Heat hit long road trip with new offensive look

Walter Villa, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange


MIAMI -- The Miami Heat, off to the first 4-0 home start in franchise history, is 4-1 overall and set to embark on a six-game road trip that will test the team's new-found strategy.
The Heat, which will make stops in Atlanta, Memphis, Houston, Los Angeles (Clippers), Denver and Phoenix, is a rare defending NBA champion that has abandoned some of what worked for them in earning the title.
Defense, in large part, is what won the title for the Heat last year. Yet the team added shooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis as their main offseason acquisitions. And their minutes have come at the expense of more defensive-minded players.
Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, though, is confident in the direction of his team.
"The more talent and skill you have, the more creative you can be," Spoelstra said. "We've challenged our guys to be efficient. There is no need with this group to force contested shots."
When a reporter asked Spoelstra about "metaphysics" and "organic" basketball after a win over the Nets on Wednesday night, the coach made the media laugh by saying the writer had "gone off the reservation."
Comedy aside, the Heat is, in a certain way, trying to reinvent the proverbial wheel, playing "position-less basketball" and creating mismatches with all their skill.
In each of their four home games this season, the Heat has shot more than 50 percent. That's significant because since the start of last season, the Heat is 22-0 when shooting 50 percent or more.
Overall, the Heat leads the NBA this season in scoring average (110) and field-goal percentage (52).
That's no surprise when you consider the mismatches created by using LeBron James at power forward, where he nearly had a triple-double against the Nets on Wednesday night with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists.
"They have the best player on the planet quarterbacking their offense," Nets Coach Avery Johnson said. "He never gets rattled, and he keeps his teammates involved, which is not the easiest job."
With all that glitzy offense, the risk comes on defense, where the Heat ranked 25th in the league in points allowed before holding the Nets to 73 on Wednesday.
The past two games, when they held the Suns and Nets to sub-40-percent shooting, have been better for Miami's defenders, and there is reason to believe that their athleticism can carry the day.
But here is what they have to live up to: Last season, the Heat finished fourth in the league in points allowed per game (92.5) and fifth in opponent's field-goal percentage (43.4).
This season, even after two good games in a row on defense, the Heat is 23rd in points allowed (99.8) and 21st in opponents' field-goal percentage (44.8).
The additions of Allen and Lewis have meant less minutes for defensive-minded players such as Joel Anthony (from an average of 21.1 minutes to 5.3) and Udonis Haslem (from 24.5 to 14.8).
Mike Miller, a shooter who is also tough on defense, has seen his minutes drop as well, from 19.2 to 7.0.
Maybe, though, it won't matter. When you have a big three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, all averaging over 19 points a game, you can simply outscore teams.
Maybe, too, when the playoffs arrive, and half-court basketball is more at a premium, the Heat will need Anthony, their only true shot-blocker, as well as the gritty defense of Haslem and Miller.
For now, at least, Spoelstra seems enamored with a style predicated on passing and shooting. The coach said one of the main stats he looks at is point differential, and the Heat ranks second in the NBA at 10.2.
And just because you can play offense, doesn't mean that Spoelstra and his staff give you a pass on defense. Lewis is a prime example.
Injuries to both knees limited him to 28 games last season, but, as his health improves, the Heat believe Lewis, at 6-foot-10, can help on both sides of the ball.
"We're really thinking big picture with Lewis," Spoelstra said. "When he was just getting back on the court in early September, it looked like it would take a while to get into rhythm. He fought through training camp, and it was a success just for his body to get through it."
Now, through five games, Lewis is fifth on the Heat in scoring (9.4), fifth in three-point percentage (47.1) and fourth in field-goal percentage (54.5).
That's a big improvement over last season, when he averaged 7.8 points and was inefficient as a shooter -- 38.5 on field goals and 23.9 on three-pointers.
"We're not pressuring him," Spoelstra said of Lewis. "We do not have big expectations for him right now as a scorer."