Miami’s keys to late season success

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

While they have a superb record and have racked up impressive wins over some of the best NBA teams so far this season, there's no denying the defending champs' play has been uneven so far. What can they do to overcome it?

Miami has been inconsistent so far this season, even as the team ranks among the very best in the NBA.

Label it complacency, coasting or completely overblown, but problems do exist and Miami will face still more difficult challenges in the upcoming months.

The Heat have 31 games remaining in the regular season. Of those, 14 will take place away from AmericanAirlines Arena, including Tuesday's matchup against the Dallas Mavericks and Thursday's statement game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Other away games include battles against playoff contenders like the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and the rival Indiana Pacers, not to mention the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards, all of which have previously beaten Miami this season.

At home, the schedule isn't any easier, with contests against the Bulls, Pacers, Rockets, Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, and Portland Trail Blazers, as well as traditionally-tough opponents Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks (twice each).

Factor in seven back-to-back sets in the next two months (just two less than over the previous 51 games), and it is clear Miami's path to the playoff will not be an easy one.

The scheduling gods (I'm looking at you, ex-Commissioner Stern) were not appeased during the off-season, but it's too late to offer the sacrificial lamb, even it if is considered kosher.

There are obvious solutions, some of which are plausible while others are not.

Defense, as always, is crucial to Miami's winning ways. But age and the grind of long playoff runs over the past three seasons have taken their toll. The Heat currently rank 14th in the NBA (out of 30 teams) in defensive efficiency, certainly not typical of championship contenders.

As detailed by Grantland's Zach Lowe, the Heat have adapted accordingly, mixing in less-aggressive attacks on typical pick-and-roll situations with what can be considered underwhelming results.

Perhaps Miami has been saving themselves thus far in the season, knowing that greater trials await them. There's no clear answer here, although one suspects that Miami will do what they've always done - find a way to defend their opponents when it matters most.

A roster shakeup could help but, as our own Isaac Koppel pointed out, one doesn't seem likely. Any additions (say, a Caron Butler or Ben Gordon) would bolster Miami's offensive production off the bench, but that hasn't been a point of need.

Having Dwyane Wade at full-strength and available for every game would be ideal. As LeBron James and Chris Bosh have both pointed out, having Wade in-and-out of the lineup has been challenging and made any hope for consistency a pipe dream. With the upcoming back-to-backs and Dwyane's season-long pattern of missing at least one (if not both) games of each set, this isn't the solution, either.

A massive transformation isn't likely, nor is it even necessary. But there are steps that Miami can take to ensure continued success throughout the regular season and in the playoffs.

Finding Beasley's Sweet Spot

Miami's recent victory over Golden State highlighted the very best and worst of Beasley's tenure with the Heat this season. He scored 16 points off the bench, his first game action in weeks, on just 7-of-11 shooting. But, particularly in the fourth quarter when the Warriors cut a 21-point deficit down to one, he was targeted defensively and either gave up an easy basket or was called for a foul.

Offensively, he remains a prodigy and along with James and a healthy Wade, he is perhaps the only other Heat player that can consistently generate offense. His timing and shot selection isn't always ideal but he's been ridiculously-efficient; bottom-line, he's a scoring machine. He's got a knack for rebounds and great hands, also a plus. But he's the obvious weak link in a team that, as stated earlier, is struggling on defense.

It would seem that surrounding Beasley with four players committed to defense (say James, Shane Battier, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen) would be an ideal lineup. But the numbers say otherwise. Units with Beasley tend to thrive when more gifted offensive players share the floor. The most ideal unit (outscoring teams by 22 points in just five games) includes James, Ray Allen, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers along with Beasley. Getting this lineup on the floor has been difficult, especially with Allen starting in place of Wade. But starting this super-scoring unit (and having a defense-heavy unit with Cole-Battier-Andersen off the bench along with James) could provide the scoring punch necessary to Miami's long-term health.

Start Decreasing Minutes

There's an additional bonus to revising the lineup when Wade sits out; getting players rest. It's no secret that Miami has had trouble in the first quarters of games, allowing teams to build an early lead while Miami struggles to find their shot. But Beasley's defensive woes wouldn't be as significant if the Heat were able to start out with the aforementioned super-scoring unit. When the Battier-Cole-Andersen team checks in, opposing teams' second-units would find points increasingly hard to get and Miami's early lead would grow. As the game progresses and even with the allowance for injury and/or sitting due to foul trouble, the Heat would still have a comfortable lead and could continue rotating other bench players (say Rashard Lewis and Greg Oden). With just over two months left in the regular season, getting key players rested (namely James, Bosh, Wade, Allen) is crucial.

Continue Developing Oden

The Greg Oden saga has been one of the best stories of the season so far. A sure-lock for Comeback Player of the Year, Oden has shown promise in limited playing time. His size is such an advantage, both offensively and defensively, that it's clear Greg will be a vital factor in Miami's playoff aspirations. If Head Coach Erik Spoelstra is to be believed, Oden is developing exactly as planned.

But only up to a point, especially when he is inserted in games at times when inferior opponents are on the floor.

His offensive contributions (almost exclusively dunks) thrill the AAA crowd but it's his defense that was the main reason why Greg was part of Miami's off-season plans. And while he can block and alter shots by virtue of his incredible size, his timing - while better than expected - needs to improve. He is prone to foul trouble and that won't help when facing the league's better big men. Specifically, his highly-anticipated matchup with Pacers All-Star Roy Hibbert.

It might seem unfair to place such lofty expectations on Oden but, in order to contribute under the high-pressure of a likely Eastern Conference Finals matchup against Indiana, he'll need to be tested. He can be forged under the fire of upcoming matchups against Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah and even Dwight Howard.

Oden's progress against the Spurs' Jeff Ayres and Utah's Enes Kanter is encouraging, but facing the league's best centers is necessary to prepare against Hibbert.

Resurrecting Haslem

In contrast to Oden's progress, the regression of Udonis Haslem to a shadow of his former self has been difficult to witness. He has played in just over half of Miami's first 51 games and only once (for two minutes) in the last 10. U.D.'s stats are career-lows in every category, including his per game averages in points (2.7), rebounds (2.8) and minutes (12.5).

But the wounded warrior deserves the opportunity to prove himself again, perhaps for the last time.

His early-season struggles were likely the result of injury, as he recovered from off-season knee surgery and back spasms that kept him out of the lineup. But now, and presumably in good health, he's been buried on the bench as Spoelstra tightens his rotation.

Still, there are signs that Coach Spo might loosen the reins somewhat. In last Wednesday's victory over the Warriors, Beasley returned to action. The previous night, against Phoenix, Lewis found his way on the floor.

With the difficult schedule sure to take its toll on this veteran team, it may fall on Haslem - the co-captain and longest-tenured player on the roster - to inspire the team once again. After 10 seasons, three titles and countless battles, Udonis has certainly earned that right.

The point remains that while Miami has been successful so far this season, change is needed to prepare for the long road ahead. And with the roster expected to remain stable, finding new ways to maximize existing players like Beasley, Oden, and Haslem might be a step in the right direction.

Tell what you think! If you've got an idea what Miami needs to change - or not - we want to know. Fill out our poll and leave a comment on how the Heat can keep on winning during the regular season and playoffs.

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