Heat D: where speed compensates for size

May, 4, 2011
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
Through versatility and quickness, LeBron James and the Heat stuffed the Celtics' offense again in Tuesday's Game 2 victory.

MIAMI -- The Miami Heat are trying to reinvent what works in the playoffs.

Conventional wisdom stated that the Heat couldn't win without size up front. After all, defense wins championships and when you look at the Heat's roster, there isn’t Andrew Bynum, Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan to clog the lane.

But so far in the playoffs, they have effectively flipped the script and stifled opponents with their versatility and flexibility. The Heat are the only team in the playoffs to hold their opponents to fewer than 95 points in every single game.

In Tuesday’s 102-91 win over the Boston Celtics, the Heat made a veteran Boston team look completely lost while holding it to just 41.1 percent shooting on 2-pointers.

"What’s really unique about our team is that we don’t have a huge front line in size and height, but we have athletic guys," LeBron James said after the game. "We’re not the biggest team in the league as far as height but a lot of us play above the rim."

Despite playing for stretches without a player taller than 6-foot-9, the Heat finished with nine blocks in the game, backup center Joel Anthony leading the way with three swats against the Celtics.

Once the game was tied at 80-80 with seven minutes left, the Heat clamped down defensively, forcing the Celtics to miss their next six shots. For the final seven minutes of the game, the Celtics scored just 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting.

When asked about what happened to his team in the final minutes, Celtics head coach Doc Rivers placed the blame on himself.

"They scored and we couldn’t score," Rivers said. "I always say that if we can’t score down the stretch that it’s always on me. I have to do something different."

The Celtics and Sixers have tried everything here in the playoffs, but nothing has worked consistently against the Heat. The Celtics tried to go big on the Heat, but James picked up Jermaine O’Neal with little issue. When they went small, the Heat flourished there too.

"Our defense is always going to be our backbone," Chris Bosh said after the game. "We give credit to the defense any time we win games. We are never going to try and outscore an opponent."

The Heat pride themselves on basket protection, but they’re defending it with the weapon of quickness, not height. Of the team’s nine blocks, the most memorable one came with less than a minute left and the Celtics down nine points. Kevin Garnett set a pindown screen for Ray Allen, forcing Anthony to jump out and help close off the shooter. Once Garnett saw Anthony cover Allen on the wing, he cut to the rim for a wide-open finish -- except it was only wide open for a moment.

LeBron sprinted from the weakside and met the 6-foot-11 Garnett at the rim in a flash. Garnett tried to muscle a layup past LeBron, but the two-time MVP rose up and swatted Garnett’s layup to the foul line.

Quickness, not height.

"They had some plays where they blocked some shots and got some steals," Garnett said. "They are athletic. That’s what they do."

On the day, the Celtics' big men were just 2-for-9 on layups, according to Hoopdata.com. The Heat rarely let a shot get off without a strong contest, because they have four players on the court at all times capable of blocking a shot at the rim -- even Mike Bibby, who has had four blocks in the last two games.

The defensive has sharpened their tenacity here in the playoffs, especially down the stretch. Speaking after the game, Wade reflected on the season, noting how far the Heat have come since November when they opened the season 9-8.

"When we first got together, it was really sporadic," Wade said. "We had some great defensive moments in the beginning of the year. But our team defense wasn't there yet. Our rotations weren't there yet. The trust wasn't there yet. Obviously now, it's a lot better."

All season long, Spoelstra drilled it into his players' heads that the team needed a defensive identity if it was going to win a championship. The team bought into his program, but it was hard to imagine how a team could be so dominant without a physically overpowering big man down low.

Where they destroy teams is in pick-and-roll coverage because they rotate so quickly and effectively with spreading themselves too thin. A lot of that has to do with Anthony. There's a reason why the Heat have outscored opponents by 92 points with Anthony on the court in the playoffs. He can show and recover as good as any big man in the game. Additionally, James and Wade's versatility allows them to switch on pick-and-rolls without being overmatched.

Mismatches are exploited in the playoffs, but the Heat's versatility on the floor makes it nearly impossible to create one. Their versatility is on display especially against the Celtics because Boston doesn't have a big man who works from the block. When all else failed on Tuesday, Rivers grasped for straws and tried to run the Celtics' offense through Glen Davis in the post. That didn't work either.

The Heat's defense slowed down the young and speedy Philadelphia 76ers in the first round and are now dismantling the older, more methodical Celtics. No, the Heat don’t look like a championship team on paper without an imposing big man, but they’ve taken pride in breaking the mold all season.

"We’re a good defensive team," Wade said. "That’s how we win games. Obviously, the scoring and the dunks are going to make the highlights, but defense is what we lay our hats on every night."

Tom Haberstroh

ESPN Staff Writer



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Goran Dragic
20.3 5.8 1.2 33.7
ReboundsH. Whiteside 14.1
AssistsG. Dragic 5.8
StealsJ. Winslow 1.4
BlocksH. Whiteside 2.1