Miami had not played great defense all playoffs.
To be fair, they played good defense against the Bobcats, but that was a Bobcats team without Al Jefferson so it wasn’t exactly difficult to defend them. The Brooklyn Nets scored 3.8 points more per 100 possessions in the second round than they did in the regular season (Miami just outscored Brooklyn). Then in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals the Heat had their worst defensive showing of the playoffs, and it wasn’t great in Game 2 — through two games Indiana was scoring 9.7 points per 100 better than in the regular season.
Saturday night, Miami finally brought the defensive pressure. Well, eventually. They took the first 18 minutes of the game to float around, but for the final 30 minutes Miami cranked it up. LeBron James was up on Paul George. Dwyane Wade was making smart gambles from the weakside and stealing the ball off post entry passes. Miami contested everything.
Indiana wilted — 17 turnovers, or 21.3 percent of their possessions. After starting out hot and hitting 6-of-7 shots inside 8 feet of the basket they got there just 15 times in the final 30 minutes of the game and hit just 7.
Indiana finished scoring 97.8 points per 100 possession, 3.7 below their season average. The defensive pressure got to them.
“That’s our game, however we get into it,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said in his post game press conference, televised on NBA TV. “That’s why this series is so compelling, it’s such a contrast of styles.”
The result was a 99-87 Miami win, giving the Heat a 2-1 lead in the series.
A lot of focus after the game will understandably go to a Heat offense that carved up the vaunted Pacers defense.
But Miami’s offense has always fed off its defense and that was the case Saturday — stops become starts, become buckets in transition. Miami finally defended like the teams that won the last two NBA titles.
If Miami brings that kind of defense the rest of this series they are going to another NBA Finals.
The good news for Pacers fans: Based on what we have seen these playoffs, I wouldn’t bet on that defense returning Monday night.
Early in Game 3 the Heat were the team coughing the ball up, most of those turnovers unforced. That is why Miami only scored 14 points in the first half.
But the Heat also were casual in their defending and it showed — the Pacers were getting transition points just out hustling Miami down the court. Then there was the older, slower Luis Scola looked like his 2007 self, just backing down Chris Bosh and beating him in the post. It was ugly for Heat fans (much of Bosh’s game was ugly).
Then Miami flipped the switch. It started midway through the second half when Udonis Haslem and LeBron re-entered the game. It takes a lot of energy to defend with the pressure they want to (which is why they don’t do it consistently in the regular season) but Miami found it the rest of the way.
It was an impressive run. They can’t expect to get away with this kind of effort against San Antonio in the Finals (sorry OKC, just looks that way) — the Spurs would have throttled them in the first 18 minutes and never taken their foot off their throat.
But like everyone has been saying about the Pacers, maybe the Miami Heat are starting to find their defensive groove. We’ll find out if this was a trend or just a short streak again in Game 4.