Since LeBron James left Cleveland and headed to South Beach, the Miami Heat have become a powerhouse. Teams like the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics have been able to frustrate King James and company at times, but aside from Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks defeating the Heat during the first year of the “Big Three Era” in the 2011 Finals, no one has been able to beat Erik Spoelstra’s squad in a seven-game series.
The easy answer to the question of why the Heat are seemingly unbeatable in a series, is that they have superior talent to everyone in the league. Regardless of whether or not you despise the guy (believe me, I have my own level of hatred for “The King”), LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet. Dwyane Wade, although a far cry from what he once was, is still one of the best in the NBA off the dribble. Chris Bosh, while inconsistent, is still a threat to stretch out defenses and open up the paint for James and Wade.
Those three, combined with the most impressive stable of three-point specialists in the NBA – led by Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Shane Battier – make the Heat a nightmare for any team to play on any given night.
Multiple teams with far less talent have come close to beating Miami in a series. The Pacers took the Heat to six games last year and seven this year, and Miami needed a herculean, turn-back-the-clock efforts from Wade to put them over the top in both of those series. Boston defeated Miami in three straight games during the 2012 conference finals before old age caught up to them. Despite losing to Miami in five games twice in the past three years, the Bulls were close in every loss during the 2011 postseason, and were competitive in this year’s postseason despite being severely undermanned.
However, close only counts in horseshoes, and when Dallas defeated Miami, the Heat didn’t have quite the collection of shooters they do now. What’s more, the “Big Three” have since learned how to play together.
But if teams have been able to frustrate, outplay, and defeat this “super team” on given nights and even for extended periods of a series, there has to be a way to outlast the Heat, right?
We all know by now the givens when playing Miami: don’t turn the ball over and be as physical as possible with on both ends of the floor. No one on Earth, and maybe no one in the history of the NBA, is better than James in the open floor off turnovers. We’ve have also seen by now through Miami’s play against Indiana, Boston, and Chicago that the best way to take the Heat off their game is to beat them up. So, before even thinking about anything in-depth, teams must do those two things over the course of a series to even have a chance against Miami.
NBA head coaches surely lose sleep before facing the Miami Heat. A team’s defensive gameplan revolves around one crucial decision: should teams focus on James and allow everyone else to beat them? Or should an opponent play the Heat straight up, presumably conceding that James is going to “get his” with the confidence that your team can win the matchups against Wade, Bosh and everyone else.
Teams have played Miami both ways. In the first two games of this year’s NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs have chosen the first option: stop LeBron. That worked for Game 1 and for about 30 minutes of Game 2 until Miami’s shooters got hot.
James gets too much credit for certain things, but something he doesn’t get enough credit for is how high his basketball IQ is. When teams decide to try and take away James as a scorer and throw two or more men at him when he gets within 15 feet, he knows that corner threes will be open. Yes, lengthy wing players and hybrid-fours can simply throw the shooters off their games by being who they are on closeouts. But when someone with lightning-quick release – like Allen or Cole – is shooting the basketball and is locked-in, it’s not going to matter much.
Dallas was able to defeat the Heat by holding James to fewer than 20 points and a shooting percentage below .500 in three of the six games. While Wade was productive throughout that series, and Bosh shot well in the final three games, the Heat still lost in six games. They even lost the games in which Bosh played like an All-Star.
The reason why Dallas was able to take down the Heat was because Miami simply didn’t have the kind of shooters it has now.
So, if a team chooses to focus on shutting James down over the course of seven games, they’re basically banking on Miami’s shooters going cold. At this point, that’s basically playing with fire.
Focusing all of your defensive attention on James no longer seems like a good idea, maybe the only way to stop the Heat is option number two: just play Miami straight up. That’s what Indiana and Chicago have mostly done, and that’s because they have the defensive personnel to do it.
Indiana has a fantastic rim protector in Roy Hibbert, two terrific wing defenders in Paul George and Lance Stephenson that can spell each other guarding James. George is also a star player on offense, the kind that every team needs in a playoff series. The Bulls have the same type of dynamic of the George-Stephenson duo in Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler (although we didn’t even see Deng against Miami in this year’s playoffs), a star player in Derrick Rose (once he returns), and two players who are both rim protectors in Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Noah and Gibson also give the Bulls the ability to do something almost no one else has against Miami: switch on screens involving James.
However, neither of those teams have been able to put themselves past Miami in a series. While the Bulls have the health excuse, neither team has enough offensive talent to match Miami’s production when playing them straight up. While George and Rose are terrific players, they aren’t going to match what James gives the Heat offensively, so the rest of the team has to outplay its counterparts. In Chicago’s case, Bosh has shown in both series that he can outplay Carlos Boozer, and no one on Chicago’s offense has been able to match the production of Wade. As far as the Pacers are concerned, Hibbert definitely did his job in this year’s Eastern Conference finals, but it just wasn’t enough to outweigh the advantage LeBron has over George.
So, which one of those two options gives a team the best shot to beat Miami in a series? There’s no way to take away corner threes while simultaneously giving James a ton of attention. And while certain teams have the defensive personnel to guard James straight up, those same teams don’t have the offensive firepower to hang with the Heat.
That means that right now, the best course of action for a team like San Antonio could be to just guess which strategy will work, then adapt as the game goes on. Does Greg Popovich have a hunch that Miami’s shooters will have an off night? Or that a player other than his star, Tony Parker, will be able to step up for him and supply enough offensive production? Does Popovich even have the defensive personnel to play James straight up? Considering how the Spurs have played Miami on defense in these Finals, it looks like he doesn’t believe he does. To put a point on it: there are likely too many question marks for the Spurs to win this series.
I think it’s safe to say that barring a miracle coaching breakthrough or some out-of-this-world performance from someone unexpected, the Heat probably aren’t losing to anyone in a seven-game series in the current NBA.
Maybe, and hopefully, I’m wrong, as I dislike this arrogant, “Hollywood” (as Joakim Noah put it) Heat team probably as much as the person who is reading this does. Heck, maybe San Antonio pulls this off, or maybe next season, the Bulls play the Heat at full strength and really do prove to have the ability to defeat them in seven. However, one can’t deny that it’s a very tall, and almost impossible, task.