Why are the Heat in so many close games? Elite defense

Miami Heat’s James Johnson, right, knocks the ball loose from Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

PHILADELPHIA — Quality defense won’t win you every game, but it will keep you in most of them.

That’s what the Heat have learned, with their defense keeping most games within reach this season. It’s one of the biggest reasons Miami has played in a league-high 34 clutch games, which is defined by the NBA as a game that has a margin of five points or fewer inside the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, and has recorded a league-high 22 clutch wins.

Offense certainly isn’t the thing keeping the Heat in games, as they are ranked 26th out of 30 teams in offensive rating. It’s the Heat’s, usually, elite defense that has posted the league’s sixth-best defensive rating this season that has been the catalyst.

“That’s what we’ve been talking about, so we’re going to stay with that road map right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the Heat’s knack for keeping games close with defense. “Because we’re putting together an identity that our guys really are starting to find some purpose with. And it gives you a chance to win games at the end.”

The Heat’s next challenge comes Friday against the 76ers in Philadelphia. The 76ers are 24-24 and have lost three straight, but are just 3.5 games behind Miami in the Eastern Conference standings.

Miami’s defense has been the best in the NBA over the past few weeks. In a six-game span since Jan. 20, Miami has recorded the league’s top defensive rating (allowing 96.3 points per 100 possessions).

This is even better defense than the Heat played during their 30-11 run over the second half of last season. Miami ranked third in the league in defensive rating during that 41-game stretch, allowing 103.3 points per 100 possessions.

“Our defense is trending in the right way,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said after the Heat limited the Cavaliers to 91 points on 35 percent shooting on Wednesday. “This is 12 times we hold opponents under 40 percent from the field. We want to play like that. This is in our wheelhouse. We want to grind those games.”

A strong defensive performance in Cleveland wasn’t enough, as the Heat’s offensive struggles were too much to overcome. Miami shot 3-of-28 from 3-point range and made just 14-of-25 free throws while committing 20 turnovers in a 91-89 loss to the Cavaliers.

But it was enough to keep them in the game, and that’s all the Heat can ask for when they aren’t making shots.

“I mean that’s why we really wanted to get this game,” Spoelstra said. “This would have been such a great game to win when you play horribly offensively. Whatever it was, 3 for 28, that’s not going to happen every night. But then you still have a chance to win. Again, we’re starting to build some competitive character, to be there at the end, shooting what we did from the 3-point line, the free-throw line and then the turnovers on top of that. These are those really gratifying wins if you can find a way.”

What are the Heat doing well on defense? Rim protection and hustling.

Miami is limiting opponents to 58.4 percent shooting within six feet of the basket, which is fourth-best in the league in this category. The Heat are also averaging the fifth-most loose balls recovered at 8.5 per game and are contesting the fifth-most shots in the league at 63.8 per game despite defending the sixth-fewest shots because of their slow pace.

Oh, and Josh Richardson. The Heat’s starting small forward has been one of the league’s top defenders.

Among the 190 players defending eight or more shots per game this season, Richardson is statistically the top one. Richardson is limiting the player he’s guarding to a league-best 38.0 percent shooting, which is 6.7 percent worse than their normal shooting percentage.

All of that has been enough for the Heat to build a 29-22 record through 51 games despite having a below average offense. Defense is the key to Miami’s success, and it always has been.

“I think that speaks levels on our defense and where we’re trending right now defensively,” James Johnson said after the Heat’s loss to the Cavaliers. “We’re going to have nights like this offensively. But as long as our defense stays intact regardless whether we’re making shots or missing shots, we’re going to be fine. We held them to a good percentage. We kept them under 100, it was definitely our wheelhouse. You can’t win them all, even if they are in your wheelhouse.”

But you can keep them all within reach and try to win a close game down the stretch, and that’s been an effective formula for the Heat so far.

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