Miami Heat

Dazzling February sets up Miami Heat for stretch run to playoffs

A not-so-subtle trend has emerged recently for the Heat. The two-time defending champions are destroying every team they play.

The Heat finished off its best month of the season Thursday night with a 26-point rout of the New York Knicks. Highlighted by a refocused effort from LeBron James, the resurgent abilities of Dwyane Wade and an all-around effort from Chris Bosh, the Heat (41-14) went 9-1 in February and, most recently, demonstrated to the rest of the NBA why it’s still the undisputed king of the league.

“I love this GAME,” tweeted Heat owner Micky Arison in the waning moments of his team’s victory against the Knicks.

Considering the history between the franchises, Arison’s devotional message to his sport of choice was delivered with a touch of sass, but, after the Heat’s run through February, Arison certainly has earned the right to gloat.

First, the Heat ventured west for a difficult 17-day trip that spanned the All-Star break, and the team went 5-1. The lone blemish was a nonchalant effort against the Utah Jazz, but other than that loss, the Heat defeated five Western Conference playoff teams. The final victory of the trip was one of the season’s crown jewels. In a possible preview of the NBA Finals, the Heat torched the Oklahoma City Thunder 103-81.

The Heat returned home and defeated the Chicago Bulls and Knicks by a combined 40 points. The three consecutive nationally televised blowouts gave clear notice: The road to NBA glory still goes through Miami. As for aesthetics, the wins against the Thunder, Bulls and Knicks couldn’t have been more revealingly beautiful. The Heat’s defense is back and maybe better than ever.

“As we get closer and closer to the end of the season, of course games mean a little bit more, and we’re trying to work on our craft and make sure we’re playing our best basketball when it’s time,” Bosh said.

Beginning with the win over the Thunder, Heat opponents are averaging 80.7 points per game while shooting 37 percent from the field and 18.8 percent from three-point range. In the second half of Thursday’s victory, the Knicks made just 12 of 37 field-goal attempts.

Then there was the offense, which hums along in lockstep with the Heat’s defense when the team is playing at its best. Led by James and Wade, the Heat scored 66 points in the paint and shot 61.8 percent in the second half on Thursday.

“The second half was very professional, very active and very much to our identity,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Offensively, we were aggressive and weren’t letting them off the hook. We were trying to get to the rim, trying to get to the paint and put pressure on their defense. We didn’t let them have some life either way — by taking bad shots or settling for jump shots, or by not defending the way we’re capable of.”

Over the past three seasons, the Heat has targeted the fourth month of the season as strategically important. Since this core group’s first championship season, the Heat is 32-4 in February. This February, the team outscored its opponents by an average of 10 points — a huge margin by NBA standards — while scoring an average of 49.2 points in the paint and holding opponents to 42.6 percent shooting.

Through 55 games, the Heat has an identical win-loss record to last season’s squad, and while many of the major themes from last season have carried over, there are some offensive changes worth noting — slight nuances in statistical trends but important derivatives all the same.

In short, the Heat has devalued the three-point shot. Almost across the board, the three-point percentages for the Heat’s sharpshooters are down compared with this point last season. Overall, the Heat is shooting 36.9 percent from three-point range after making 39.1 percent of those shots through 55 games last season. Shane Battier said there is a specific reason for that.

“For me, it doesn’t seem like we get the same type of three as we did last year, but I think that’s because our offense has kind of mutated,” Battier said. “We’re really, really focused inside, and we’re getting unbelievable shots in the paint, so our shots in the paint are up and the shots we get off those paint attacks are different for a three-point shooter.”

With less time to square his body to the basket, Battier is shooting 35.2 percent from three-point range compared to 42.1 percent at this time last season. Ray Allen’s numbers have also plummeted, from 42.7 percent to 35.4.

“Last year, we seemed to get a lot more swing-swing passes, and those are the easiest for a shooter to shoot because you see the shot coming, you see the rotations, and you get your feet set — versus a drive for the paint and then there’s a spray pass and then you’re on the move and adjusting to the driver,” Battier said. “Those are tougher than the swing-swing passes, and we’ve just had more spray passes this year. And I think that’s a great thing because we’re getting more paint points, but that’s a byproduct of changing the offense.”

Heat didn’t target Butler, Granger

For reasons that should be obvious to anyone paying attention to this season, the team with the best and most efficient offense in the NBA — the two-time defending champion Heat — decided not to seriously pursue aging free agents Caron Butler and Danny Granger.

Butler, who was bought out by the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday. Granger, who couldn’t keep his spot with the Indiana Pacers and was instead traded to the 76ers for a below-average shooter in Evan Turner, signed with the Los Angles Clippers after being bought out by Philadelphia.

For now, the Heat appears content with new additions Toney Douglas and DeAndre Liggins, younger guards valued for their defense and energy during practices in the final months of the regular season.

Why pass on Butler and Granger? The Heat already has a glut of three-point shooters at its disposal who can’t even crack the rotation. James Jones, who has only played in 12 games this season, is shooting 55 percent from three-point range. Michael Beasley, who can only manage spot minutes on the Heat’s obscenely loaded team, is shooting 44.1 percent from three-point range.