Defending a title is never easy. There are nights in America’s biggest cities where you’re outgunned and others against blue collar ball clubs that don’t lose much at home. There are horrific nights in obscure sports towns and lengthy road trips that will test a team’s resolve to do it again.
The Miami Heat face a tough of year of such tests. They are the favorites to take the 2012-13 NBA Championship for more reasons than the fact that they are the defending champs and boast an extraordinarily talented lineup, but the road to get there promises to be as tumultuous as any they’ve faced since signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010.
Coach Erik Spoelstra has spent recent years reviewing a plethora of ideas and philosophies to get the most out of his star studded lineup and most of all, his brightest shining star in LeBron James. Last year, the Heat became LeBron’s team and rightfully so as he led the team to a championship. Now, the key is not only for the team remain James’, but for the three time MVP to become the team in a sense.
If the Heat had one thing missing from their lineup after last season, it was a sizeable figure in the center position that could pull down boards and present a formidable deterrent in front of the rim. In the offseason, Miami did nothing to address this, instead signing Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis to present opponents with a lineup that has to be respected on the perimeter more than any other in the league possibly.
James is now required to use his recently developed post up game as much as his jump shooting and ability to drive to the basket because of the way the Heat are set up. This, however, does not mean James is going to handle the ball less or be given less opportunities to charge the rim or take on opponents one-on-one.
Beyond the perimeter threat, Spoelstra and general manager Pat Riley saw the negative effect a big man would have on the Heat, essentially clogging the lane and eliminating James and co-star Dwyane Wade’s path to the basket. Instead, by signing Allen and Lewis, the Heat have new faces that know how to get out of the way of a powerful figure like James or Wade. If last night’s 113-110 win over Houston proved anything, it’s that the star duo plans to use that space.
James would finish the game with 38 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while Wade provided a solid contribution of 19 points and 7 assists. The pair were slashing to the basket throughout the night, but nothing was more damaging than James’ versatility which saw him sink five three pointers and get to the line for eight free throws.
Chris Bosh is transitioning into playing center and doing it well, finishing with 24 points and 10 rebounds. But the most important thing for the Heat is that James is transitioning from being the league’s most dominant small forward to being the league’s most dominant everything, a power forward on one possession, a point guard on the next. On any given possession, James may be the primary ball handler, set a screen or post up with his back to the basket in true Karl Malone fashion.
Being the super athlete that James is, he can match up against anyone, one to five, and make the necessary plays on offense, but the lack of traditional front court power causes Miami problems on the defensive end when they face teams with prolific figures inside who have teammates on the perimeter who can shoot a good percentage. The two Heat losses this season have come against New York and Memphis, two teams capable of using powerful interior players to collapse the Miami defense and open up things for sharp shooters on the outside.
On any given night, James and Wade will match up against their opponents best players, but the lack of positional definition caused by James’ roaming from position to position leads to confusion at the same time. On Monday night, Miami struggled with their defensive shifts at times and left Houston’s Chandler Parson’s and Omer Asik with too much space to operate.
The game against the Rockets was telling in a lot of ways for just how much the champs struggled with a team that has a fledgling front court. Miami couldn’t rely on James and Bosh (one block between them) to guard the paint. Asik, an average center amongst the league’s big men, finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds while Parsons finished with a career high 25 points.
Houston’s starting front court of Parsons, Asik and Patrick Patterson are not exactly championship material, yet they were able to score a combined 61 points against the Heat rivaling James and Bosh who scored 62 between them.
Houston is an inexperienced team and were unable to cope with Miami’s ability to sink big shots and get to the free throw line in the dying minutes. Despite Miami shooting 65% from the line, they were able to get the key baskets down the stretch to muscle out a victory over the young Rockets, but was this performance indicative of how the Heat’s lack of size may hurt them?
In the end, it all comes down to LeBron James and his incredible ability to play anywhere on the floor. Before this season is out, he will have been relied upon to provide points, defense and ball movement from nearly every position on the court. No matter how Bosh and Wade fair in the process, if the Heat are going to win another title, it will come from the hard work of the MVP in the paint, beyond the arc and on the break.