Not Just Good Enough
Beating the Pacers on the HEAT's Terms
“They've got a gear that we can’t get to.” – David West
For much of the regular season, that gear was absent. Sure, it would pop up for a stretch here and a stretch there, but it was always just enough to remind you of what the Miami HEAT were capable of. Rarely did the team, with a variety of maladies affecting the squad from week to week, actually appear to be consistently playing at the level they were hinting at.
The reminders had to be enough, because with lineups constantly in flux the reminders were all they were able to offer.
“Going through the week [to] week and grinding months of a regular season, it was a toll on all of us,” LeBron James said.
“The regular season for us, we were hobbled,” Ray Allen said.
There was never anything close to resembling panic, even as the team’s defensive efficiency continued to slip closer to league average and the fourth-quarter execution wasn’t producing the same stratospheric results as it had the season before. The team would have a bad game, even in victory, or a tough loss and find a way to use it and move on.
“When we were going through some of the rough stretches this regular season, I kind of liked it,” Erik Spoelstra said. “I think we're often portrayed as we're just waiting for the postseason. That couldn't be further from the truth. There's a lot of passion and frustration when we were dropping ten of those games in the fourth quarter.”
“Guys wanted to win. We had to deal with some injuries and different lineups and all those type of things and the struggle of closing out games. Ultimately, I think that helps you grow.”
Growth came in the form of added versatility. Spoelstra used more two-guard lineups with Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole and later Toney Douglas. Rashard Lewis, such an important factor in spreading out the Indiana defense, would jump in and out of the starting lineup. Chris Bosh would play alongside Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen in a traditional frontcourt more than ever. Michael Beasley played. Greg Oden made his long-awaited return to the court. Shane Battier would oscillate between 30 minutes and six.
Growth didn’t always produce wins, but the team held true to its process.
“I believed,” James said. “if we ever got to a point where our whole team was able to be available for Spo and for all of us, that we could compete with anybody. Never concerned about that.”
We can spit out statistics until we’re parched, but at some base, core level there are teams that believe that they can win a championship and teams that don’t. And slowly but surely, as the playoffs began, the team rewarded its own belief with tangible results.
There were signs against the Charlotte Bobcats. A lockdown defensive quarter followed by a game-sealing run. A sweep, but a rather unremarkable sweep. Things improved against the Brooklyn Nets, but even in winning the series in five-games, the defense was just good enough. It got the job done, but it had yet to inspire outside belief.
Then there was this. This series. Six games against the league’s best defense during the regular season. Game 1 was one of Miami’s worst defensive games of the season. Every member of the team copped to that. Game 2 was solid, but not great. But in Game 3, the HEAT sustained their peak defense for the final 30 minutes of the game – one of their longest sustained stretches of the season. And by Game 4, the Omega Swarm was present and accounted for from the get-go. There would be one more loss, but even as contested jumpers fell against them in bunches, the HEAT’s defense wasn’t failing them.
Maybe the HEAT could have beaten the Indiana Pacers to reach their fourth-consecutive NBA Finals with ‘just enough’, but this wasn’t that. This was that next gear, so much so that the team was almost unrecognizable to some of the newer members.
"It’s funny, talking to guys like [Greg Oden] and [Toney Douglas], guys who haven’t been around, they were like, ‘Who are you guys? This is not a team I’ve seen all year’,” Battier said.
“We told them, ‘Just stay around long enough. You’ll see a different team. Trust me, we’re not bad, we’re not bad when we play hard.’”
Not bad on offense, where the HEAT scored 114.3 points per 100 possessions, getting their corner threes and shots at the rim – where James shot 81.6 percent on just three fewer at-rim attempts than David West and Roy Hibbert combined. They could have played Indiana’s game, taking all the mid-range shots the Pacers’ defense invites, but the HEAT played almost entirely within their offense. One pick-and-roll flowed into the next, each player on the floor touching the ball until someone found an efficient look.
“Well, they executed the heck out of it offensively,” Frank Vogel said.
And not bad on defense, where the Pacers scoring just a tick below league-average offensive efficiency belied just how engaged each Miami player was in executing a slightly more conservative, with plenty of timely aggression, scheme at Spoelstra’s behest.
At some point in the last six games, the HEAT appear to have found themselves. Found that gear that West referred to. It may have taken until the postseason, with a healthy team, for it to show up consistently, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Spoelstra said since the first day of training camp that they would have to throw the past out the window and treat this season as a new journey, complete with new trials and tribulations. A different journey can still reach the same destination.
There’s so many different ways to get there, if you look at teams’ championship years over years past,” Allen said. “If you go back, the different seeds that won championships, what their records were, it doesn’t always have to be a 60-win team. It happens so many different ways. We knew that we had the players, the team, the chemistry, it was just a matter of getting there and locking in.”
Whoever Miami’s next opponent turns out to be, new challenges await. The San Antonio Spurs scheme and execute as well as any team in recent, or distant, memory. The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the few teams that can smother an opponent with sheer skill and athleticism. But nothing matters more than the HEAT being locked in to what they do and how well they are supposed to do it. If that much is taken care of, it’s on Miami’s opponent to match that gear.
Against the Pacers, the HEAT didn’t play to the level of their opponent – they exceeded it. By Game 6, a dominating 117-92 victory that required little analysis, the energy was overwhelming.
“They’re able to embrace these moments and get to a level that we, for some reason, can’t compete [with],” West said.
In getting to that level and keeping themselves there, finally the HEAT said enough with good enough.
Statistical supports for this article provided by NBA.com, STATS LLC and Synergy Sports