Ask Heat coaches and players why it’s in the middle of its best stretch of the season, and they’ll probably point to defense and rebounding.
They aren’t wrong, with the Heat (14-16) using elite defense and an impressive offensive rebounding effort to win seven of its past 10 games after a disappointing 7-13 start to the season.
Miami has held five of its past 10 opponents under 100 points, and it’s now 8-1 this season when hitting that benchmark. The Heat is also averaging league-bests in offensive rebounds (13.5) and second-chance points (17.7) during this positive 10-game stretch.
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“Our identity is trying to make it ugly,” guard Tyler Johnson said, with the Heat looking to continue its winning ways Saturday against the Bucks at AmericanAirlines Arena . “A lot of teams aren’t used to that. So, I feel like in the three years that we’ve been here, we’ve had to win ugly a lot. In most of our games, we’re not running away with anything. It’s a two-point game, one-point game going down the stretch. It’s always been part of our identity.”
Even during the bad times, though, Miami’s defense and rebounding numbers were among the best in the NBA. The Heat posted the league’s ninth-best defensive rating and seventh-best offensive rebounding rate over its 7-13 start.
The Heat has only improved slightly in both areas, allowing 2.5 points less per 100 possessions and grabbing one more offensive rebound per game over the last 10. That small improvement certainly helps, especially for a team that plays so many close games.
But there’s one drastic change Miami has made recently that’s paid off.
The Heat is playing a lot slower than it did to begin the season. After averaging 102.5 possessions per 48 minutes (10th fastest in NBA) over a 7-13 start, Miami has used a more methodical approach with 96.6 possessions per 48 minutes (fourth-slowest in NBA) over the past 10 games.
“A lot,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said when asked how much the slower approach has helped recently. “It limits our turnovers a little bit.”
The Heat’s turnovers are down from 16.1 per game during its 7-13 start to 14 per game during its current 7-3 stretch.
But coach Erik Spoelstra said he didn’t choose to play the slower style. Instead, it was forced on Miami because starting point guard Goran Dragic has been unavailable because of a right knee injury that required surgery this week.
“We’ve been a little bit more methodical,” Spoelstra said. “I wouldn’t say we’re intentionally slowing it down. You just take Goran Dragic out of the lineup, our running opportunities are not the same. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, a one-man fast break. He forces the tempo and we fill a lot of our offense based on his ability to push and our younger players being able to run with him.”
“We’ve had to adjust our tempo and pace based on the availability of guys and trying to maximize the strengths of who is playing.”
The slower pace has not only helped Miami limit its turnovers, but it’s also allowed the Heat to get its half-court defense set more often than not. One of the trademarks of this 7-3 stretch has been zone defense, which Miami would not be able to play effectively in an up-tempo game.
In today’s faster-paced, high-scoring NBA, Miami has used an old-school formula to win games. Slow it down and play good defense, a formula that has certainty worked for the Heat in the past.
As the worst shooting squad in the league (43.1 percent) this season, this is the way it has to be for the Heat.
“The tough part about it is when you’re trying to incorporate something new in the beginning of the year, you got to take the lumps with trying to incorporate it,” Wade said of the Heat attempting to play a faster style to start the season.
“So it depends on how patient you want to be. I think our patience kind of wore a little short because we’re a team that wants to win. Coach went back in the lab and had to figure out, especially with guys in and out of the lineup, what was the best way for us. The best way for us is when we get opportunities, run. But in the last two minutes, last three minutes, slow it down and get a good shot. It’s worked better for us.”
And the Heat finally feels like it’s found a formula that works this season. Now, it just has to find a way to sustain it.
“I feel like we’ve turned a corner,” Wade said. “Throughout a season, you want to turn different corners. I feel like we’ve turned the one we need to now. Even after the Utah [blowout loss], those games happen. As I said, you ball that up and throw it out. We’ve been playing good basketball for a while, especially on the road. … Within these last 10 games or so, we’ve played really good basketball in the past eight out of 10 and I like that.”