For the last three seasons, that was the most important question for the other 29 NBA teams — and it remains the case this season, too.
But the Knicks and Nets did it on successive nights, which shows it is not impossible.
With one of the best players in the history of the game in LeBron James, a Hall of Fame guard in Dwyane Wade and a whole host of role players and floor spacers utilized by a top-notch coach, the Heat have proven nearly impossible to beat in a best-of-seven series as they look for their third straight title.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra jokingly admitted “we’re not unbeatable,” before Thursday’s game against New York and proved prescient when his team was defeated later that night.
So what are the secrets to defeating Miami? Over the course of several days, Sheridan Hoops spoke to over a dozen different players from five different teams — from guards and big men to stars and reserves.
We broke down what they said into a few important overarching factors.
Move The Ball On Offense
You need to be super active against Miami’s defense, which doesn’t get as much due as it should because of the great offensive players they have. That activity is highlighted by the need to move the ball. “You definitely have to move the ball because they trap the pick-and-roll and things like that, so you have to move the basketball,” said Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague.
If you can move the ball against Miami, you can get good open looks and hit them. Check out the Heat’s defensive numbers and you can see where their strengths and weaknesses lie:
|Miami D||Number||League Rank|
You can shoot a good percentage from the field against the Heat. They are in the bottom 10 in shooting defense and the bottom five in 3-point defense. The problem is that because Miami’s defense is so active in its trapping and switches, they take opponents deep into the shot clock and allow fewer makes and attempts. That explains why they’re third in opponent attempts and sixth in makes.
“You gotta move the ball from side to side and you gotta shoot well,” says Hawks wing extraordinaire Kyle Korver. “They have a really quick defense, they really swarm the basketball, they’re really good at loading up to isolations.”
Miami’s ability to swarm to the ball explains why it forces the most turnovers in the NBA.
“They make you pay off turnovers,” said New York Knicks guard Iman Shumpert. “So I think just taking care of the ball and making sure we get good shots is important.”
Teague also emphasized that you have to play with good pace against their Southeast Division rivals. “You have to get up and down,” Teague said. “You know they have good athletes who can run up and down the floor. You gotta try to match them a little bit and get up and down.”
Miami allows so few attempts, so getting up and down and being sure and confident (more on this later) in what you want to do offensively is huge.
And then there’s what teams have to do to contain that Miami offense.
Guard That 3-Point Line
Miami is seventh in the league in 3-point percentage (.381) and 10th in made threes per game (8.1). Many of those attempts are open looks. When James drives into the middle and can kick it out to any number of proficient shooters, a lead can snowball and a game can get out of hand quickly.
“The biggest thing is running them off the 3-point line,” said Atlanta forward DeMarre Carroll. “They’re a great 3-point shooting team. When they get their threes, it’s hard to guard them. Chris Bosh stepping out, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers. A lot of those guys, all they want to do is shoot threes.”
Chalmers is 20-for-35 from the corners this season and a nearly automatic 10-for-12 from the left corner. Ray Allen is over 50 percent from the right corner. Nearly 80 percent of Shane Battier’s total shots (78.1) come from beyond the arc. So guarding that 3-point line is vital, and it plays into another important factor mentioned by our player panel.
Make Them Take Tough Twos
This can be said about any team, but forcing tough 16- to 20-foot shots against the Heat is a good recipe for success defensively. “If you can run them off the 3-point line and make them shoot tough, contested twos, I think that’s the best thing against Miami,” Carroll said.
“Try to make them beat you with perimeter shots, because they’re one of the best teams at attacking the rim,” said Golden State sharpshooter Klay Thompson, an able and versatile defender himself. James is so, so disciplined that just 16.82 percent of his shots are in that long two-point range.
In fact, only 17.48 percent of Miami’s total shots are the 16-to-24-footers.
Defending the Heat is only a small part of the battle. Just matching their effort and intensity is often a tall task.
Playing With Confidence, Intensity and Energy
“They’re the two-time defending champions, so first of all you have to match the effort and the energy,” said Detroit Pistons star big man Greg Monroe. This sentiment was echoed by several others spoken to for this column. A team could be psyched out by the Heat’s skill and pedigree to the point that they don’t put out their full effort on the court.
“You know who they are, you know the players on your team, not taking anything away from them, but playing with confidence against a team like that and sticking with what you do as a team really helps you out a lot because at the end of the day we’re all in the NBA,” said Cleveland Cavaliers wing C.J. Miles.
“Every given night, teams challenge teams that are hot, on the road, 13-game winning streaks, teams that are on 10-game losing streaks, win big games that way, or whatever it may be,” Miles added. “The biggest thing is just playing with confidence.”
Pistons big Josh Harrellson, who spent a portion of last season with Miami, spoke about matching the Heat’s tempo and intensity and not letting them run away with things early. Hawks guard Shelvin Mack discussed playing hard for all 48 minutes, while Shumpert also honed in on effort. Warriors guard Toney Douglas stressed that you can’t worry about the Heat too much; instead, you should focus on what your team can do.
Knicks big man Andrea Bargnani said the same thing.
“We have to focus on our energy, our game,” he said. “That’s the key of everything on defense and offense. So we have to keep playing with that intensity. And then we’ll see, possession by possession.”
“It’s about how it works out that night. I don’t think there’s a certain formula to beat them,” said Green, whose team has won at Miami in each of the last two seasons. “That’s a great team with Hall of Fame guys. It just has to be your night and you just have to go out and play hard. But you can’t be outplayed. If you’re outplayed, you’re gonna lose by 20.
“You can outplay them and still possibly lose the game. You just have to go out there with the mindset that you’re going to win the game, you’re going to outplay them and see how it works out.”
So keep all these things in mind the next time you see the Heat in action. As Spoelstra said, Miami isn’t unbeatable. But a whole lot of things need to go right in order to defeat the defending champs.
The Beat The Heat Panel
Andrea Bargnani, forward-center, New York Knicks
DeMarre Carroll, forward, Atlanta Hawks
Toney Douglas, guard, Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green, forward, Golden State Warriors
Josh Harrellson, forward, Detroit Pistons
Kyle Korver, guard-forward, Atlanta Hawks
Shelvin Mack, guard, Atlanta Hawks
C.J. Miles, guard-forward, Cleveland Cavaliers
Greg Monroe, forward-center, Detroit Pistons
Iman Shumpert, guard, New York Knicks
Marreese Speights, center, Golden State Warriors
Jeff Teague, guard, Atlanta Hawks
Klay Thompson, guard, Golden State Warriors
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for Sheridan Hoops who loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You should follow him on Twitter.