The Miami Heat’s defense was ranked in the bottom half of the NBA just two weeks ago. But despite ongoing struggles with it’s man-to-man scheme, the Heat’s defense has quietly moved up the rankings to become a top-10 unit.
The Heat (10-11) entered Tuesday with the league’s ninth-best defensive rating (allowing 110.2 points per 100 possessions) this season, well ahead of its offense that’s ranked 23rd in the NBA (scoring 109.5 points per 100 possession).
The fact that the Heat’s defense is ahead of its offense isn’t surprising, considering that Miami has established itself as an organization that prioritizes defense. The Heat has finished with a top-10 defensive rating in six of the past seven seasons.
But it is noteworthy this time because the Heat’s man-to-man defense, usually its base defense, has been among the worst in the NBA through the first month-plus of the season. Miami’s man scheme is allowing 1.03 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports, which is the second-highest mark in the NBA ahead of only the Sacramento Kings.
Instead, it has been the 2-3 zone scheme that has helped push the Heat’s defense into the top 10 as it enters a two-game set against the Celtics (17-4) in Boston that begins Wednesday at TD Garden (7:30 p.m., Bally Sports Sun and NBA TV).
The Heat has turned to its zone on an eye-opening 30.3 percent of its defensive possessions and is on pace to set a modern-day NBA record for the most zone possessions played in a season.
Since Synergy Sports began tracking the stat in 2008-09, the current league record was set by the Heat with 1,053 zone possessions during the 2018-19 season. Miami is already more than halfway to that record with 579 zone possessions played through the first 21 games.
For the season, the Heat is allowing just 0.86 points per possession while playing zone. For perspective on how elite that number is, the Los Angeles Clippers entered Tuesday with the NBA’s best overall defense this season at 0.96 points allowed per possession based on Synergy Sports tracking data.
The Heat has been playing more zone than usual recently, too, because of injury issues that has limited its depth and kept some of its best individual defenders out. Miami, which is averaging 27.6 zone possessions per game this season, has used its zone for an average of 55 defensive possessions per game during the last five games.
“If we’re fully healthy, I don’t see us playing this much zone,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is by any means necessary right now. Again, it’s never about the scheme. It really isn’t. I know that’s an easy thing to point to. It’s more about your commitment to doing the tough things in this league. Regardless if we’re doing zone, there’s still a bunch of things that are really tough to guard and you have to burn calories and you have to make multiple efforts. You have to have a persistence.
“When teams start to get in a rhythm, what are you going to do to get them out of that rhythm? How are you going to disrupt that flow? Those principles are the same. No scheme is going to save you.”
Opponent three-point shooting has a lot to do with the discrepancy between the Heat’s man and zone defenses. Teams are shooting an efficient 38.9 percent from three-point range against Miami’s man defense and an inefficient 27.6 percent from beyond the arc against Miami’s zone defense this season.
Neither number is especially sustainable, so the gap between the Heat’s man and zone defense will close a bit as the two three-point percentages move closer to each other.
But this season’s 21-game sample size is large enough to at least raise some concern regarding the Heat’s man defense, although injuries have clearly been a factor in the unit’s struggles. Miami’s man scheme allowed just 0.95 points per possession last season compared to 1.03 points per possession this season, which is the difference between this season’s top overall defense and second-worst overall defense.
“Whatever gets us the wins. If it ain’t broke, don’t break it,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said when asked if the team is relying too much on its zone defense.
Wednesday’s Eastern Conference finals rematch against the Celtics represents one of the Heat’s toughest defensive tests yet. Boston enters the game with the NBA’s top offensive rating this season and the league’s best offensive rating since at least the 1996-97 season.
“Our defense is something we’re really focusing on,” Spoelstra said. “It’s been improving, it has been slowly but surely. Three weeks ago, it was really disturbing where we were. But we really worked diligently to be more reliable, consistent, tougher and it will get tested [Wednesday against the Celtics]. It should be a lot of fun.”
Jimmy Butler was not in Boston for the Heat’s practice Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Celtics. But the hope is that Butler will rejoin the team in Boston at some point this week and potentially make his return in Friday’s matchup against the Celtics, according to a league source.
Butler, who has been working toward his return in Miami, has missed the last six games because of right knee soreness. He’ll miss a seventh straight game on Wednesday.
Spoelstra said he won’t require Butler to practice with the team before returning.
“He hasn’t been out that long,” Spoelstra said of Butler. “He’s been able to work, that’s the most important thing. Actually the most important thing is he’s getting better. He’s getting healthier, he’s feeling better. He works his conditioning, he works his rhythm, all of that. We’ll just see how it plays out.”
Heat backup center Dewayne Dedmon also wasn’t at practice Tuesday because he was instead visiting with a doctor to make sure that his foot injury isn’t worse than what was initially diagnosed. Dedmon, who has been playing through what has been listed as plantar fasciitis in his left foot for most of the season, is questionable to play on Wednesday against the Celtics.
“He will do his whole routine with the same mindset that he’ll play,” Spoelstra said of Dedmon. “But he’s going to have to manage that all season long.”
Along with Butler remaining out and Dedmon being questionable for Wednesday’s game in Boston, the Heat ruled out Victor Oladipo (left knee tendinosis) and Omer Yurtseven (left ankle surgery); listed Tyler Herro (left ankle sprain), Haywood Highsmith (right ankle sprain), Nikola Jovic (right foot plantar fasciitis), Caleb Martin (non-COVID illness), Duncan Robinson (left ankle sprain) and Gabe Vincent (left knee effusion) as questionable; and listed Jamal Cain (non-COVID illness) and Max Strus (right shoulder impingement) as probable.
Jovic said Tuesday he started feeling the pain from his case of plantar fasciitis before Friday’s win over the Washington Wizards and he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to play on Wednesday against the Celtics.