Heat silence critics by silencing Howard

ORLANDO -- Some say the Heat need an elite center to counter Dwight Howard and legitimize their championship-contention status. On Thursday, Miami demonstrated why that isn’t necessary.

The Heat beat the Magic on top of LeBron James’ brilliant 51-point performance, but lost in the marvel of James was that the Heat silenced Howard in the second half on his home court. The Heat, a team that is supposedly fatally flawed at the center position, limited the highest-scoring pure center in the NBA to just two field goal attempts in the second half -- and he missed them both. What’s more, Howard didn’t even muster a shot attempt in the final 17 minutes of the game.

How did the Heat do it?

By defending him as a team, not as a one-on-one matchup. The truth is, while Heat centers Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony did a fine job keeping Howard out of the paint, the bulk of the credit belongs to the Heat’s network of help defense that hounded Howard all night.

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Defending Dwight Howard isn't about one-on-one matchups.

“They made sure every time I got the ball I saw a crowd,” Howard said after the game. “And I was supposed to pass the ball out just trusting my teammates. That’s all you can do.”

Even when a crowd didn’t meet Howard right away, Erik Spoelstra made it a priority to swarm him in the post before he had time to create an open look on the block.

“Defensively, we were very active covering the paint, disrupting Howard as much as you can,” Spoelstra said. “For the most part, we were pulling triggers and helping out our centers as much as possible when the ball was going in [to the post] so it wouldn’t be a one-on-one opportunity for him.”

Now, most teams would love to deploy this team-wide strategy of helping and recovering. But it’s easier said than done. The Heat have the privilege of James, who’s built like a power forward but moves like a point guard, lurking on the weak side, not to mention Dwyane Wade -- one of the best shot-blocking guards ever -- waiting in Howard’s periphery. It’s rare to find wings who possess the quickness to help on Howard down low without spreading the defense too thin and the strength to provide shot contests one would expect from a big man.

The result was that Howard rarely got a shot off that wasn’t strongly contested by several Heat players. Take, for example, Wade’s second quarter block on Howard. The Magic ran a play that had previously tripped up the Heat on a couple occasions early in the game.

Gilbert Arenas passed the ball to Howard in the high post and then joined his three other teammates on the perimeter. It’s at this point where Hedo Turkoglu, guarded by Chris Bosh, came from the top of the key, took the handoff from Howard and curled to the right side. By setting this rub screen on Bosh, Howard forced Dampier to come out and cut off Turkoglu’s lane to the rim. Once Dampier left Howard, the Magic center dove to the rim.

On previous possessions, Howard received an open look as the rotation underneath didn’t come in time. But on this occasion, Turkoglu fed Howard the ball under the basket, and the only thing standing between Howard and the rim was Eddie House. Easy bucket, right? Wrong. Wade, standing 6-foot-4, parachuted in from behind and swatted Howard’s layup with two hands.

So even when Howard thought he has an open look, he didn't. Later in the second quarter, James followed Wade’s lead and sent Howard’s layup into the seats, after Dampier surrendered an open look near the rim.

What's impressive for the Heat's defense is not the number of Howard's shots they blocked, but the number of shots Howard never even got a chance to take. The Magic ran pick-and-rolls to get Howard open, but their big man subsequently met either Bosh or James on the roll to the rim. Anthony, who received the unenviable assignment of guarding Howard for 20 minutes on Thursday night, was especially grateful for his teammates.

“You can’t just guard him one-on-one,” Anthony said. “It’s definitely a team effort. Having the guards there on the weak side slowing him down on those pick-and-rolls when he rolls to the rim while the bigs are out there, that's huge for us.”

Saying the Heat don’t have anyone to stop Howard misses the point. The first 42 minutes of the Thursday’s game against the Magic illustrated why the Heat can be stifling on defense without a classic center's presence anchoring the paint. Basketball is not a game decided by the results of individual matchups as it is, say, in the sport of baseball. The key for the Heat is that they have wings who are athletically and mentally capable of helping defend like big men. It’s a big reason why the Heat are one of the top defenses in the league and the best protectors of the rim.

As the Heat have shown, protecting the paint is not accomplished by a lone individual. It’s a team-wide effort.