Dwyane Wade's 9-for-12 shooting night set the tone for the Heat, who shot 58 percent from the field.
MIAMI – On the heels of consecutive losses and a stretch of miserable defensive performances that had the Miami Heat reevaluating their rotation and approach, coach Erik Spoelstra sought something close to a 48-minute effort entering Saturday's game against the New Orleans Hornets.
His players still owe him about 36 more.
“It was a good step in the right direction,” Heat forward LeBron James said. “We came in with the mindset that we needed to defend. We wanted to defend. And we did that.”
Saturday's 106-90 victory against the young and rebuilding Hornets didn't represent a complete and thorough turnaround for a Heat team that entered the game ranked among the bottom third in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
Miami remains miles away from the level of sustained dominance it displayed the past few seasons. But the Heat did at least manage to point themselves back in the right direction with a lethal second quarter to set the tone.
For a night, it was enough.
After giving up 32 points in the first quarter, the Heat outscored the Hornets 33-15 in the second to build enough of a comfort zone and avoid any threat of a third straight meltdown after losses to Washington and New York.
The night was all about the fight.
Spoelstra wanted to see far more toughness from his team on the court, so much so that he tweaked the rotation to keep Udonis Haslem in the starting lineup at power forward and played defensive-minded Norris Cole, Shane Battier and Joel Anthony on the second unit. That meant slightly fewer minutes for scorers Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen.
Spoelstra also wanted to see the Heat put away an inferior opponent early, which would enable him to switch his focus later in the night to the Pacquiao-Marquez fight. The Hornets, who were without No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Davis, weren't much more than a therapeutic sparring partner for James and the Heat.
“We didn't do everything right, but the commitment on the defensive end was better than the last two games,” Spoelstra said. “We have been missing the activity on the defensive side for a while. There is a list of things that we haven't been doing defensively. No. 1, we must be disruptive. That is one of the most significant things that we really haven't been getting to consistently.”
That still remains a challenge for the Heat. And the tests from here only get tougher with the suddenly-hot Atlanta Hawks visiting Monday, having won nine of their past 10 games. For now, progress is measured incrementally.
“It's good to play some good defense,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “You play one game [of good defense], and you want to make it two and three and four. Our antennas are up about it. We're going to work extremely hard at it.”
It seems a bit strange to see a defending NBA championship team so rattled by its shortcomings so early in the season. But that's exactly where the Heat are right now. After falling to the one-win Wizards on Tuesday and then being blown off their own floor by the rival Knicks on Thursday, the Heat's confidence was shaken and their spirits stirred.
Changes were made in the way they approached Friday's workout. There was far less joking and after-practice shooting games, and more straight-to-the-point accountability from the film sessions to the practice floor. James went as far as the say that there was a cloud hovering over the team because of its sluggish start.
James also said the team would need more than one or two games to emerge from the relative defensive funk. He talked about stringing together a month of solid play that was similar to the 21-1 stretch Miami went on after that 9-8 start during the 2010-11 season when James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade first came together with the Heat.
Last season, there was a 17-2 stretch from late January to the start of March that gave the Heat momentum heading into the playoffs en route to winning the title.
“You can't force the shutout,” said Wade, who had a team-high 26 points on Saturday. “You have to work the game.”
And they had several facets of their game working. Offensively, Miami shot a season-high 58 percent from the field, fueled by a 76.5-percent clip in the second quarter. They also scored at least 100 points in all nine home games this season. But scoring the ball has never been a concern for the Heat. It's their generosity on defense that's created so many headaches and led to a deep search for answers.
If you're the Heat, you still have to wonder how the Hornets torched you for 32 points in the first quarter, shot 44.4 percent from 3-point range and rallied to make it an eight-point game with less than five minutes remaining.
In the end, 12 minutes of dominance in the second quarter made the difference for the Heat. As James said, this was as step – not a leap – in a more productive direction. For now, they'll take it. That reveals where the Heat are now after a week that started with a pair of humbling defeats.
“We can't make up for it,” James said of the letdowns against Washington and New York. “Those games are what they were. You can't make up for it. You just continue to start anew. And we did that.”