NBA Commentary: Is Miami Unstoppable?

I’ve avoided devoting much of this site’s NBA commentary to the Miami Heat. I’m assuming we’ll have plenty of time in the playoffs to go over them, and similar to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Heat get more than their share of attention in the mainstream media. Although, unlike Los Angeles, at least Miami gets their media love for all the right reasons. TheSportsNotebook gave in on the Lakers earlier this week, and today we’ll do the same for the Heat. We’ll look at why they’re having such a great year and if there are any weak points that could derail a run at a second straight title.

All discussion of Miami obviously begins with LeBron James, and he’s managed to exceed his play from last year. LeBron’s held his scoring average at 27 ppg, while making slight improvements in both rebounding and assists. His ability to not only score, but also finding the open man, are the reason the Heat are the best in the league in offensive efficiency.

Three-point shooting is a big part of Miami’s game, and it’s here that the contrast between them and their star-laden counterparts LA Lakers couldn’t be dramatic. In the review of the Lakers, I panned the insistence of their less-efficient long-range bombers—including Kobe Bryant—on continuing to gun away, rather than let this portion of the offense be handled by the specialists with good percentages (40 percent or higher). When you look at Miami, you see Dwayne Wade, not a good three-point shooter, simply forgoing this aspect of the offense and doing his work inside the arc. LeBron takes a modest 3.5 trey attempts per game and hits 40 percent. The bulk of the long-range shooting is done by Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmes, all with well-earned reputations for their accuracy and they’ve all lived up to it this season. In short, Miami functions like a true team, where the stars allow the role players to do what they do best.

Chris Bosh is having a solid year, with 17 points/7 rebounds per game average, as he’s shifted to center, with Miami becoming a more perimeter-oriented team. It’s here that the Heat face their weakness. The inability of Udonis Haslem or Joel Anthony to provide consistency in the post forced Bosh to become the team’s only true post player. I applaud head coach Erik Spoelstra—it’s better to have good perimeter personnel on the floor, even in excess, than try to force a pure lineup with players who aren’t getting the job done. But there’s no getting around the fact it does leave Miami vulnerable to teams with quality inside games—notably New York and San Antonio, and potentially Oklahoma City.

The lack of an inside game is a big reason why Miami outscores its opponents by an average of just a point per game at the foul line, in spite of having the league’s biggest star, who’s going to get the benefit of officials’ calls. If a good opponent can get to the line consistently, and the Heat have trouble knocking down their treys, there will be trouble.

Miami is 7th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, not as good as they were in last year’s championship season. But we also have to note that they’ve been steadily climbing in this category, which would lend credence to the theory that they’ve paced themselves effort-wise, ensuring there’s enough gas in the tank for the playoffs. And in either case, they’re still playing good enough defense to win a championship.

In a league known for its chalkiness, is it really possible that the Heat could have a season where they enjoyed a 27-game winning streak and somehow not win the NBA championship? I suppose we could point to the 22-game win streak the Houston Rockets enjoyed in 2008 and note that they never came in sniffing distance of the Finals, much less the title. But that ’08 Rockets’ streak was more of a fluke out of nowhere. While Miami’s streak might have caught observers off guard, no one would suggest it was an anomaly. That’s why there’ s no point in denying that this team deserves its odds-on status to win a second straight championship. If you can get them at even money, do it now.