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Orlando-to-Orlando: A dominant two weeks

Joel AnthonySteve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The Heat smothered Jeremy Lin and the Knicks just like they did to each foe over the past two weeks.

MIAMI -- If Erik Spoelstra was looking for some vacation reading this weekend, he might have found it in the quote book following his team’s resounding win over the New York Knicks on Thursday night.

Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin was asked whether the Heat were the best defense he’s faced since taking over the starting gig. His response?

“Probably,” Lin said. “I can’t remember another game where it was hard to just take dribbles.”

Knowing Spoelstra’s affinity for suffocating defense, he might just read that line over and over in glee while he rests up over the break. As six of his players head to Orlando for the All-Star festivities, the defense has come a long way and the Heat are back as the clear favorites for the title.

Two weeks ago, the Heat were licking their wounds in Orlando. It was the morning after they had just sustained an embarrassing loss in Orlando, hemorrhaging 102 points to middle-of-the-pack offense in the first game of a six-game roadtrip that included the dreaded back-to-back-to-back. The All-Star break resided two weeks into the future, but as is the case with vacations, it probably looked like a lifetime away considering the daunting road ahead.

But since that loss, the Heat have rattled off eight consecutive victories -- each by double-figures, no less -- and have entered the All-Star break with a league-best 27-7 record.

The Heat’s average point margin over the past two weeks?

16.5.

What a difference two weeks makes.

Those two weeks ended up setting the stage for the greatest basketball the Heat have played in the Big Three era, capped off by a convincing victory over the Knicks in what felt like the biggest regular season game in years. How big was it? The average ticket price for Thursday’s game, according to ticket data tracker TiqIq.com, exceeded the price of tickets to Game 2 of last season’s NBA Finals in Miami.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra couldn’t have scripted Lin’s postgame quote -- or the way the Heat rolled into the All-Star break -- any better if he tried. And not just because he gets the weekend off while boasting the Eastern Conference’s top winning percentage. You could see his satisfaction by the response he gave when asked what he would be doing with his time off.

“None of your business,” Spoelstra replied while smiling ear-to-ear.

Spoelstra has earned the time off. He just watched his team stifle yet another squad on the foundation of something he’s built for years: defensive mastery. Spoelstra has long maintained that the Heat’s identity has nothing to do with the highlight reels. It has nothing to do with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s offensive fireworks or their sharpened chemistry that has been built from scratch.

Spoelstra has long repeated the message that if the Heat want to get where they want to go, the road is paved through the defensive end of the floor. And now everyone is talking not about the Heat’s devastating defense. When asked to define the team’s identity, James echoed Spoelstra’s mantra.

“Our staple is defensively to help each other, fly around, communicate and try to make guys uncomfortable,” James said. “We just try to be disruptive and force turnovers, and we did that [on Thursday].”

The Knicks mustered just 88 points in Thursday’s game on top of the team’s lowest field goal percentage (39 percent) since Lin took over the starting gig and became an overnight global sensation. Through aggressive pick-and-roll attacks, the Heat did their best to suffocate any air-space that Lin and the rest of the Knicks could possibly enjoy in the halfcourt.

Two weeks ago, there were outside concerns about that Spoelstra-branded defense that preached basket protection sometimes at the expense of attention to the perimeter. After the Magic nailed a staggering 17 3-pointers on Feb. 9, it seemed that there were deep holes in the Heat’s vaunted defense that left them vulnerable to 3-point shooters.

So much for that theory. What’s changed since then? Not much.

“I wish I could tell you that we developed some master plan, I don’t know what you guys are looking for,” Spoelstra said. “We tried this same plan in Orlando and they lit us up for 17 threes and we looked horrible.”

Now, they look unstoppable. It’s hard to imagine how the Heat could have barreled into the All-Star break any better. During that post-Orlando stretch, they beat their last eight opponents, four of which were .500 or better on game day, by a total of 132 points. Their offensive efficiency over that span? 114.1 points per 100 possessions, or about five points better than any other team. Their defensive efficiency in the past two weeks? 94.3 points per 100 possessions, sharper than any team in the East and more than three points better than their own mark up to that point. Considering that statistically defense tends to suffer more than offense with no rest, the defensive output is that much more impressive.

To top it all off, Miami finished February with a record of 11-2 and with 10 of the wins coming by at least 12 points. According to Elias Sports Bureau, among the hundreds of teams that played 13-or-fewer games wins in a calendar month, the Heat are the first team ever to post 10 such wins.

Thanks to the recent surge, the Heat find themselves with easily the top offense in the league and have climbed into the top-five in defensive efficiency. The new high-octane offense raised questions about the ability to maintain their defensive brand of basketball. The Heat have proved over the past two weeks that’s it’s not an either-or endeavor; they can dominate both ends of the floor like they did against the Knicks.

After two weeks of bludgeoning teams in historic fashion, the Heat are back in Orlando once again, having re-established their identity as a dominant defensive club. Spoelstra would have it no other way.