Charlotte Hornets

Miami Heat hangs hat on postseason defense

The moment and its significance to the Miami Heat and this current championship run should not be discounted, overlooked or downplayed.

Dwyane Wade literally reached out and snatched away the postseason life of the Charlotte Bobcats with two seconds left in Game 2. Wade’s steal at the end of the fourth quarter on Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena not only won the game for the Heat, but it also crystallized in a split second just what the Heat is about and just what the Heat as a team has been designed to do.

The Heat is about defense, but, to be more specific, the Heat is about postseason defense. Everything the team did throughout the 2013-14 regular season, including resting Wade for 28 games, was geared toward one purpose, and that purpose was to play air-tight, suffocating defense at the most important of moments in playoff games.

At the defining moment of the Heat’s four-point victory in Game 2, Wade displayed a burst of defensive energy so overwhelming that Bobcats shooter Chris Douglas-Roberts couldn’t even get off his potential game-tying shot. Douglas-Roberts momentarily lost possession of the ball, and Wade was there to pull the ball away, preserve home-court advantage for the Heat and, effectively, put the Bobcats in a hole in this first-round series that it likely will not be able to overcome.

“I just saw that (Douglas-Roberts) was bobbling the ball a little bit, and I was right there,” Wade said. “I just grabbed it. If he was going up for a shot, I wouldn’t have done it.”

To understand the full beauty of the steal, first of all know that Douglas-Roberts wasn’t even Wade’s primary defensive mark on the play. Before the strip, Wade had already completely shut down the Bobcats’ first option.

Wade was initially guarding Gary Neal, who subbed in with 21 seconds left in the game as a perimeter shooting option. Neal was one of the Spurs’ shooters who caused the Heat problems in the 2013 Finals, so Wade, arguably the Heat’s best perimeter defender, drew the assignment.

With the Bobcats trailing by three points, the side-out-of-bounds pass went to Neal, who immediately tried to get off a potential game-tying shot. Wade volunteered Neal no room to operate, however, and Wade also didn’t leave his feet when Neal attempted to draw a shooting foul with a pump fake. Beaten, Neal tossed an ill-advised pass to Douglas-Roberts in the corner.

It was a terrible mistake.

Mario Chalmers immediately pinned Douglas-Roberts against the touchline, and the Bobcats reserve attempted to dribble between his legs to create space. Meanwhile, Wade raced in to trap Douglas-Roberts in a compromising position, and LeBron James cheated over to guard two players at once.

It was the Heat’s helping, “five-men-on-a-string” defense at its best.

With Chalmers in his face and Wade closing in, Douglas-Roberts bobbled the ball during his through-the-legs exchange. It’s all the opportunity Wade would need. He was there in a flash to pounce on the mistake.

“(Chalmers) did a great job of corralling him in the corner, and I just got an opportunity to make a play,” Wade said.

After the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called Wade’s stunning strip “instinctual, cat quickness,” but, to fully appreciate Wade’s defensive mastery, it’s important to remember where his body was at this time last season compared to now. Wade’s “opportunity to make a play” of that difficulty could also be credited, in large part, to the Heat’s commitment to Wade’s health throughout the season.

Game 2 of the Heat’s 2013 first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks was the beginning of a painful two months for Wade, who would later chronicle the struggle in a self-made documentary.

Worn down by the Heat’s push for the NBA’s all-time record for consecutive regular-season victories, Wade’s knee gave way under the stress of postseason basketball.

Wade, Spoelstra, the team’s trainers and Wade’s personal trainer, Tim Grover, were determined to avoid a similar problem this postseason.

In other words, the regular season meant little not just for Wade, but also for the Heat as a whole. Across the board, energy was conserved, bodies were maintained and losses to sub-.500 teams were absorbed to ensure Wade and the Heat’s defense would be in peak form for the playoffs.

“You try to build your habits from training camp all the way through the season, but there are times where our system gets us beat, especially during the course of a long regular season,” Spoelstra said. “There are times when our system is questioned, but it’s about building those habits, and when you now have the opportunity to really dial in during the playoffs, at least, if nothing else, at least our guys know what we’re attempting to do, and that’s more than half the battle in this league.”

Extreme amounts of energy are needed for the Heat to operate its brand of defense at its highest level. That simply can’t happen for 82 games. It’s a system that is designed for the postseason, when the schedule isn’t as demanding.

Recovery days are necessary. That’s why, for example, the Heat has already blown off two potential practice days in this first-round series. The team was off after Game 1 and again on Thursday after Game 2.

“I think we have more energy in the postseason,” Shane Battier said. “You just don’t have the energy to sustain an aggressive defense like ours for 82 games in the regular season. You just don’t. That’s being real about the situation.”

From a strategic standpoint, the Heat made little to no adjustments to its defense during the regular season. Instead, the coaching staff constantly hammered home the team’s base defensive principles.

That decision sometimes was frustrating to players, especially James, who can’t stand to ever lose. But as Chris Bosh said Wednesday, “we know what we’re put here for, and luckily it works.”

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