MIAMI – The Miami Heat have been playing better than ever during the past 10 days.
Think about that. Better than ever. Last season the Heat had stretches in which they won 21 of 22 games, and 15 of 18 games. Yet this is the best stretch ever.
That’s not me talking, that’s Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The Heat are on a six-game winning streak over the past 10 days, and five of those wins were blowout victories on the road. Those five teams – Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Cleveland – averaged 89.8 points per game.
So, Spoelstra thinks the Heat are playing their best regular-season basketball of the past year and a half because they’re playing lockdown defense.
“We wanted to really take a step forward in the last 10 days defensively, first and foremost,” Spoelstra said.
By now you’ve probably heard the stat: the only other team in NBA history to win five consecutive road games by 10 or more points each were the 1969-70 New York Knicks.
You saw Miami hold Orlando to 78 points in Sunday’s 90-78 win. You might have seen that Big Three fast break in which Chris Bosh grabbed the rebound, threw ahead to LeBron James, who threw ahead to Dwyane Wade for the finish. (There are so many highlights like that, the mind starts to blur).
It epitomized the defensive improvement Spoelstra is seeing. It’s professional. It’s crisp. Clean. Athletic. Efficient.
The dynamic defense gives Miami another dimension, another way to win. It blends seamlessly with Miami’s halfcourt offense, which is now running smoothly after having problems all of last season. The thought from Spoelstra is that the Heat is, right now, as complete as it’s ever been.
And he’s including that previously referenced November-January stretch last season when the Heat won 21 of 22 games.
“I didn’t necessarily like the way we were playing during that stretch,” Spoelstra said. “All we were doing was defending and getting out in the open court. But we hadn’t developed a halfcourt game, which obviously revealed itself in late February (during a five-game losing streak).”
Here’s the bottom line: defense wasn’t the reason the Heat lost to Dallas in the NBA Finals. Miami lost because Dallas was a better team, and because James didn’t come through in the fourth quarter. Take your pick on the order.
So you can’t get too excited about Spoelstra saying this is the Heat’s best stretch because their defense is better and more efficient. It’s all about the title. No statement, stat or observation about the Heat means anything. It’s championship or bust.
They know that.
They’ve said that.
They accept that.
But you have to take notice when Spoelstra, not one prone to hyperbole, points out this is the best stretch ever, and it’s because of defense. Mostly you pay attention because he’s confirming what your eyes have been telling you — this is the most complete the Heat has looked since the Big Three convened.
Point guard Mario Chalmers continues to play at a high level at a career-best 10.9 points per game and a career-best .462 on 3-pointers. Center Joel Anthony (3.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.1 blocks) is filling his role just fine. Bosh (18.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg) is a legitimate All-Star once again. And Wade and James have meshed their offensive games to the point one isn’t standing around while the other dribbles on the perimeter.
But let’s keep this on defense because, after all, we’re talking about the Miami Heat, and its been about defense ever since president Pat Riley arrived in 1995.
The real improvement is among the bench players. And, yes, we’re still talking defensively. Having a healthy Udonis Haslem at power forward helps. He’s a late-game mainstay. A veteran. Adding forward Shane Battier helps. He’s versatile and dependable. Swingman Mike Miller uses his length to rebound. And rookie guard Norris Cole adds energy, that all-out, young kid, fresh legs, new opportunity energy.
The four-man bench is holding up its end of the deal defensively, and that’s why the Heat can absorb things such as Haslem shooting a career-low .400 from the field, and Battier shooting a career-low .391. Despite their shooting struggles, they both still bring something to table in the form of defensive skills.
For the season Miami is sixth in opponents’ field goal percentage (.423), and tied for 12th in points allowed (94.2 points per game). That’s not enough to scare anybody. And, again, even if the Heat had scary numbers it wouldn’t matter. It’s about the title.
Until the time comes that Miami can win the title – June – keep this is mind: this current best-you’ve-ever-seen stretch started when the Heat gave up 17 3-pointers in a 102-89 loss at Orlando. And the last time we saw the Heat was in Sunday’s 12-point win over Orlando.
So let’s leave the final word to Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, who, when comparing last year’s Heat to this year’s Heat said, “They’re a lot better.”
Chris Perkins is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com, covering the NBA and the Miami Heat. His columns regularly appear every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter.