As Tony Parker goes, so go the Spurs ... and the Heat's defense.
Getting off to a fast start
"We want to redeem ourselves," Chris Bosh said of the Heat's debacle against the Spurs on March 4. "I'm sure we're going to be watching a lot of film about that, because they beat the crap out of us. And it was on [national] TV." Monday night's matchup will also be featured on ESPN, so if mass exposure is an incentive for the Heat to play well, they'll have additional motivation. In the Spurs' 125-95 drubbing of the Heat 10 days ago, San Antonio led for 47 minutes and 52 seconds. The Spurs established their first double-digit lead at the 4:28 mark of the first quarter and were up 24 points on the Heat at the end of the period. Finishing -- not starting -- games has been the biggest problem for the Heat in recent weeks, but on Monday night they'll need to prevent the early blitz they suffered in their first meeting with the Spurs and deny San Antonio the kind of confidence it established from the outset.
Containing the Spurs' 3-point attack
Defending the Spurs isn't an easy task. Opponents have to account for high pick-and-rolls that allow Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and George Hill to penetrate. On top of that, you can't leave Tim Duncan alone on the low block. So what happens when those penetrators are able to break down the defense and find daylight between themselves and the basket? Wing defenders slide over from the perimeter to collapse, otherwise, that daylight turns into points. There's only one problem -- or in the case of San Antonio, four or five. With some combination of Richard Jefferson, Matt Bonner, Gary Neal, Ginobili and Hill stationed along the arc, leaving the perimeter to lend help on penetration is treacherous. That's what happened on March 4, when the Heat surrendered 17 3-pointers to the Spurs, the most ever by a Miami team in a single game since the inception of the franchise. It's easy to say the remedy here is to chase shooters off the line -- and that's certainly one prescription. But the key to holding the Spurs' snipers in check is to get your work done early. By defending that initial pick-and-roll and pushing the ball handler to one side of the floor, the Heat won't have to send a brigade of helpers from the perimeter. They can stay at home on the closest perimeter threats, man the paint and zone up on the opposite side of the floor. The threat of a reversal or skip pass is always still there -- nobody pops the ball around the perimeter like the Spurs do -- but additional ball pressure and steering the guards where they don't want to go makes that much tougher for San Antonio.
Put parking brake on Parker
In the first meeting between these two teams, Parker blindsided everyone and suited up for the Spurs. Parker returned to the court from a calf injury weeks before expected, but he wasn’t slowed down by any means. Parker carved up the Heat defense both in the open court and in half-court sets. Parker and Duncan may not be Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, but they can run the secondary break as well as anyone. If the Heat don’t sprint back on defense, the game will be out of reach quickly. In the half court, the Heat need to cut off the action as well. Rather than swarming the ball on a pick-and-roll, the Heat chose to keep Erick Dampier sagging on his heels, waiting for Parker to make his move. At that point, Dampier is nothing more than a lamppost that Parker has to circumvent on his way to the rim. The Heat need to take on a more aggressive strategy to try to cut off Parker’s penetration angles ahead of the screen. That also means the Heat need to trust the rotation underneath to absorb the screener. It may be that pick-and-roll extraordinaire Joel Anthony is a superior option at the 5. If Parker gets what he wants, so do the Spurs.
Force the Spurs to defend ... (starring Chris Bosh)
We've seen the Heat jump-start their offense during the past week against three above-average defenses in Portland (15th), the Lakers (eighth) and Memphis (12th). In each of those games, the Heat averaged more than 110 points per 100 possessions. There's been less one-on-one basketball and greater utilization of the Big Three in spots on the floor where they can exact the most damage -- closer to the rim. LeBron James has become a willing screener during the past week, while Dwyane Wade has maintained his aggressiveness and not settled for fadeaways. But the biggest difference in the Heat's offense has been Bosh's newfound aggressiveness. When Bosh challenged himself to be more assertive following the Portland loss, there was a healthy degree of skepticism in response. But Bosh held up his end of the bargain. His renewed commitment to be a difference-maker on the offense was more than symbolic. By looking to score when he gets the ball, Bosh puts inordinate pressure on defenses. The opposing center (the big man not guarding Bosh) has to watch to see whether Bosh is going to drive to the rack and demand a last line of defense. Wing defenders are starting to take notice when Bosh rolls hard and must ready themselves to rotate. These kinds of contributions from Bosh require so much more of the defense, which, in turn, opens up more opportunities for other players on the floor. Spoelstra has said that Bosh is the fulcrum of the offense, and that's never been clearer than in the past week.
Steal the ball, steal the game
The Heat aren’t built to run up and down the floor throughout the game. But for short stretches, that’s when the Heat are at their best. Here’s a beautiful thing about basketball: You can’t get out and run without a stop on the other end of the floor. In other words, the Heat need to apply themselves on defense before they can light up the highlight reels. Against the Spurs on March 4, the Heat tallied -- count ‘em -- three steals during the entire game. The Heat are 4-6 this season when they record three steals or fewer, and that’s not by sheer chance. Since the Heat are so deadly in transition, provoking turnovers is especially critical for them to thrive. In the first meeting, the Heat were visibly lazy on closeouts, and after recovering on rotations, but the passive approach hamstrung their transition game as well. As bad as they were 10 days ago against San Antonio, the Heat looked like a whole new team on Saturday against the Grizzlies when they blocked 11 shots and tallied 12 steals. That hyperactivity will be vital to the Heat’s success on Monday if they want a shot at toppling the best team in the league.