Nov. 3, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat shooting guard Ray Allen (34) collides into Denver Nuggets small forward Kenneth Faried (35) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 119-116. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Miami Heat: Is the Defense Worth Worrying About So Soon?

In the first two seasons, or the Big Three’s regin of terror as I would like to call it, the Miami Heat had never given up 100 points or more in three consecutive games.

That run was ended three games into the 2012-’13 season. Although the Heat were able to come out of that stretch 2-1, only because their offense has made incredible strides with the acquisition of Ray Allen, they still gave up more points in a three-game stretch then they had throughout their first two years together. This is a team that finished fourth in the league in points allowed per game last year, giving up only 93 points per.

Through the first three games of the season, the Heat are giving up 106.5 points per game (29th in the league) following 107 points from Boston, 104 from New York, 116 from Denver and 99 from Phoenix. Give credit to the three teams that scored over 100 because they certainly do have the weapons on offense to have outputs like that, but when you look at the numbers they put up prior and after their meeting with the Heat, you’ll notice a somewhat jarring trend.

Following their matchup with the Heat, Boston scored only 88 against Milwaukee and 89 against Washington. Denver scored only 75 points against Philadelphia and 89 against Orlando prior to dropping 116 points against Miami, which included 72 points alone coming from within the paint. New York scored 100 against Philadelphia in their only other game of the season.

The Heat have given up 327 points in only three games thus far. For a team that prides itself on defense and has been near the top in nearly every defensive category the previous two seasons, that is one of the league’s biggest surprises early on into the season. Miami currently ranks last in points allowed per possession, rank 28th in allowed field-goal percentage and 27th in allowed three-point percentage.

It was obvious from Pat Riley’s words at the start of the offseason the Heat were going to end up going in a different direction for the 2012-’13 season. Signing Shane Battier in the 2011 offseason meant the team was looking to aid in perimeter defense and allowing LeBron James to garner some needed rest as far as playing defense goes. With Battier on the floor, the Heat added someone who can provide some defensive resistance, with or without James on the court.

That’s not the impression you got from someone like Ray Allen or Rashard Lewis. Neither player has ever been recognized as a defensive stalwart. They’re three-point threats, one being the best in NBA history and the other being in the top ten in most three-pointers ever made. They weren’t brought to the Heat for their outstanding perimeter defense. They were brought to space the floor and improve the offense.

In the game against Denver, Allen played 30 minutes to Battier’s 20 and Lewis played 15 minutes to Udonis Haslem’s five. The Heat have defensive liabilities on the floor, rather than having two players who can hold their own on the defensive end of the ball. However, neither Battier or Haslem played all that much because the offense provided by Allen and Lewis exceeded the desire to implement defenders.

Allen provides some intangibles on the defensive end, two steals and a block in the win against Denver, but Lewis has proven to be an absolute liability on defense. It’s going to be interesting seeing how the Heat coaching staff monitors Lewis’ minutes because he is surprisingly well shooting the ball after two injury-plagued seasons. However, you notice how much pep has been lost in Lewis’ step when you’re seeing him getting taken to the rim by any smaller defender who matches up with him.

Carmelo Anthony and Andre Miller come to mind. Those two absolutely decimated Lewis when rotations led to Rashard being throw to the lions in the form of defending arguably the league’s best scorer and one of the league’s craftiest point guards. When there are opponents who are salivating at the thought of being matched up against one of your players, then that player needs to be off the floor if you’re the Heat.

What other player on the Heat could you think of that’s possibly playing defense as bad as Lewis has in the first three games? James Jones comes to mind. The pure three-point shooter is one of the league’s best at converting from beyond the arc, yet you hardly see him on the floor because of the liability he becomes on the defensive end. That’s been the Heat’s culture and identity over the past two years: If you can’t play defense, then you’re not getting on the floor.

Yet here’s Ray Allen, 37-years-old, and Rashard Lewis, who wasn’t that great of a defender before he started dealing with injuries in Washington, playing more minutes than defensive specialists in Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem.

Already we are beginning to see adjustments being made. The Heat made it an issue to get out on three-point shooters following their loss to New York and only gave up five three’s to Denver. However, they overcompensated and it ended up leading to 72 points in the paint from the Nuggets. They moved from one extreme to the other, which is still a far more encouraging sign than seeing them remain stagnant and not making the proper adjustments on the defensive end.

Their recent win against Phoenix was an encouraging sign. 99 points were given up, but it was mostly because of the quick pace of the game, one that allowed the Heat to score a season-high 124 points. The Suns shot .398 from the field and were bullied on the boards 49-38. Perhaps the only blemish to arise from the game was Phoenix receiving 29 free throw attempts.

First thing’s first: it’s the Suns. That team may be lucky to win 30 games this season and there’s no reason for the Heat to begin praising their defense because they held Phoenix below 100 points, the first time this season the Heat have allowed less. However, it was an improvement nevertheless. The Heat simply didn’t out-score their opponent, they also used their tools on the defensive end to force the Suns into a below-average shooting percentage.

That offensive output is even more jarring when you realize the Heat only forced 11 Suns turnovers and 14 points on the fast break. It’s a testament to this new-look offense that now features incredible ball-movement and two of the best shooters to enter the league. The Heat are currently leading the league in scoring averaging 111.8 points per game, yet they are doing all in their power to keep the ideology that they are one of the league’s top defensive teams.

Currently, the team is running through different lineups so they can get a grasp of which lineups are the most successful on both sides of the ball. The Heat obviously want Allen and Lewis on the floor for their offensive production, so they’re going to continue implementing them in lineups where they aren’t defensive liabilities. Neither player is a bad defender, but they aren’t the quick, athletic or aggressive type that thrive in the Heat’s defense.

It’s early. A little too early for articles like this to be made. The defense will come around eventually because of the overall mindset of the players and coaching staff. It’s a shame that more people are worried about the defense than the progression of the offense. For the first time in the ‘Big Three’ era, the Heat aren’t finding themselves working against the shot-clock or forcing up difficult jumpers because the ball stops at the perimeter.

There isn’t a team in the NBA more loyal to the “Defenses win championships” cliche than the Heat, which is why they have kept guys like Joel Anthony as rotation players. However, with his role diminishing, there has been an obvious change in pace that has reflected the Heat’s new approach to offense.

Allen and Lewis will come around, otherwise the Heat would have never signed them in the first place. This is a team that just won a championship because two defensive-minded small forward’s were capable of playing power forward. It’s all about making sacrifices and while Allen and Lewis relish the fact that they can be relied on and are getting consistent minutes, they also know that they need to hold their own on the defensive end in order to keep a job.

Both have something to prove; Allen is on a mission to show Boston that benching him and attempting to trade him was the wrong idea and Lewis, who has been widely criticized for his lack of living up to a lucrative contract that netted him a $14 million buyout from New Orleans prior to his signing with Miami.

These two have been through enough regiments with the Heat to know that defense rules all in Miami. They are attempting to buy into the system, but their bodies are currently in the process of making the adjustment to an aggressive, lockdown defense. In time, just like everything else about this team, it will come together.

Tags: Miami Heat NBA

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