Why The Miami Heat Are Hot

The Miami Heat are on a roll, with yesterday’s nationally televised win over the Orlando Magic moving them to the top of the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Chicago Bulls. Both powers have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, and the Heat are up five games in the Southeast Division over contending teams in Orlando and Atlanta. Today TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at the Heat and their strong play of late.

I trust no one needs any introduction to Miami’s Big Three, but we’ll run down their season stat lines as a beginning. LeBron James is averaging 27 points/8 rebounds/7 assists per game. He’s shooting 55 percent from the floor and is respectable from behind the arc at 39 percent. Dwayne Wade has played fewer games because of an ankle injury, but he’s healthy now and has a 22/4/4 line. Chris Bosh, the 6’11” forward who fills out the threesome is averaging an 18/8 each night.

The supporting cast has been less than stellar, as our closer review of the hot streak will show. Mario Chalmers can hit the three-ball, shooting 46 percent, but at 11 ppg, he doesn’t give a lot in the way of a fourth scorer. Udonis Haslem averages eight rebounds a game, something that’s an even bigger concern. You can make a reasonable case that it’s not good for the Heat if Chalmers gets more chances to score. The same can’t be said for the rebounding and a double-digit board man would be exactly what this team needs to complete a championship run. Haslem hasn’t answered the bell. The only other players getting significant minutes are forward Shane Battier and guard Norris Cole, neither of whom distinguishes themselves.

On January 22, the Heat lost a home game to the Milwaukee Bucks and their record stood at 11-5. Since then Miami has gone 14-2. Let’s take a walk through this 16-game stretch.

It started at home against Cleveland, with Wade still out with the bad ankle. Bosh had a 35/7 night to lead the way to a 92-85 win, but the team gave up 50 percent shooting from the floor to a mediocre lineup. The same was the case the next night in Detroit, although you could at least blame travel fatigue for the defensive softness. LeBron scored 32 and the Heat eked out a 101—98 win. The still Lin-less New York Knicks were in Miami two nights later, as Wade returned. He dropped 28 and LeBron hung a 31/8/7 stat line on the board in a ten-point win. The defense inside the arc was better, but the Knicks fired away from treyland, attempting 43 three-pointers and hitting 42 percent. At the outset of this streak, if I’m a Heat fan, I’m concerned about the perimeter defense.

The next game was Sunday, January 29 and it was Chicago in town for a ABC showdown. LeBron and Derrick Rose went toe-to-toe, and the Heat ended up winning 97-93 thanks to a 30-20 scoring advantage at the foul line. A nice win, although nothing to suggest that it was anything more than homecourt advantage at work. One night later the perimeter defense was again slack against a bad team in New Orleans, who shot 53 percent, but LeBron bailed them out with a 22/11/8 game and the Heat hit the glass hard.

Milwaukee continued to be a thorn in the side as Wade returned to the town he starred in during college at Marquette and scored 23. LeBron dropped 40, but the team lost 105-97. They came back with an impressive win at Philly 99-79, playing good team defense. One caveat to this win—the fact both Dallas and the LA Clippers have both gone into Philly in the past week or so and won does make all of the wins against the Sixers seem less impressive by comparison. How impressive can it be if everyone’s doing it? But that moves this topic more into Philadelphia and away from Miami.

A home game with lowly Toronto was next and the Raptors were able to hit 43% from behind the arc, while LeBron scored 30 and Wade had 25 to lead the way. The two stars led the Heat past Cleveland 107-91 on February 7. One night later the team played poorly in Orlando, losing by 13 and being beaten to the glass, a game suggesting that perhaps fatigue set in. We have to excuse this during any NBA season, but especially this one where the schedule runs at such an intense pace.

A five-game road swing followed and Miami’s defense made a big step forward. After an expected blowout of Washington, the Heat nailed a good Atlanta team by twenty points and held the Hawks to 39 percent from the floor. The ability of Atlanta to get three-point shots—27 of them—and make them, to the tune of 40 percent was still a concern, but let’s not downgrade a quality win like this. The Heat pulled that Bucks’ thorn out of their side by dominating the glass in an easy win at Milwaukee. Then Miami played outstanding perimeter defense in beating Indiana and Cleveland, limiting the three-point attempts and riding the Big Three to decisive wins. Miami capped it off yesterday with the win over Orlando, with Wade and LeBron leading the way.

Did anything stand out for you during that streak? For me, the biggest thing was that Miami’s dependence on its stars is every bit as extreme as would come off in the media portrayals of this team. Normally when you dig into a media-hyped lineup, you find at least one under-the-radar contributor. Nothing for Miami. Nobody outside the Big Three ever had a 20-point game. That’s a high bar, but is it unreasonable to think just once in sixteen games somebody might have stepped up? LeBron, Wade and Bosh are playing a lot of minutes and one wonders if they might have to tone it down, even if it means settling for the two-seed in the East.

I also alluded to the perimeter defense. I don’t want to make too big a deal out of this, because the season-long numbers for Miami look good. While they’re middle of the pack in points allowed, when you use the efficiency rating to adjust for tempo, they have the fifth-best defense in the NBA. Rebounding is similarly strong. So I’m not ready to suggest right now that defense will stop this team from a title. But when you see the ease with which opponents are seemingly able to get a lot of three-point shots and hit at least 40 percent of them—and then consider that’s the kind of team Dallas was in last year’s Finals—and it’s at least something for us to keep an eye on going forward.

In the MVP race, LeBron has emerged as a prohibitive favorite, with his betting odds currently at 10-13, making him the only player on the board at less than even money (Kobe is second at 5-2). I haven’t done the comparisons with every other player, but a review of Miami’s season suggests LeBron would be a worthy MVP. Maybe too worthy if you want to see him get a ring.