Miami Heat: Is Losing Streak Significant or Result of Apathy?

Miami Heat basketball is supposed to be earth-shattering, gravity-defying fun. The past week has consisted of neither of those traits the Heat have become synonymous with, explaining why the team has lost five of its past six games, four of those losses coming by seven points or less.

The Heat aren’t looking as immortal in the clutch as they did last year. The same shots and same plays that were being made and executed last year aren’t as successful now. It bears a resemblance to the stretch of close games the Heat lost back in March 2011 when they lost five games in a row.

Of course, Miami did end up going to the Finals after that. It’s still likely to happen this year, even though they haven’t had the appearance of the back-to-back champions we have only seldom seen this year at the top of their game. Miami’s toughest competition out East, the Indiana Pacers, have yet to beat a team with a winning record in over a month and are inching by some of the league’s worst teams.

But we panic. We never learn because we need something to keep us preoccupied until the Heat actually begin to exert the necessary effort to achieve their final form; a form that includes fastbreaks with no dribbles, stifling defense, volume scoring, and flawless passing leading to wide-open threes.

That will come. At the moment, the Heat’s usual method of giving up multiple possessions and big leads and instilling hope and confidence in inferior teams is coming back to bite them. They commit the same fixable mistakes, such as fouling three-point shooters and dropping off lazy passes, and they’re not doing enough to overcome it, as they have in years past.

Dwyane Wade’s improved health has also found a way to have a negative conotation in relation to his teams’ recent stretch. He’s gone for at least 22 in four of the past six games, but seemingly at the expense of LeBron James, who has been largely passive and hasn’t gone for more than 23 in the past six contests.

This is the first time Wade has consistently looked this good since the 2010-11 season. He’s been in and out of the lineup all year and the past two weeks have featured Wade playing on a regular basis, without having to take off the second end of a back-to-back, and performing well.

It’s almost as if James is re-learning and re-adjusting to Wade as he did in that often-forgettable first season together, as strange and worrisome as it may sound. There’s still a month and 19 games for the two to figure out the schemes and chemistry it took to coexist so well in the three years leading up to the past two weeks.

Can we not trust LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to come through when they’re needed most? I know every season is different, but those two aren’t exactly prone to making the mistakes they’ve been making over the past week in a game of genuine significance.

However, because the past week has uncharacteristic of the Heat’s winning ways, especially at this juncture of the season, it warrants a look into what exactly has led to the first losing streak of its kind since March of 2011.

It Starts at the Top

Defensive efficiency has been at the forefront of everything the Miami Heat have been about. Their outlook and plan going into games requires the defense putting heavy pressure on point guards, thus leading to turnovers and fastbreak opportunities, where the Heat have earned their notoriety of being a devastating team in the open-court.

They rank 12th in defensive efficiency at the moment. They haven’t ranked below 7th since they formed the ‘Big Three’. Only one team that has gone on to win a title since 2003 has ranked outside of the top seven in defensive efficiency. That lone team was the 2006 Heat, who needed arguably the best individual Finals performance to pull out a victory.

Their defense is effort-based. If an assignment or rotation is missed, it will be exposed by teams who can move the ball. Active hands and an giving the required effort to simultaneously defend the pick-and-roll ball-handler and roll-man, as in the case of Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen, will inevitably lead to turnovers.

Miami’s underwhelming, 12th-ranked defense is still among the league’s best pick-and-roll teams. In terms of points per possession allowed, the Heat rank third in the league at defending the roll-man and first at defending ball-handlers.

When the defender of the roll-man in the pick-and-roll isn’t fully committing to the ball-handler, the Heat are essentially any other team. They distinguish themselves from the rest of the league with their defense because they have the athletes and defensive specialists that can instantaneously turn defense into offense.

It’s that controlled panic, that whipping around the perimeter and forcing shot-clock violations that has led to two championships and three Finals appearances.

Lately, that pressure has been absent. Opponents are racking up assists at an unhealthy rate, with five of the past six Miami has faced recording at least 24 assists. Although they’re still forcing turnovers, having created at least 22 turnovers in three of their past six, they’re also failing to keep ball-handlers from penetrating.

We all know the enigma that is Heat opponents being able to make shots they usually don’t make elsewhere. As I write this, the Nuggets team that beat Miami less than a day before is losing by double-digits to the Atlanta Hawks. These strange type of occurrences happen on a daily basis, with Darrell Arthur of the Nuggets taking honors after scoring 19 points on 10 shots, despite averaging five points on 40 percent shooting this year.

What’s led to the Heat’s losing ways isn’t solely because the 9th man of the opponent is making their shots. It’s because they’re struggling immensely to guard the perimeter. When Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole or Ray Allen allow their assignment to dribble into the paint, it leaves Bosh or Andersen to have to bail out their teammate.

