Last year Henry Abbott at Truehoop questioned Pat Riley’s decision to surround LeBron, Bosh, and Wade with slower, veteran players instead of trying to maximize the primary advantage that the superstar troika enjoys – speed. These three are incredibly fast end to end, and Wade and LeBron can both pass and finish on the move as well as any players in the game (maybe ever). I was skeptical of the argument. I mean, neither Wade nor LeBron ever played at a fast pace before while they piled up stats and made it to NBA Finals. Plus Coach Spoelstra is a Riley / Van Gundy disciple which means defense above all things. And as I wrote last year, I thought the team had a chance to mimic the ’90s Bulls and use their big guards and skilled forwards to great effect in the half court.After watching the Heat in the pre-season and the first two games of the regular season, I’ve been converted to Henry’s point of view. Spoelstra has set his hyperathletic team loose in the open court, and they are unstoppable. He’s tapping into not only the athleticism but the high basketball IQ that his two MVP-caliber wings brings to bear. The coach claims he took the offensive model from a west coast style wide open college football scheme, but I’m highly reminded of late-eighties / early-nineties Bulls (as opposed to the late-nineties Bulls Riley appeared to be building last off-season). The primary similarity that grabs me is the way the Heat keep the pressure on at both ends by exploiting the speed and group coordination of their 2-3-4 combinations.
Like Jordan, Pippen, and Grant, the trio of Wade, LeBron, and Bosh always have a speed advantage over their opponents, and like the Bulls’ first big three, the Heat’s current three can execute fastbreaks and delayed transition action thanks to their great ability to ad lib plays without compromising team defensive concepts or spacing on offense. The style is vaguely reminiscent of Nellie-Ball actually whether run by Tim, Mitch, and Chris – Nash, Fin, and Dirk – or Baron, Stephen, and JRich. The difference being the team defense is not sacrificed to play at the great pace.On defense Wade did something tonight that I’ve only seen Michael Jordan do from the guard position. He intimidated a fast, athletic point guard into throwing away a layup opportunity on the fast break with his mere presence. Rondo had a dunk, but he saw Wade, and threw up a high arcing layup that didn’t even make it to the back board. That sort of intimidation is usually reserved for big men, but like Jordan, Wade is a threat to block any shot on the court, and his opponents know it. James can wreak the same sort of havoc when he’s dialed in, and nothing creates those transition opportunities better than creating turnovers. Phil Jackson called his pressure defense, “Loosing the dobermans,” and that’s pretty much what I’ve seen the past few games from Miami.
We’ll see how the Heat hold up when the games tighten up some. So far they have not been challenged but for a brief run made by the Magic in the second game of the preseason. Adversity tends to make players resort to what is most familiar, and the wide open run and gun style is still new to these Heat. However, the trust they have clearly developed in one and another (and by “they” I mean LeBron and Wade) is not likely to disappear under pressure, and that will go a long way to quick hitting scores in the half-court as well. It’s early, but my preseason pick was for Miami to return to the NBA Finals, and everything I’ve seen so far only reenforces that position. Unless Wade gets hurt.
I wrote this post prior to the start of the 4th quarter of the Celtics / Heat game. Let me set something straight now – a zone defense against the 1990-93 Bulls would have been a no go, a non-starter, a complete waste of time. Three reasons – the triangle maximizes spacing, which is the enemy of all zones – Jordan’s midrange game was way too good to let him move in space – Grant and Scottie would gobble up offensive boards as zone defenders swarmed Mike and sprinted out at Paxson and BJ. But the Heat don’t have any of those things, and a small Boston lineup using a 2 – 3 zone brought a commanding lead down to 3 points by the 2 minute mark.
It wouldn’t be that big a deal, since teams often make runs in the NBA, but the fact that the same zone that undid Miami in the Finals still works should be distressing to their fans. It took two clutch jumpers from their rookie Norris Cole for the Heat to maintain their lead. The Heat held on (the final Heat score is inflated by late game fouling by the Celtics), but the air of invincibility slipped, particularly since Boston nearly stole the game without the aid of team captain Paul Pierce. Spoelstra has discovered a new weapon to unleash in the uptempo game, but there are still weak points that need to be addressed if they plan to improve on last year’s ending.