Where has the Heat’s top-five defense gone? Examining the recent regression on that end
With just two weeks left in the regular season, the Miami Heat is working to regain its identity.
That’s because what was at the center of the Heat’s identity this season has recently gone missing. The Heat’s winning formula has been built around a defense that entered last month’s All-Star break as the fifth best unit in terms of defensive rating through the first 59 games of the season (allowing 111.2 points per 100 possessions), but has been among the league’s worst ever since.
“We have not been defending at a world-class level the way we’re capable of,” coach Erik Spoelstra said, as the Heat (40-35) embarks on a critical late-season two-game trip that begins Tuesday against the Raptors (37-38) in Toronto (7:30 p.m., TNT).
In 16 games since the All-Star break, the Heat ranks 25th among 30 teams in defensive rating (allowing 119.1 points per 100 possessions).
In 13 games in March, the Heat holds the NBA’s second-worst defensive rating (allowing 121 points per 100 possessions).
And in Saturday’s ugly 129-100 blowout home loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the Heat allowed 146.6 points per 100 possessions for its worst single-game defensive rating in franchise history since the stat began being tracking in the 1996-97 season.
What’s behind the Heat’s recent defensive issues?
“I say the lack of communication when we get fatigued,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said. “I feel like that’s the big momentum shift — when guys get fatigued, we stop talking. It hurts us because we expect guys to be in certain places and we’re not. I just feel like we have mental lapses when we get fatigued.”
Heat guard Kyle Lowry has an interesting theory, pointing to the fact that the Heat has not turned to its 2-3 zone as often since the All-Star break.
“We’re playing a lot less zone,” Lowry said. “I think the zone really was messing people up, and I think they adjusted to it. Now I think it’s just, I don’t know. We got to look back at what’s going on, but I know early in the year we played a lot of zone and we slowed the pace down.”
The Heat, which already set a new modern-day NBA record for most zone possessions played in a single season this season, has used its 2-3 zone for 5.2 defensive possessions per game since the break after playing zone for 21.8 defensive possessions per game before the break, according to Synergy Sports.
This shift is significant because the Heat’s zone has arguably been its most effective defensive weapon, as Miami has allowed just 0.93 points per possession while playing zone this season. For perspective on how elite that number is, the Memphis Grizzlies entered Monday with the NBA’s best overall half-court defense this season at 0.98 points allowed per possession.
With the Heat moving away from zone, it has relied on its shaky man-to-man defense during the past month. The Heat’s man scheme is allowing 1.02 points per possession in the half court this season, according to Synergy Sports, which is the seventh-highest mark in the NBA.
“Sometimes the games dictate it,” Spoelstra said when asked why the Heat has played less zone recently. “... The last few times we’ve used it, we’ve gotten torched by it, so it was kind of an easy decision to move away from it. But we work on it still, still have it in our toolkit and it just depends on the game and the circumstance.”
The Heat also isn’t forcing as many turnovers lately, which has been a strength throughout the season. Miami entered the All-Star break with the second-highest opponent turnover rate (percentage of opponent possessions that end in a turnover) at 16.8 percent compared to the seventh-highest opponent turnover rate since the break at 14.7 percent.
Making the Heat’s defensive struggles even more frustrating is that its offense has been trending in a positive direction. After entering the All-Star break with the 26th-ranked offensive rating (scoring 111.1 points per 100 possessions), it entered Monday with the 15th-ranked offensive rating since the break (scoring 114.9 points per 100 possessions).
Despite the Heat’s recent offensive uptick behind Jimmy Butler’s greatness and hot three-point shooting, it’s just 8-8 since the break because of its problems on the defense.
“It’s definitely been worse, obviously, than the first half of the season,” Heat guard Tyler Herro said of the defense. “But, I mean, our offense is also getting better after the break. So I think when we’re making shots, usually we’re defending better. So it’s usually not like ourselves. We’ll be better defensively and offensively. I think we’re trending in the right direction.”
The Heat has just seven regular-season games left to figure things out, as it works to avoid the play-in tournament that features the seventh- through 10th-place teams in each conference. The Heat entered Monday in seventh place in the Eastern Conference despite owning the same record as the sixth-place Nets because Brooklyn holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
To escape the play-in tournament possibility, the Heat will need to find its identity. That means playing like one of the NBA’s top defensive teams again.
“I’m not surprised by anything that’s happened at all this season,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve said this a few times and it remains true. There has been nothing easy about this season, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a negative thing. You have to embrace the struggle, you have to figure out ways to stay together, stay in the saddle and then persevere and our group has great collective competitive character.”
The Heat ruled out Jamal Cain (G League), Orlando Robinson (G League) and Nikola Jovic (back spasms) for Tuesday’s game against the Raptors. Jovic did not travel with the team to Toronto.
Heat point guard Kyle Lowry is listed as questionable with left knee soreness. With the Heat set to play a back-to-back on Tuesday in Toronto and Wednesday against the Knicks in New York, the question is whether Lowry will miss one of those games as the Heat continues to take a cautious approach with his work load after recently returning from left knee soreness.
Heat center Cody Zeller, who missed the last six games with a broken nose, is not on the injury report and is on track to make his return in Tuesday’s game against the Raptors.
HEAT FAMILY FESTIVAL
The Heat hosted its 23rd annual Miami Heat Family Festival on Sunday afternoon at Miami-Dade Arena. With Heat coaches and players in attendance, the event helped raise more than $400,000 for the Miami Heat Charitable Fund and local charities.
It marked the Heat’s first Family Festival since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For me, it brings back a lot of memories,” Heat president Pat Riley said Sunday. “Very first time we did it on Biscayne Bay, Grand Bay was amazing. Time has gone by so fast. Great to see all the new families back. We’ve had two generations of families. To raise a half million dollars for the causes that really help people in South Florida, especially the children and SafeSpace, is just great.”
Riley was not made available for basketball questions on Sunday, instead only taking questions about the team’s annual charity event.