The result is either a dump-off pass to someone under the rim or a wide-open three being taken, due to the defense reacting to a point guard going unimpeded for a layup.

In the past seven games, Miami has allowed opponents to shoot at least 35 percent from beyond the arc. The longest streak before these bouts of sustained remarkable shooting was three games. Each of those opponents made at least nine three-pointers, with Washington and Brooklyn topping off at 12.

Miami is allowing 36 percent three-point shooting on the year. They also give up more three-pointers than 25 other teams and are tied for 28th in three-pointers given up, trailing only the defensively-inept Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers.

The league’s best defenses, such as the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls, rank near the top.

It’s still extremely difficult to see a team being able to sustain this type of shooting for seven games in a playoff series, but it’s still startling to see how poorly the Heat have been when defending point guards the past few games.

Here are a few games against the Heat from some point guards and ball-handlers over the past six games:

  • Evan Fournier: 14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 turnovers
  • Shaun Livingston: 13 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 turnovers
  • Andre Miller: 2 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 turnover in 15 minutes
  • DJ Augustin: 22 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound, 1 turnover
  • Patty Mills: 9 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 turnover in 17 minutes
  • Patrick Beverley: 19 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound, 2 turnovers

I can guarantee that there are fans out there who didn’t know who any of those players were until they put on these shows.

And speaking of poor play on the perimeter:

The Season-Long Slump

It has been painful watching the Miami Heat shoot the basketball this year. While there are many teams out there who would love to rank 11th in three-point percentage, the Heat are not one of those teams. Not after ranking 2nd last year, with four rotation players, not including Mike Miller, shooting at least 40 percent from beyond the arc.

There are zero players in the rotation shooting above 40 percent on threes this season. Michael Beasley is shooting 42 percent, but on one three-point attempt per game this year. Mario Chalmers leads all rotation players shooting 39 percent, while Chris Bosh somehow finds himself second at a shade below 38 percent.

LeBron is shooting 37 percent, well-below his percentage of 40 percent last year. Ray Allen is also at 37 percent, inferior to his 42 percent shooting from last year. Norris Cole is at 37 percent, an improvement from last year but hasn’t made multiple three-pointers in a game since February 8th.

Ray has been one of the few players excelling during this recent stretch of futility. He has converted on 10 of his past 19 attempts and has multiple three-pointers in five of his past seven games.

Now, let’s get back down to earth and talk about Shane Battier.

We’re almost better off not speaking of Shane Battier’s descent into madness. The 43 percent three-point shooter from last year has dropped down to 34 percent, and he’s made three of his past 16 attempts from beyond the arc. He has gone without a three-pointer in four of his past six games.

Overall, the Heat haven’t been able to hit anything, and they’re losing close games because they haven’t hit shots they should be hitting. Only once in the past six games have they shot better than 35 percent, with the lone exception being, naturally, their win against Washington when they shot 48 percent on 21 attempts.

Here’s how close the Heat have come to winning five of their past six games:

  • 7-27 (26%) three-point shooting in three-point loss to Houston
  • 7-20 (35%) three-point shooting in overtime loss to Chicago
  • 9-27 (33%) three-point shooting in one-point loss to Brooklyn
  • 7-24 (29%) three-point shooting in four-point loss to Denver

Meanwhile, all of those teams shot 35% or better from three. One more three-pointer from Miami and one less from their opponent and the Heat probably end up winning all four of those games.

Is it coincidence that these poor shooting performances come on the heels of Miami’s 16-for-28 performance against Charlotte? LeBron, 8-for-10 from three in that game, has made five of his last 21 shots from beyond the arc. He was a combined 0-for-7 in the close losses to Denver and Houston.

There’s a lot more to basketball than the last few minutes. What separates the three-point miss in the second quarter from the one in the fourth? They’re both worth the same amount of points. Hit the one in the second and the one in the fourth isn’t as much a necessity.

It’s missed opportunities. Miami has shot themselves in the foot time-and-time again this year with three-point shooting that’s well-below their usual averages. After collectively shooting nearly 40 percent last year, they’re struggling to breach 37 percent.

Is a Change in the Rotation Necessary?

Because the Heat have been on a losing streak, it’s time to think about tinkering with the rotation.

It happens every season, even last year. Even with a 27-game winning streak as a part of their resume, the Heat still questioned their starting lineup. In fact, they made starting lineup changes as late in the season as the NBA Finals when they replaced Udonis Haslem with Mike Miller.

