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Going big is paying dividends for defense of Miami Heat

For the Heat, it’s time to go big.

In the 2012 NBA Finals, the Heat scrapped convention and went small, moving Chris Bosh to center and Shane Battier to power forward. It worked and set in motion the blueprint for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s vision of “position-less basketball.”

But what works in the playoffs, isn’t necessarily a long-term answer for an 82-game season. The Heat learned that the hard way over the first 20 games of the season. Although the Heat’s offense thrived — Miami led the league in points per game to begin the season — its defense suffered.

A change was needed, and a change was made.

Spoelstra inserted Udonis Haslem into the starting lineup, resurrected Joel Anthony and gave Norris Cole, a pesky perimeter defender, more minutes. Since the Heat’s blowout loss to the Knicks — Haslem’s first game as a starter — the Heat is 5-2.

Thursday in Dallas, the Heat’s defense turned in arguably its best performance of the season. Entering the third quarter, the Heat led the Mavericks 91-61.

“Early in the season, we kind of got behind the eight ball because we were doing what worked for us in the Finals and late in the playoffs, but I think this is right what we need now — bigger lineup, as conventional as we can go,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.

Ranked fourth in points per game (103.44), first in field-goal percentage (.497) and first in three-point shooting (.409), the Heat’s offense is still a dominant force, but the team’s defense has improved dramatically. Miami has held its past six opponents under 100 points.

In those games, opponents of the Heat averaged .422 shooting (206 of 488) from the field. To put that into perspective, only two teams in the league Cleveland (.416) and Washington (.407) have season averages under .422 shooting.

And although the Heat’s “big” lineup might still be considered small compared with other teams, the Heat has made up for it with disruptive defense. In its past six games, Miami has forced an average of 18.1 turnovers per game while giving it away an average of 13.3 times.

In its past three games (blowout victories against Washington, Minnesota and Dallas), the Heat has forced at least 20 turnovers. Minnesota outrebounded the Heat by 28, but the Heat made the most of its possessions (only nine turnovers) while forcing 12 steals and blocking 14 shots.

“We’re a veteran ballclub, and we understood that we could not continue to play defense like we did the first part of the season — the first 15, 17, 20 games,” said LeBron James, who had four blocks against Minnesota. “We have to continue to stranglehold guys and get guys out of their sets. If they’re going to make a shot, then it’s a contested shot, or make them work very hard for it.”

Other aspects of defense have improved as well. Dallas was 3 of 22 from three-point range against the Heat. It was a good sign, considering the Heat’s Achilles’ heel this season has been defending the three-point shot.

And it’s not a coincidence that Wade’s offensive game has improved amid a rededication to his defensive effort. In his past five games, Wade is shooting over 60 percent from the field. On Thursday, he helped shut down the Mavericks’ biggest scoring threat, O.J. Mayo. Mayo had four points entering the fourth quarter, when Wade took a seat on the bench with the Heat leading by 30 points.

“Our activity defensively gets us in the groove, and that’s been a key to our starts,” Wade said. “And offensively, we’re back to moving the ball and sharing the ball and guys are taking their shots and we’re spreading it around pretty well.”

Saturday’s home game offers another test against one of the better rebounding teams in the NBA. The Utah Jazz is ranked seventh in the league in rebounding (43.67) and features a frontcourt of 6-10 center Al Jefferson (10.2 rebounds per game) and 6-9 power forward Paul Millsap (8.2 rebounds per game).

“We’ve got a very good team in Utah coming into our building on Saturday, and we’ve got to come out with that same aggression,” James said. “They’re very big, and they share the ball extremely well, so we’ve got to come out in tune.”

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