Something tells me that the Miami Heat is going to produce more regrettable statements from sportswriters this season than the rest of the league combined. Already, the Heat has cycled through high expectations, early disappointment, shocking domination and now another lull in barely two weeks. The Boston Celtics' nationally televised 112-107 victory at American Airlines Arena on Thursday set off criticism of Chris Bosh, speculation about Erik Spoelstra's job and dismissal of the team's chances.
This early in the season, let alone the run of Miami's big three of Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, drawing conclusions is almost laughably premature. About as much as we can say is this: The Heat won't likely be making a run at 70 wins, something that would require Miami to go 65-8 the rest of the way.
Even at 5-4, Miami still boasts the league's second-best point differential. Three of the Heat's four losses have come by a combined 10 points, while three of the team's five wins have featured margins of 20 or more. While that is easy to dismiss as beating up on weak competition (with the notable exception of a 26-point win over the Orlando Magic), my past investigation has shown that differential is the best predictor of future team performance. If Miami remains inconsistent and is unable to beat elite competition, it will be worth worrying. For now, these are best considered growing pains.
That said, there are some storylines worth keeping an eye on. One is that the Heat's early strength--defense--has slipped in the last two games. Actually, Miami was strong through halftime of Tuesday's game with Utah, allowing just 32 points. The Jazz exploded for 84 in the second half and overtime, followed by the Celtics--not exactly an offensive juggernaut--putting 112 on the board last night.
For the first time since the Orlando win, the Heat ranks higher in terms of Offensive Rating (third) than Defensive Rating (fourth), granting that Miami is still better relative to league average on the defensive end. Time and again, the Heat's defensive rotations broke down against the Celtics, allowing Boston open looks at the rim and leaving Ray Allen unattended beyond the three-point line. Needless to say, that's a poor strategy, and Allen made Miami pay with seven triples in nine attempts.
If the game against the Magic showed the Heat's defensive upside, the last two games have demonstrated the work the team still has to do. Miami's length on the perimeter can take away the first pass out of the post, but when the ball continues moving, eventually it becomes impossible for the Heat to keep up. It may not be a coincidence that the Jazz and the Celtics are the league's two top teams in terms of assists per field goal, while the teams the Heat has torched (including Orlando, 25th) rank much lower in our best measure of ball movement.
At the other end of the floor, we continue to see an issue I touched on in my Unfiltered piece on Utah's comeback win--the inability of Erik Spoelstra to make both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade threats at the same time. Miami's fruitless fourth-quarter rally Thursday was almost entirely led by James, who finished with 35 points and nine assists, heading to the free throw line a remarkable 22 times. Wade, who suffered through a dreadful 2-of-12 shooting night and also turned the ball over six times, was largely a decoy during the final period. He spent much of his time spotting up in the corner, where opponents have little need to worry about a 29.3 percent career three-point shooter.
One play the Heat might consider is a 2-3 pick-and-roll with James screening for Wade (or even vice versa). According to Synergy Sports, James has not used a single play as the roll man all season long. This has never been a staple of his game (Synergy reports 26 such plays last season), and opponents might be able to get away with switching defensive assignments. Still, the fact is no team in the league can boast a two-man game as potent as James and Wade. We've also seen Orlando in particular have success with the perimeter-perimeter pick-and-roll game because guards are unfamiliar defending the screener.
Last night was in fact Miami's second-best offensive performance of the season when adjusted for opponent, which shows how potent James can be when he is going well. That's another reminder that this is no time for the Heat to overreact. With some tweaks, the Heat can get back on track.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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