The problem with the Miami Heat has been alternately described as struggling in crunch time and struggling against good teams. The struggles in close games make for good drama. The struggles against good teams make for significant worries in South Beach -- and there are real reasons to be worried.
The “good teams” in this case are San Antonio, Boston, Chicago, and Dallas, the teams with the best records in the NBA. Three of these four teams are particularly good on the defensive side of the ball, Chicago ranking first, Boston second, and San Antonio seventh in defensive efficiency. In the half court, these teams are first, second, and fourth in defense.
Against these teams, the Heat have scored under 100 points per 100 possessions, about 10 points worse than their average. So not only are these defenses very good, but they are also having more success against the Heat than against the rest of the league. The Heat offense was supposed to be unstoppable and this is, well, a far cry from that.
So these are the big-picture stats that support what we’re seeing, but why is this happening?
When trying to answer this question, the first thing that jumps out to me about the Heat as a team is that these guys dribble a lot.
Dribble charts show where and how much teams dribble in order to score, and the Heat have a big red area indicating that they dribble to score more than any other team. Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all dribble to create their own shots, and they all do so in the lane.
It’s great to have guys who can break a defense down off the dribble, but the Big Three seems to need to do so. At this point, they haven’t shown the ability to work off each other consistently.
In the half-court, the Heat have the lowest rate of assisted layups in the league, and it isn’t close: Only 45 percent of their layups and dunks in the half court are assisted, while the next-worst team is at 54 percent and the league average is about 62 percent. The Celtics have 70 percent of their half-court layups assisted, and the Lakers 69 percent. Other than the Heat, the Bulls are the worst of the elite teams at 61 percent.
If the Miami stars drive to the middle, they are going to try to score or kick it to the perimeter -- the offense relies on rim attacks and 3-pointers by James Jones, Mario Chalmers, Mike Bibby, Eddie House and Mike Miller. It’s very difficult for defenses to simultaneously protect the rim and stop the 3. Coaches around the league struggle with how to give rules to their players to cover both.
Who has managed to do it? The Spurs and the Tom Thibodeau defenses, which are in place in Boston and Chicago. And they appear to shut down those options better than the Heat can create them.
Will the Heat be able to steamroll other teams? Sure. Even in their loss against Portland on Tuesday, the Heat offense was good, scoring more than 110 points per 100 possessions.
(An aside: Miami’s defense was a sieve on Tuesday. Perhaps the pressure of failing has created a tendency for the Heat defense to crumble, as effort and emotion matter most on that side of the ball. That shouldn’t impact them as much against weaker teams, where their pure physical advantage should carry them. After all, James, Wade and Bosh are really good. The Timberwolves wish they could cry over close losses to the Bulls.)
So how can the Heat score against the best defenses?
How about a pick-and-roll, for cryin’ out loud! Go to the basket, guys!
Contrary to his complaints, Bosh shouldn’t need plays run for him in order to score. When the defense leaves him, he should go to the basket. When the defense leaves a perimeter player, he should go to a place where he is available and can score. That is not just the 3-point line, but also down the lane.
The Heat should be able to do this, as Wade and James do not have this problem in their history. In previous seasons, they have been able to find big men in the lane. Last season, James had 268 dimes to guys in the lane in the half-court; this season, just 79. Last season, Wade had 145 assists to guys in the lane in the half-court; this season, just 43.
How about a pick-and-roll with James setting the pick and then going to the basket? Give the ball-handlers an inside option that is moving. Those top defenses will have a harder time setting their big men at the top of the charge circle and just waiting. Then they'll actually have to worry about someone else who can score.
No one will care if Miami players were crying in March if they win in June. They'll have to figure out how to move the ball on the inside if they are going to give themselves a chance to do so.
Dean Oliver is director of analytics for ESPN.