I shouldn’t have brought that name up. It’s giving me all of the nostalgia feels. I know I can’t be the only one who has been looking up highlight videos of Miller over the past week, pondering how much someone who hardly played meant to us.

Still, he was a consistent three-point threat, guaranteed to give you at least 40 percent shooting and more intangibles than any role player on the Heat can currently provide.

But that’s in the past now, and in the present, the Heat are struggling with inconsistent play from the likes of Norris Cole, Michael Beasley and Shane Battier. While Cole’s recent struggles have Heat fans on the borderline of clamoring for Toney Douglas, Battier has drawn criticism for his below-average three-point shooting this year.

This is the second season Shane has shot poorly with the Heat in the regular season. He shot 33 percent in his first season with the Heat, only to shoot 38 percent in the postseason and 58 percent in the Finals.

Last year, he was one of Miami’s best shooters at 43 percent. He promptly followed that up with sub-30 percent shooting in the playoffs, disappearing until a 6-for-9 performance from three in Game 7 of the Finals.

He hasn’t been seen since. He has three games this year where he made four three-pointers and hasn’t hit more than two in a game since February 5th.

Now the question is how valuable Battier is. You can’t deny that he still has the capability to play the type of defense that would frustrate a scorer, with his latest example being a strong effort defending Kevin Durant in Miami’s blowout win in Oklahoma City.

As porous has the defense has been, he has not been one to blame. The defensive¬†troubles start with the point guards, not entirely with Battier being undersized. In fact, he’s probably the best option the Heat have at the four, unless LeBron wants to fully commit to playing at that position.

Otherwise, the players likely to replace Battier would be Rashard Lewis, whose defensive shortcomings will be exposed, or Michael Beasley, who falls into the same category as Lewis, to go along with a basketball IQ that doesn’t fit the mold of what the Heat need in the playoffs.

Trust me, I hope I eat those words.

If you’ve stuck with Battier for this long, you have to keep going with him. He still provides some worth on the defensive end, which is a lot more than any replacement could say, and his shooting could still balance out in the postseason as it did in 2012. It would be startling to see Shane shoot far less than the 38 percent he’s shot for his career for an entire season.

The Defensive Rebounding Deficits are Catching Up

The Miami Heat have never done themselves any favors when it comes to crashing the defensive boards.

Yes, the team doesn’t grab many offensive rebounds because they don’t miss that many shots. It’s on the defensive end, however, where they’ve struggled throughout their sacrifice for a smaller lineup that creates an offense that compensates for any significant deficits when it comes to offensive rebounding.

But when does it become too much to withstand, as has been the case the past month. Even during their winning streak, Miami found itself in a lot of close games on account of the deficits they’ve faced not only in rebounds, but, more importantly, in shot attempts.

Miami was outshot 90-74 by Chicago, 89-80 by Washington and 78-68 by Brooklyn. They were outrebounded on the offensive glass in those games by a combined 43-18 margin.

The Heat are doing themselves no favors when they’re getting outrebounded by considerable margins in close games.

They were outrebounded by 17 by Washington, 13 by Houston and nine by San Antonio.
Many exemplary, textbook defensive possessions have been wasted because of an inadequate effort at that aspect of the game.

They find themselves in games that are competitive for too long simply because they can’t hit the defensive boards, whether it’s a result of the defense collapsing or a box out gone wrong.

Miami is 29th this year in points per possession given up on offensive boards. They’ve always been able to overcome these bouts with giving up easy shots on easy rebounds, but it’s taxing after three years of having to overcome playing consecutive defensive possessions.

It’s certainly not the biggest problem the Heat are dealing with (although it certainly doesn’t help to play a frantic style of defense when you don’t need to). That distinction belongs to the defensive effort on the perimeter and the trust Miami can put into its depth.

What’s surprising is Chris Bosh, averaging a career-low 6.8 boards per, hasn’t been as big a weakness on the boards as many would like to point out. Bosh rebounds 61.4 percent of his rebounding chances (defined as “the number of times a player was within 3.5 feet of a rebound). He does struggle on contested boards, though, with only 32 percent of his rebounds being defined as such.

Among players who get at least ten rebound chances per game and have played in at least 30 games, Bosh ranks 56th in contested rebounding percentage. To be fair, Miami has asked a lot out of the converted power forward, and he’s done the Heat a service moving to center and giving the offense an entirely new weapon to work with.

It takes a collective effort to keep your opponent off the defensive glass, especially when you’re the Heat. Scouting reports indicate how weak the Heat have been getting to defensive rebounds and teams will exploit that by hustling after each and every rebound.

Some teams, including that one nuisance of a team that wears red and black, are even guilty of chucking up bad shots just for the opportunity to get an offensive rebound and an easy putback.

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