Are injuries to blame for Miami Heat’s recent defensive struggles? Erik Spoelstra won’t use that excuse

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving, center, drives past Miami Heat's Rodney McGruder, left, and Tyler Johnson in the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving, center, drives past Miami Heat’s Rodney McGruder, left, and Tyler Johnson in the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

CHICAGO – Even though wins were hard to come by early in the season, Miami’s defense kept games close.

But as the injuries have mounted, the Heat’s reliable defense has gone missing.

Through the first 11 games of the season, Miami ranked third in defensive rating with 97.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. The Heat (7-17) also featured the second-best field-goal percentage defense in the NBA, holding opponents to 41.6 percent shooting during that stretch.

Despite a 3-8 record, the Heat were being outscored by just 0.7 points per game over the first 11 games of the season.

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That seems like a long time ago.

In the 13 games after that strong stretch, the Heat rank 25th in defensive rating with 109.9 points allowed per 100 possessions and have the seventh-worst field-goal percentage defense in the NBA at 47.1 percent while posting a 4-9 record.

The defensive struggles have resulted in less close games, as Miami has been outscored by 6.2 points per contest during this 13-game stretch.

“Just not a lot of guys,” Udonis Haslem said of why Miami’s defense has slipped. “Guys get tired. Guys are banged up and you start to have slippage. I think the health issue is the biggest concern right now. I think we still have our defensive principles and we’ve got guys out there playing their hearts out and giving everything they have. But you tend to have some slippage in those areas just because you don’t have a lot of bodies.”

Haslem has a point.

The Heat are currently missing three of their best defenders — Justise Winslow (sprained wrist), James Johnson (rotator cuff strain) and Dion Waiters (torn groin muscle) – due to injuries. Johnson is holding players he’s defending to a team-best 32.7 percent shooting this season, and Waiters ranks third on the team in that category at 37 percent.

Meanwhile, Winslow ranks second on the team behind just Whiteside in contested shots per game. The 20-year old averaged 9.7 contested shots per game when he was healthy this season, with Johnson third and Waiters fourth on that list.

But coach Erik Spoelstra isn’t going to give his team this excuse. Not even after 12 Heat players (including Chris Bosh) have combined to miss 100 games due to injuries over the first 24 games of the season.

“I won’t give the team that. They don’t want me to give them that either,” Spoelstra said when asked if injuries have hurt the Heat’s defense. “We’re moving guys in and out, but it’s really just being consistent to what we want to do. First 11 games of the season, we were top five in all the defensive categories across the board particularly where we should be – protecting the paint, protecting the rim, protecting anything easy.”

Miami was holding opponents to an NBA-best 50 percent shooting from within five feet of the basket over the first 11 games of the season with Hassan Whiteside protecting the rim. But the Heat’s rim protection has been mediocre since even with Whiteside still on the court, as Miami ranks 13th in that category over the past 13 games with opponents shooting 58.1 percent from within five feet of the basket.

“If you give them that crutch, what about our offense?,” Spoelstra said of using injuries as an excuse for the Heat’s defensive drop-off. “We have guys in and out, and now all of a sudden there’s been an uptick in our offense and we’ve been working at that to try to be a little bit more efficient. So maybe the focus has been a little too much on that, but we’re trying to build both sides of the ball obviously. Regardless of who’s in or out, we have to be able to defend.”

Considering the Heat’s offense still ranks 24th in the NBA in offensive rating with 100.2 points per 100 possession, the defense has to get back on track for Miami to start winning again.

“It is what it is,” point guard Goran Dragic said. “We don’t use excuses. We’re going to try to defend as much as we can and hopefully that’s going to be enough.”

It hasn’t been enough during Miami’s current five-game losing streak.

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