MIAMI — Even with all of the incredible offensive numbers, defense was the driving force behind the Heat’s 13-game winning streak.
Miami ranked second in the NBA in defensive rating during the string of wins that spanned 25 days, allowing 100 points per 100 possessions. The Heat also featured the fifth-best field goal percentage defense during that time, holding opponents to 44.5 percent shooting.
But after back-to-back losses to two of the NBA’s worst teams — Philadelphia 76ers (21-34) on Saturday and Orlando Magic (21-36) on Monday — the Heat are searching for that elite defense that led them to so many wins over the past few weeks.The Heat (24-32) hope to find it in their final game before the All-Star break when they travel to take on the Rockets on Wednesday.
Miami allowed the 76ers to score 117 points on 45.3 percent shooting and the Magic to score 116 points on 48.9 percent shooting.
“That’s not how we win games,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “We can’t win games only on offense. We’re not talented enough. We need to grind, we need to play defense and we shouldn’t shy away from those things that we’re best at.”
One of the biggest differences in Miami’s defensive play has come from beyond the 3-point line.
The Heat played the best 3-point defense in the NBA over their winning streak, holding opponents to 30.4 percent shooting from long range. That allowed Miami to outscore teams 438-276 from three during the streak, which was an edge that helped the Heat compile those victories.
But 3-point percentage defense is considered one of the least sustainable skills in the sport because so much of it is based on how hot a team gets from deep.
And as expected, the Heat haven’t been able to sustain their excellent 3-point defense from the streak. Opponents are shooting 43.6 percent from three during Miami’s current two-game losing streak, which coach Erik Spoelstra blames on opponents finding an offensive rhythm due to the Heat’s poor defense.
“If we play more consistently to our identity, then those end up being the shots that they’re left with,” Spoelstra said of 3-pointers. “Those become now tougher shots if you’re not getting all the easy ones. You can’t take away everything in this league.”
The Heat can take away easy baskets, but they haven’t even done that as well as they’re capable of recently. Miami ranks right in the middle of the NBA at 15th, allowing opponents to shoot 59.7 percent from within five feet of the basket.
During the winning streak, the Heat ranked third with opponents shooting just 55.6 percent from within five feet of the basket.
“All those teams know we just had a 13-game winning streak, so everybody is going to show up to play,” Dragic said after Monday’s loss to Orlando. “It’s not going to be like they’re going to surrender. We just need to come together, play better defense and I think that’s the most important part. Today was too many open shots. They were in the flow offensively and we didn’t stop them enough.”
Even after putting together quality offensive play during the spurt of wins, the Heat still rank 24th in the NBA with an offensive rating of 102.9 this season. Miami knows how it needs to win games, and it’s not with an offense that’s proven to be unreliable.
The Heat are 5-15 when allowing more than 105 points this season.
“We have to get back to it,” Spoelstra said. “We’re a lunch pail, hard hat team. I tell the guys all the time, I wish there was another way we could win. But the formula for this group, we have to buy into that and get into the trenches and get our hands dirty and get to work. We didn’t put forth that kind of effort tonight.”