Miami Heat

Heat defense moved into the top ten despite early-season struggles

November 30, 2022

Two weeks ago, the Miami Heat’s defense was among the worst in the NBA. Although the Heat’s man-to-man defense continues to struggle, it has quietly risen the rankings to a top-10 spot. The Heat (10-11) entered Tuesday with the ninth-best defensive rating in the NBA this season (allowing 110.2 points per 100 possessions), much outperforming its offense, which is ranked 23rd (scoring 109.5 points per 100 possession).

Given that Miami has established itself as an organization that stresses defense, the fact that the Heat’s defense is better than its offense isn’t shocking.

In six of the last seven seasons, the Heat have finished with a top-10 defensive rating.

But this time is different because the Heat’s man-to-man defense, typically their main line of defense, has been one of the worse in the NBA for most of the season. According to Synergy Sports, Miami’s man defense is surrendering 1.03 points for every possession, which is the second-highest mark in the NBA behind only the Sacramento Kings.

Instead, the Heat’s defense has risen to the top 10 as it prepares for a two-game series against the Celtics (17-4) in Boston that starts on Wednesday.

In a startling 30.3 percent of their defensive possessions, the Heat have used its zone, and they are on track to break the current NBA record for the most zone possessions completed in a season.

The Heat’s 1,053 zone possessions during the 2018–19 season set the current NBA record since Synergy Sports started keeping track of the statistic in 2008–09. Miami has played 579 zone possessions in the first 21 games, which puts them more than halfway toward that record.

The Heat is playing zone defense this season and giving up just 0.86 points per possession. With 0.96 points allowed per possession as of Tuesday, the Los Angeles Clippers had the strongest overall defense in the NBA this season, according to tracking data from Synergy Sports.

Due to injury difficulties that have hampered its depth and prevented some of its top individual defenders from playing, the Heat has also been playing more zone than usual lately. Miami, which has been using its zone for an average of 55 defensive possessions per game over the past five games, is averaging 27.6 zone possessions per game this season.

Erik Spoelstra, the coach of the Miami Heat, remarked, “If we’re healthy, I don’t see us playing this much zone.” “By all means, this is required right now. Once more, it’s never about the plan. It isn’t. I am aware that is a simple statement to make—your dedication to taking on the challenging tasks in this league matters more. Regardless of whether we are using zone, there are still many things that are very difficult to defend, necessitating burning calories and many attempts. You need to be persistent.”

What will you do to break teams out of their rhythm when they start to do so? What strategy will you use to stop that flow? The underlying ideas are the same. Nothing will work to save you.

The disparity between the Heat’s man and zone defenses can be somewhat attributed to the opponent’s three-point shooting. This season, teams are shooting an effective 38.9 percent from beyond the arc against Miami’s man defense and an ineffective 27.6 percent against Miami’s zone defense.

The disparity between the Heat’s man and zone defense will slightly narrow as the two three-point percentages get closer because neither statistic is sustainable.

However, the Heat’s man defense has struggled this season, and the sample size of 21 games is sufficient to at least cause some concern. Injuries have played a part in this. This season’s top and second-worst overall defense are separated by Miami’s man scheme, which allowed 1.03 points per possession compared to 0.95 points per possession last season.

“Anything that benefits us wins. When questioned about whether the club depends too heavily on its zone defense,” Heat center Bam Adebayo responded, “If it ain’t busted, don’t break it.

On Wednesday, one of the Heat’s hardest defensive tests will be against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals rematch. Boston comes into the game having the best offensive rating in the NBA this season and maybe since the 1996–1997 season.

We’re concentrating on our defense, Spoelstra remarked. “It has been slowly but surely getting better. It was pretty unsettling where we were three weeks ago. But it will be put to the test [Wednesday against the Celtics] because we worked really hard to be more dependable, consistent, and tough. It ought to be a ton of fun.”