It is the best of times and the worst of times for the Miami Heat. A franchise-record best start to the regular season, winning games instead of losing them in the final minute, and LeBron James looking unguardable through nine games-the best of times. Losing all three games of a West Coast road trip, losing two of those three in overtime, and LeBron James looking pedestrian at best on that West Coast swing-especially in the fourth quarter-truly the worst of times. Enter Wednesday night's contest against the San Antonio Spurs. The Miami Heat simply stunk up the joint in the first half. The defense, as it was against the Denver Nuggets last week, was nonexistent. As noted in Dave's most recent game summary, the Heat gave up a season-high amount of points in the first quarter and total points in the first half. The team seemed to have no interest in protecting its home floor. They were getting their rears handed to them by a team playing without its best player (Manu Ginobili-debatable I know, but ultimately true). Reports are that LeBron was getting booed in the second quarter.
Then, someone had an epiphany at halftime: Let's see if Tony Parker (who is at least a step slower than he was when he was at his best), an aged Tim Duncan, and a group of ragamuffins can stand up to our best punch on defense. The Heat unit that started the third quarter did just that. They applied pressure, trapped, hounded, and harassed the Spurs into surrendering the lead. All this defensive pressure was, of course, accompanied by the offensive play of an out-of-his-mind LeBron James and the debut of one Mike Miller. Miller seemed to get his rhythm by taking a charge and then burying each and every trey he attempted. Bron went so bonkers at one point that he attempted three-pointers on back-to-back-to-back possessions-the last of which was truly a heat check after having made the previous two that would have burned down AAA had he connected (he was just off by the way). Mike Miller's hot shooting into the fourth quarter, along with timely contributions by Norris Cole, helped keep the outcome of the game from coming back into question. It was truly a great-and much needed-win for our Miami Heat.
The school teacher and basketball coach in me periodically likes to ask this question: what did we learn from this? Heat fans and players alike should have learned the difference between this team winning and losing games. No. 6 was successful in this game without venturing into the post and by dominating the game from the perimeter and by making plays for his teammates. He has to learn how to adapt his game to exploit what the defense is giving him. Kawhi Leonard is a long and athletic defender who was making life tough on LeBron-inside and out. The Heat, as mentioned previously, ratcheted up the defense in the second half, opened up the transition game (where we are at our absolute best), and Bron started feeling it. That, my friends, was the most important lesson of the night-not that LeBron James can take over a game offensively, but that defensive effort turned that game around. The Atlanta, Golden State, and Clipper losses I could stomach because the defensive effort was present for the majorities of those games. The Denver loss saw the Heat come out looking defeated before the game started and giving up free lanes to the rim and open jump shots to all comers. The San Antonio game started much the same. One could argue that the lack of defensive intensity in favor of trying to outscore people cost the Heat a Championship last June. Some lessons are, however, tough to learn. Falling in love with trying to score just one more point that the opposition is easy to do.
Since the beginning of last season, I have held that if this team would play the type of defense the Big Three they allegedly modeled themselves after (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen) played in the 2007-2008 campaign, they would be a virtual lock for a World Championship. They would also-with that level of defensive intensity-threaten to become only the second team in NBA history to win 70 games in an 82-game regular season. I'll admit that the San Antonio game is a case of extremes. The first half showed a worst case scenario for Miami failing to hang its hat on defense. The second half showed the absolute best case scenario for playing defense the way they are capable of. Will they be able to win some games without completely stifling their opponents defensively? Yes. Will the guys always catch fire as a result of playing stellar defense? Absolutely not, but they must always remember that sometimes you can't control whether or not the ball goes in the hole, but you can always control the effort you put out on defense. To compete for-and win-the NBA title this season, the Miami Heat must remember, more often than not, that defense wins championships (unoriginal I know, but still true).