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Is this Heat Defense Going to Get it Done?

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The recent struggles of the Indiana Pacers are no secret: they squeaked past an eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks who were without an All-Star, and they struggled at times to score 40 points in a half versus the Washington Wizards.  But the Miami Heat have done little to stop them: in their two combined games, the Heat’s defensive rating has been worse than that of the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks.

The James-era Heat have always approached defense like they know it’s a pick-and-roll league, with extra-talented guards to run the show. They combat dribble-heavy systems with a rarely seen strategy involving the swarming of the ball-handler at any chance they are given, and by sending hard traps against the pick-and-roll. Being smaller, the Heat are quicker to rotate than nearly everyone else, which allows them to swarm and gamble. They further increase the effectiveness of their aggressive style with elite ball-hawking abilities: their opponents turned the ball over at 17 times per contest during the season, the second highest in the league.

But things are different now than they were a few years ago. The focus of Miami Heat players on defense now wavers immensely. The addition of veterans and Father Time has rendered them not as quick as they once were. Of their top eight players in minutes per game, the median age sits at 31.25 — the highest of the remaining teams in the Playoffs by a good margin (note: the Spurs are at 29.88, the Pacers 27.75, and the Thunder 26.13). Age alone also doesn’t recognize that Heat have been to the Eastern Conference Finals four years in a row now, and the Finals three times. Many Heat players have loads of extra mileage on their bodies.

For that once-elite defense, it’s a bit startling to look at how many easy looks they’ve given the Pacers in the first two games. Entry passes have long been an issue for the Pacers, but they’re getting clean looks via the pick-and-roll guy and through post-ups. The midrange area and high post has been perpetually open. Lance Stephenson is beating every Heat player off of the dribble. Roy Hibbert is back in his comfort zone, partially because Miami frequently leaves him open while sending help to the strong side:

west easy entry

scola easy entry

Power forwards Luis Scola and David West have spent what feels like half of their game time wide open, mostly coming from the pick-and-roll (note: both shoot the midrange jumper at a rate much better than average):

west open

Part of the above is to be expected, as Miami can’t be everywhere at once. But also contributing to the problem is that Indiana sees the Heat’s defensive rotations coming from a mile away. Paul George has looked comfortable with the Heat’s scheme from early on in game one, firing quick bounce passes through the double in the pick-and-roll:

You’ll also find instances where guys will throw the skip pass all the way to the weakside, knowing that Miami has to scramble to recover. This has led to open three-pointers from the George Hills and Rasual Butlers.

Indiana doesn’t give Miami trouble just because of their advantage in size. And not to downplay that factor, because it is huge: they can muscle through Heat players and shoot over them in the interior, and the boards are theirs to have. Miami’s constantly sending smaller help defenders at the bigs of Indiana which ends up being futile given the height difference. But we also can’t ignore the style of the Pacers’ offense: they focus heavily on exploiting mismatches and employing an equal-opportunity approach. As it stands, Miami’s current defense is playing right into their hands. You have to wonder — especially when the Heat are a beat slower and less focused than in previous years — if they’ll need to make some tactical changes to have the success they seek.

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