MIAMI, February 9 â€“ The Miami HEAT of Tuesday’s 117-112 win did not resemble the team that had just run off six straight wins with its best offensive execution of the season. Isolation offense and high pick-and-rolls ruled the day, and with the HEAT failing to defend the interior for much of the night, the Indiana Pacers ran rampant.
115 points per 100 possessions for the Pacers, who had 66 at halftime with 42 of them coming in the paint. One of the fastest teams in the league, Indiana whipped the ball down court, off both misses and makes, before Miami could sets its defense, and though the HEAT survived on a 26-point half â€“ and five dunks â€“ from LeBron James, they were off their game.
The game continued as such, Miami’s offensive talent saving it from a team shooting 57 percent through three quarters, until the home team found itself down seven headed into the final period.
The fourth quarter, however, was a different story.
If there’s one trend that’s shown itself during the HEAT’s seven-game winning streak and offensive evolution, it’s that as uneven as their early-game defense can be, Miami always finds a way to tidy things up before the end â€“ hence their 4-0 record during the stretch in games decided by five points or less.
â€œWhen we find something that were not doing well enough we’ve proven so far this season we’ve been able to figure it out, be objective about it, and work together to fix it,â€ Erik Spoelstra said. â€œAnd now something we really needed to work on was our execution and discipline going down the stretch of close games, and you can see it the trust level was there.â€
Tuesday, Spoelstra fixed things by putting James (41 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists) on Indiana point guard Darren Collison. The HEAT had struggled keeping players in front of them prior to the move, but the switch seemingly took Indiana out of everything it had been doing well.
â€œWe could not keep the ball in front of us,â€ Spoelstra said. â€œThat opened up a world of pain for us in the first three quarters.â€
In the fourth, Collison scored just two points and had zero assists. The Pacers scored 15.
â€œI can use my length,â€ James said. â€œA lot of those guys are quicker than me, but I’m just as fast.â€
â€œTo hold them to 15 points is notable,â€ Spoelstra said. â€œBut it also shows up that we’re capable of doing more.â€
More on Tuesday was a slow and steady fourth-quarter comeback, with Erick Dampier manning heavy minutes in the middle â€“ including a putback dunk with 4:34 to play that gave Miami the lead â€“ and James hitting the shot of the game with 14.1 remaining, a pullup jumper from the elbow that put Miami up three.
And though the HEAT conceded a sideline-out-of-bounds alley-oop to Josh McRoberts the play after James’ jumper, nearly everything about the fourth-quarter execution was spot on. A far cry from what Spoelstra calls a pivotal game against the New York Knicks two weeks ago where the HEAT found themselves desperate for even a mediocre shot in the game’s final minutes.
â€œThese last three weeks have been good for us,â€ Spoelstra said. â€œWe’ve started to take another step in our maturity.
â€œOffensively we’re reaching another level. The level of execution and trust is significantly better than even in December.â€
Some of it, as both James and Dwyane Wade pointed out, is simple comfort with both teammates and late-game sets. Some of it is maintaining an energy level through frustrating sequences, correcting missteps on the fly. All of it together has proven that the HEAT now have more than just talent to rely on.
But there’s still the defense. And the key to that is simple.
â€œIf we want greatness, greatness is consistency. And we’re not there yet,â€ Spoelstra said.