night. Sometimes the other team will hit tough shots, sometimes your own offense won’t quite be there, but if the effort on defense is always there – this was the hallmark of last season’s second half – you give yourself a chance for a little basketball magic like this…

…to matter. Otherwise, if you aren’t in your stance against a pick-and-roll or you don’t have your hands up in the passing lanes or you aren’t fighting over the top of screens, a shot like that falls on a deaf scoreboard.

“When you play hard, you get lucky too. Luck is part of the sport,” Goran Dragić said.

As far as replicating the success of last season, something that isn’t actually as important as it sounds given the roster differences but helps as a reference point, it was also a positive to see Miami’s second unit be the one that created the bulk of what was a double-digit lead before a furious Boston comeback. A huge chunk of value out of last season’s Top 5 defense was carried by the bench, but with changes to the lineup and rotation due both to injuries (Rodney McGruder and Okaro White out currently while Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson are now healthy) and free agency (Kelly Olynyk joining in place of Willie Reed), the consistency hadn’t quite been there.

Slowly, the bench unit has pulled itself back up on the tracks. Now, after the four-man unit of Olynyk, Ellington and Tyler and James Johnson finished a plus-11 in 13.6 minutes against Boston, that group has a defensive rating of 100.8 per 100 possessions in 77 minutes – a mark that would be among the five best in the league.

“We know that the second unit needs to be better, we weren’t playing how we’re capable of,” Ellington said. “Last season, you look back, the second unit was always a boost.”

You don’t win one game and suddenly become a different team, free and clear from everything you have been before. The HEAT have been inconsistent, following up tough road wins in Washington with a home loss to Indiana, and they know it. Wednesday doesn’t matter unless Friday at Minnesota matters, in some way, too.

“We need to forget this game,” Dragić said. “It’s not like we won 10 straight. It’s only one game. The history only shows that we have a good win and then the worst game possible. We just need to get in, try to have a good practice, prepare the best that we can and then have the same desire that we did tonight.”

That doesn’t mean they have to beat the Timberwolves this Friday. Far from it. Eyes will be on how they play, on the eternal process that tends to separate the league’s teams over time more so than early-season wins and losses.

It’s not always about Miami playing their best game or holding their opponent to a season low in a half or a quarter. It’s about playing the way they have to play.

“Again, it’s that kind of effort to get a six-point win,” Spoelstra said. “Nothing is guaranteed, but that has to be what we have to embrace all the time.”

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