Barry Jackson

Next three Heat opponents are top-10 in points. Heat defense better improve.

Miami Heat's head coach Erik Spoelstra, reacts in the second quarter of the Miami Heat vs New York Knicks, NBA game, at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Tues., Dec. 6, 2016.
Miami Heat's head coach Erik Spoelstra, reacts in the second quarter of the Miami Heat vs New York Knicks, NBA game, at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Tues., Dec. 6, 2016. pportal@miamiherald.com

Erik Spoelstra made his point very clearly Monday: The Heat’s defense must improve. And quickly.

And if Heat players needed that message reinforced, forward Udonis Haslem also chimed in, addressing teammates about how vital it is for Miami to restore its defensive identity.

Though the Heat went 2-1 in its past three games – wins against the Pelicans and T-Wolves and a loss to the Trail Blazers – the Heat relinquished 112, 105 and 115 points in those games and allowed those opponents, in order, to shoot 48 percent, 50 percent and 50 percent.

That’s well below the norm for a Heat team that allows 102.1 points per game – tied for fifth lowest in the league, or fifth-best from a defensive standpoint – and is tied for seventh-best in the league in opponent field goal percentage against (44.9).

“For three games our defense has slipped,” Spoelstra said a day after Portland’s Damian Lillard torched the Heat for 49 points in a 115-104 Blazers win. “Our offensive numbers have been terrific, and that’s skewed us a little bit in terms of remembering what our identity is. For three straight games, we’ve been giving up big numbers. We were able to just outscore teams in the two previous games and we couldn’t last night and we paid the price for it.”

How focused was Spoelstra on defense on Monday?

Asked about the impact of missing Dion Waiters’ penetrations on offense, Spoelstra responded:

“It just makes me want to throw up. That’s where our mindset probably has been the last three games. We’re putting up great offensive numbers. Do we have to score now 116 points to be able to win? That’s ridiculous. We’ve given up 115, 112 and 105. We’re not going to win many games that way. That isn’t the identity that we’ve built…. It does hurt not having Dion with us. We still have enough to score points. I just want to stop focusing on that, whether we can outscore teams or not.”

Would this impact whether Spoelstra sticks with defensively-skilled Josh Richardson as his starting shooting guard on Tuesday against Phoenix?

I don’t think having one player in the starting lineup is going to impact our overall defense,” he said. “I think it doesn’t matter who I put in there. It has to be a collective commitment defensively. We have to be much, much better. We have showing that for a long time and finding some success being a top five defense. We dropped out of the top five and not so coincidentally, we dropped out of the playoffs.”

Miami stands ninth in the East entering Monday’s games, with the Heat set to host Phoenix on Tuesday.

As Hassan Whiteside said: “Scoring became so easy, and it kind of let us get away with less defense.”

And Haslem’s message to teammates?

“It’s easy when you’re a young team when you’re scoring at a high rate, and every shot you throw up is going in and you’re averaging 100 some points a game to kind of lose sight of what our identity is. We’ll take the scoring but the Miami Heat’s identity is always going to be our defense.

“Through the years, no matter what kind of talent we’ve had or how many points we’ve been able to score, we’ve all had a defensive scheme that’s been successful in this league. I just wanted the guys to understand that regardless of what our offense is doing, and no matter how bad the defense of the other team may be, we have our standards that we play at and focus on that and our identity needs to come every night.”

Fixing the defense is particularly critical because Miami’s next three opponents are in the top 10 in the league in scoring. Phoenix, which visits the Heat on Tuesday, is ninth in the league at 107.3 points per game.

Toronto, which visits the Heat on Thursday, is 10th at 106.9 points per game.

And Boston, which hosts the Heat on Sunday, is eighth at 107.4 points per game.

WHITESIDE HONOR

Whiteside was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 20 points, 13.7 rebounds, 2.67 blocks and shooting 73 percent from the field over three weeks.

Lillard was the Western Conference Player of the Week.

• Dion Waiters was on crutches and wearing a walking boot in his left foot on Monday and he remains out indefinitely with a sprained ankle.

Please click here for my post this morning on where the Heat stands in the playoff race and comparing schedules for five teams competing for three spots.

Please click here for my post on the Dolphins planning to host a quality linebacker on a visit.

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