For three quarters Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, the blueprint for how Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wants his team to play was a marvel to watch.
The Detroit Pistons just couldn’t keep up.
Transitioning to offense from defense not in seconds but in the fraction of a second, this is the game Spoelstra has designed for his “position-less” basketball team, and it manifested itself in the Heat’s first home game of the preseason with stunning force. Miami led by 35 points after three quarters and, according to Synergy Sports and ESPN.com, finished the game with 29 points in transition.
The Heat averaged 14.6 points in transition last season.
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On Friday, the Heat returned to the practice court in preparation for Saturday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs. As Spoelstra put it, training the collective “synapse” of his team to react in the blink of an eye will be an ongoing theme for the remainder of camp and the regular season.
“The first part is the sprint — that’s the hardest part, to build a habit of changing the synapse,” Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers. “If it’s a change of possession, go.”
For the neuroscientists reading the sports page, this will be a review. For the rest of us, according to the dictionary, synapse is “a region where nerve impulses are transmitted and received, encompassing the axon terminal of a neuron that releases neurotransmitters in response to an impulse.”
In other words, it’s something that happens really stinking fast.
But wanting to run wide open all the time and actually putting in the work to do it night in and night out are two completely different things. To that end, Spoelstra said his team has “done more running in this training camp than any of the other training camps.”
“And our guys know there’s a reason behind it,” he said. “We’re trying to build that habit.”
It’s not going to be easy. Just look at last season. The Heat raced out to a 27-7 record but then let off the gas during the second half of the season.
The lockout-shortened season wasn’t conducive to flying up and down the court every night, but Dwyane Wade said on Thursday that it will not be much easier this season.
“I would love for us to keep it up all year, but as you see from last year, we came out and we were moving, but it kind of toned down a little bit,” Wade said. “We’re still going to put an emphasis on it the whole year, but it will be different in Game 60 than it is in Game 1.”
But the benefits are obvious enough. A transition game suits the Heat’s versatile lineup and creates problems for opponents with more traditional lineups. For example, the Lakers. But let’s not look ahead. Although the fast-paced game Spoelstra has envisioned for this team requires plenty of sprinting, one of the major returns of the frenetic style is reducing half-court possessions for opponents.
“Obviously, we have enough talent to play a half-court game, and that can be efficient for us, but that puts more stress on our defense when you just play a half-court game,” Wade said. “So, if we can get out in the open court a little more and get more opportunities without having to grind, grind, grind every play, that gives us more opportunities to score and takes more pressure off us on the other end of the floor.”
For now, the only drawback to Spoelstra’s emphasis on running is the limited time the team has spent on specific offensive sets. Newcomers Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are still getting used to the transition game. On Thursday, Allen was 3 of 11 from the field and 1 of 5 from three-point range. Lewis is shooting below 40 percent for the preseason.
“We’ll figure it out,” Spoelstra said. “I’m not overly concerned about it right now. … I haven’t put in a specific play call for LeBron [James], Dwyane or Chris [Bosh]. I’m not going to put one in for Ray right now. We will. We’ll get to that. But it’s more important that we build this habit in October of the speed, pace and space that we need to play at.”
Mario Chalmers (quadriceps) and Joel Anthony (hamstring) are not expected to play Saturday. Neither player has played in the preseason. Udonis Haslem (quadriceps), who also hasn’t played, is further along in his recovery from injury but also is doubtful.