By Rob Mahoney
In becoming the fourth team to win at least 20 consecutive regular-season games in a season, the Heat have taken on the air of an unbeatable club. Some opponents are crushed and others keep the margin close, but none since Indiana on Feb. 1 has managed to overcome the most devastating force in the league.
LeBron James has stripped down his game to its hyper-efficient core; Dwyane Wade has awakened from an early-season nap to reclaim his on-court authority; and virtually every player in the Heat rotation slides into a form-fitting role suited perfectly to his talents. It's a nearly impossible mix for any opponent to grapple with, and yet the challenge of beating the Heat -- whether to end their regular-season streak, which they will try to extend to 21 games Friday at Milwaukee, or to unseat the defending champions in a potential playoff series -- remains.
There is no secret formula for beating a team this potent. There are, however, a few facets of play consistent among those teams that have troubled the Heat the most this season. Consider the following list a very basic outline for managing a matchup with Miami, based largely on the success of the teams that have pushed the Heat or even come away with a rare victory:
• Minimize the live-ball turnovers. Just about the only thing worse than guarding LeBron James is guarding LeBron James in transition. As brutally effective as the Heat are in a general sense, they're that much more terrifying in the open court, where James, Wade and a gang of three-point shooters can manufacture wide-open looks in the blink of an eye. No team fills lanes better than the Heat, and it's in that consistency that Miami's ball-handlers are given room to create and improvise through plenty of open space.
That makes transition defense a priority for any opponent, but efforts to control the Heat's fast break should begin before the ball is even in Miami's possession. A long rebound or quick outlet will inevitably get the Heat out into the open court, but a team can significantly help its chances of winning by curbing its live-ball turnovers -- those giveaways that allow Miami to counter without any stoppage in play. Throwing a pass out of bounds is a costly mistake, but having a pass deflected into the hands of an opponent is even worse. In those situations, the Heat are virtually guaranteed a basket because the athleticism and awareness among Miami's ball-handlers turn even the slightest advantage into a clean breakaway.
Only nine opponents have either lost by single digits or defeated Miami more than once. Seven of those teams have done a terrific job of limiting their live-ball turnovers, with Milwaukee (4.8 live-ball turnovers per game against Miami), Houston (6.5) and Denver (7.0) each averaging a shockingly low number considering their breakneck pace of play.
• Execute an offense that challenges the Heat consistently. Without a rim-protecting big man, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had to devise a defensive system that would apply pressure across the floor while providing the potential for help from all angles. That system has generated beautiful, on-a-string execution when the Heat are completely engaged, but it is also more demanding across the board than most schemes. Ultimately, the level of effort and focus required of every Heat defender is so high that it becomes difficult to sustain over an entire season -- particularly when the team's offense is so incredible that elite defense isn't often necessary.
This is the closest that Miami gets to having a traditional weakness, and it is best exploited by teams that attack the Heat relentlessly. Playing at a fast pace isn't in itself conducive to challenging Miami, but the teams that do it well -- namely Denver and Houston -- can leverage the Heat's inattention and execute well enough to create defensive breakdowns. The Rockets and Nuggets thrive at hunting down high-value shot attempts (three-pointers and layups), and the pursuit of those looks can strain Miami's defense to the point of breaking.
It's also no coincidence that both of those teams give James and Wade plenty to do defensively. Houston's James Harden is one of the toughest covers in the league, and he plays a high-usage game while baiting many of his opponents into foul trouble. Denver's Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Corey Brewer can make Miami weary because the Heat's best players are asked to keep tabs on the off-ball movement and leak-out sprints of that group without compromising their other responsibilities. It's not said often enough just how difficult it is to maintain that balance.
• Don't just win the rebounding battle -- dominate the glass. The concern over Miami's rebounding was always a bit overblown, as the Heat are easily good enough to overcome a disadvantage there with the rest of their complete game. That said, games against the Heat offer an opportunity for the best rebounding teams to feast on offensive boards, provided they can also square those efforts with good transition defense. Such a combination requires optimal personnel and perfect floor balance, but some teams have gained a legitimate advantage by managing the crash-or-retreat dynamic well.
One of the most glaring examples of that success comes from the Pacers, who went 2-1 against Miami this season and handed the Heat their most recent loss almost six weeks ago by grabbing nearly 30 percent of available offensive rebounds. Overall, only two teams (Denver and Orlando) have held Miami to a lower overall rebounding rate than Indiana, which largely stems from the fact that Pacers coach Frank Vogel refuses to compromise the size of his lineups to match Miami's small-ball style. That decision has tradeoffs in other areas, to be sure, but it allows the Pacers to take full advantage of one of their greatest strengths.
That strength is important to keep in mind. Indiana isn't some typical team just putting in extra effort on the glass; the Pacers rank in the top five in both offensive rebounding rate and defensive rebounding rate, and it's in that season-long performance that we find the basis for this specific advantage.
• Prioritize threats and concede whatever necessary. Part of team defense is understanding which opposing players can be allowed to shoot at minimal risk, and those who defend the Heat the best often opt to disregard Udonis Haslem, Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh for this very reason. Bosh represents the kind of difficult choice that makes guarding the Heat such a nightmare. He has made an outstanding 50.7 percent of his mid-range shots this season, and yet opposing big men are often forced to stray from him in order to wall off the paint or defend the pick-and-roll. Giving up an open jumper to such an accurate shooter can be a painful concession, but it's preferable to the high-yield shot attempts in the paint or from the corners that might otherwise result from deep dribble penetration.
The most competitive Heat opponents have mobile, shot-blocking big men to help take away some of the aggressive drives that fuel Miami's offense. Indiana's Roy Hibbert, Memphis' Marc Gasol, and Milwaukee's Larry Sanders have predictably fared best in that regard. Each of those teams has done well to either limit the Heat's shot attempts around the basket or smother their efficiency on those attempts. Of course, those efforts are aided by having relatively solid individual matchups for either James or Wade (Milwaukee's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Memphis' Tony Allen, Indiana's Paul George, etc.), curbing the risk of clean, blow-by drives that might catch the helping big man out of position.
Having such strong interior defenders makes controlling the corners that much more important, as the Heat look to Shane Battier and Ray Allen as a release when things get too dicey in the lane. Indiana and Memphis are excellent in blanketing that area of real estate and closing out hard on those shooters in the event that a defender assigned to Battier or Allen is compelled to help. Not only does that result in a drastically lower number of corner three-point attempts relative to Miami's average (the Pacers, for example, take away 2.3 corner three-point attempts from the Heat per game), but it also often forces Miami to work deep into the shot clock as its options continue to dry up. The longer the clock runs, the more likely Miami will have to settle for a contested mid-range shot off the dribble -- an ideal byproduct of defending so effectively against more efficient shot types. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.