As opponents grind Heat defense to shreds, Spoelstra seeks to get back to the grind

MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra, albeit grudgingly, has come around to the reality that offense rules in today’s NBA. Perhaps because of the rules. Perhaps because of skill levels being taken to new heights.

But that doesn’t mean that the Heat coach has accepted that a change in the league’s focus necessarily should lead to a change in his team’s focus.

That he made clear after Wednesday night’s 128-120 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder at Kaseya Center.

“That’s where we’re going to get better, is to be able to defend, whether we’re making shots or not,” Spoelstra said, with his focus turning to Friday night’s visit by the Orlando Magic, the third game of this four-game homestand that has gotten off to a 1-1 start. “We’re going to get there. We’re not there yet. And historically, Miami Heat teams always can do that. But right now, it’s kind of dependent on whether we’re playing great offensively, whether we’re making shots, whether we’re playing the right rhythm and flow, and then we’ll defend at a really high level.

“I’m really looking forward to the game that we can win — I’m not breathing it in existence — but I want to see us win a game when it’s in the mud, where it’s a little bit frustrating offensively. Even if we’re trying to do the right things intentionally offensively, but when the ball’s not going in, that we can defend at an extremely high level that we’re capable of doing.”

With the Thunder closing at .593 from the field, it marked the third time in five games an opponent has shot better than 50 percent from the field.

Factoring into that equation has been the ongoing absences of perimeter defensive stalwarts Jimmy Butler and Caleb Martin. But Wednesday also was a night when the Heat got a key defensive component back into the starting lineup, with Haywood Highsmith returning to the first five after missing three of the previous four games in NBA concussion protocol.

“Whatever I get, 10 shots or whatever, I’m still going to play defense no matter what,” Highsmith said. “So it’s not even about confidence offensively. It’s about just doing what I do, playing defense, be tough.”

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The Heat stand 14th in the 30-team league in defensive rating, but also 21st in defensive field-goal percentage.

“This is not exclusive to the Miami Heat,” Spoelstra said recently of the uphill fight defensively. “This whole league is trying to figure this out, you know, defensively. You develop team concepts. You’re trying to defend in open space. The skill level just continues to get so much better. And shooting and all of that makes it a challenge.

“And that’s what you should want. It should be tough. And I think more than anything, your mentality has to be you have to commit to doing very difficult things, if you want to be one of those good defensive teams.”

Lately, that is not what the Heat have been.

“For us,” center Bam Adebayo said of Wednesday night’s defensive showing, “it was the lackadaisical plays, the ones where we get caught going backdoor, not communicating. And obviously in this league, when guys see a couple go in, the rim starts looking bigger than it should.

“That’s what we need to work on: When we miss shots, how can we still get stops? Even the game out, slow the game out, and figure how to turn it into a grinding win.”

The 120 points Wednesday night should have been enough. The defensive effort wasn’t nearly enough.

“On defense,” guard Tyler Herro said, “when we’re missing shots, we can let that affect our energy and our effort on the other end.”

When whole, the Heat have been able to compensate for the opposition’s shooting by forcing turnovers. Without Butler and Martin, those opportunities become limited.

“I wanted to see the system discipline first,” Spoelstra said, “and then when we get some guys back, we have that 10-X ability to be really disruptive within that discipline.”