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Miami Heat’s commitment to defense and culture fueling resurgent start

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The Heat are forcing more turnovers than any team in the NBA; just one sign this defense may be elite.

Houston Rockets v Miami Heat
Since Jimmy Butler’s debut the Heat are holding teams to a dismal shooting percentage from behind the arc.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Miami Heat is off to a sizzling start this adolescent season and the biggest reason for that is defense. The team ranks top three in steals (10.3) and blocks (6.7) per game, forcing a league-best 19.3 turnovers. Additionally, opponents are shooting a near NBA-worst 27.6% from the three-point line. All this is helping the Heat net the league’s 4th best defensive rating.

Basketball savants will tell you it’s more about tenacity than talent. More about gut than gifts. Yes, you must have exceptional players to execute but its largely predicated on those players “buying in,” everyone setting their sail in the same direction with a singular vision and goal in mind. For this year’s team just like teams of years past, defense is stitched into the culture. Defense and culture; two words and ideas that have become synonymous with Heat basketball.


A lot is made of the “culture” inside the Heat organization. There’s even a merchandising, marketing and social media campaign centered around the verbiage. Players who sign here often speak wide-eyed and glowingly about just that. The tone around the organization begins with its architect, Pat Riley. Before Riley joined the Heat in 1995 there wasn’t much of a culture at all.

The 1988 expansion team floundered for much of its existence leading up to Riley’s hiring as President. In short order, however, he would bring the organization to relevance; building a culture and eventual appetite for basketball in South Florida. The first blockbuster move Riley made was trading for the would-be two-time defensive player of the year Alonzo Mourning. And in many ways Mourning set the standard for the now praised “Heat Culture.”

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

“We are the hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, most unselfish, toughest, meanest, most disliked team in the NBA. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.” - Alonzo Mourning


Every Heat team is built with a blueprint in mind. In 1996, all was staged around a dominant center in Alonzo Mourning, in 2012 dynamic wings in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but this roster was constructed for the new NBA. Riley went out and got one of the best perimeter defenders in the world, Jimmy Butler via trade and continued building on blocks set seasons prior with the development of Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo. In this year’s draft he selected a rangy, athletic guard in Tyler Herro. Add the acquisition of a few versatile 7-footers in Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard and you have the recipe for a great defense.

Cultivating a team in Miami starts with signing and drafting players who believe in the Heat way of doing things. Along with “Heat Culture” there’s another popular saying around the organization “we’re not for everybody,” a testament to the demanding but eventually productive environment Riley has founded. Selecting the right brand of player is very important. It’s imperative that they know it’s not about them, it’s about them coming here and fitting in to the master design. It’s fair to assume the primary reason Miami moved on from Hassan Whiteside was his unwillingness to fit in with the culture.

Miami Heat Introduce Jimmy Butler Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images


You’ll often hear Erik Spoelstra use the phrase “Heat-style basketball.” Spoelstra stresses a fast-paced style of play which increasing the number possessions in a game. Along with forcing this uptempo pace is a commitment to defensive discipline. Having a host of quick, athletics wings that can switch and dart into passing lanes combined with bigs who can hold their own on the pick-and-roll creates for a successful defensive recipe.

After Miami’s win over Houston last Sunday, the 12th-year coach had this to say about his team. “The guys have really been working to get to our identity and that’s bringing a great deal of energy and commitment to the defensive end - you have to do things with great thought, technique but the effort has to be there.”

Boston Celtics vs Miami Heat Staff Photo By Christopher Evans/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald


Jimmy Butler is the quarterback of the Heat defense. A two-time all-defensive selection, Butler is a 1990’s NBA throwback who plays with toughness and tact. He’s the perfect player to anchor a Heat defense, with the ability to guard the opposing team’s best player in isolation and roam around getting his hands into passing lanes for steals or deflections. The forward is averaging nearly 4 steals per contest. He always seems to be thinking one pass ahead of the opposition, seeing a play develop before it develops is a skill that takes both patience and lightning-quick decisiveness.

Butler also does an exceptional job of forcing shooters off their “spot,” cutting angles and free space. Great defenders will tell you a large part of being successful is managing real estate on the court. Butler also rarely gives up on a play, he will fight over and through screens while closing out hard and being in a position to help in the event a teammate gets beat. It’s hard to imagine a better successor to Wade, as Butler’s approach to the game makes him a perfect headliner for the Heat.

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Bread & Butter:

Miami thrives off turnovers and long missed shots creating transition opportunities in the open court. This coincides with the tremendous pace in which they play. As you can see, the Heat culture ties into everything they do. You can’t play this brand of basketball and not be one of the best conditioned teams. The Heat currently force more turnovers than any team in the league and have held teams to the second lowest three-point shooting percentage. Miami scores 19.9 points off turnovers per game, 6th best in the NBA.

Houston Rockets v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Even after the Heat were shellacked in Denver during by far their worst outing of the season, they still manage to hold the 4th best point differential in the league. The last time Miami had a defensive rating this good was in 2000-2001, a season that saw them win 50 games. A continued defensive effort mirroring what the Heat have done in the season’s initial two weeks will translate into good positioning for the playoff push.