Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Miami Heat excelling with defense

Justise Winslow of the Miami Heat guards Jeremy Lin of the Charlotte Hornets in the first quarter during the opening season game Miami Heat vs Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, October 28, 2015. at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Justise Winslow of the Miami Heat guards Jeremy Lin of the Charlotte Hornets in the first quarter during the opening season game Miami Heat vs Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, October 28, 2015. at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Sometimes, coaches compliment an opponent merely to avoid controversy — get in some generic praise, get to the next question. And sometimes, coaches volunteer a more specific statistic or observation that suggests they really do admire the other side.

Such was the case Thursday morning, following the Jazz’s shootaround in Miami. Quin Snyder, orchestrator of a defensive revival in Utah, dropped this line about the Heat: “They’re one of the best defensive teams in the league, if not the best.”

Then, that night — during a 92-91 Heat win — Snyder received unwelcome validation for his viewpoint. The Heat had 11 blocks, setting a franchise record with at least five each of the first nine games for the first time, and held the Jazz to 38.2 percent shooting, the fourth time Miami has held an opponent below 40 percent, with none shooting better than 45.3.

In doing so, the Heat made Snyder’s statement a self-fulfilling prophecy. Miami surged to first in defensive rating, ahead of the Spurs, Warriors and Jazz, allowing just 93.5 points per 100 possessions, according to the NBA’s official stats site. That, incidentally, would be better than any Heat team in history, better than rugged squads anchored by Alonzo Mourning, better than ultra-athletic outfits featuring prime LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, much better than the championship team backstopped by Shaquille O’Neal.

And here’s the thing: Miami wasn’t supposed to be stifling.

Not so soon. Not in light of the age of the starting wings. Not with Goran Dragic’s limitations on that end. Not with Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green expected to be rotation staples. Not with a reliance on one or two rookies to immediately act like seasoned stalwarts.

So, is coach Erik Spoelstra surprised it has come together so quickly?

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s what’s required, that’s what I do know. It’s absolutely required. If we want to accomplish what we want to accomplish. There’s a lot of veteran, talented proven teams. You have to be able to defend. It’s still early, but we’re building habits, there’s no question.”

It’s not just that the Heat is holding opponents to 40.9 percent from the field, best in the NBA, 3.7 percentage points below opponents’ overall percentages, also best. It’s the way the numbers break down. Miami has been especially resistant in the two regions that matter most: behind the arc and near the rim.

The Heat has corrected a recurring recent problem by rising to second in the NBA in three-point field-goal percentage against (29.3), holding teams 5.3 percentage points below their overall behind-the-arc accuracy.

Near the rim? Miami is fifth in the league in field-goal percentage within six feet, a testament to the presence of Hassan Whiteside and a more physical Chris Bosh, whether they’re working in tandem or separately. Opponents are shooting 4.9 percentage points worse than their overall percentage when guarded by Whiteside, who leads the league in blocks, and 1.3 percentage points worse when guarded by Bosh. Nor has it hurt that each has cleaned the glass, preventing easy second shots. They rank third and fifth in the NBA in defensive rebounds per game, at 8.9 and 8.4, respectively; according to SportVU, Whiteside is grabbing a higher rate of the “available” rebounds than Andre Drummond, and Chris Bosh grabbing a higher rate than Kevin Love.

The perimeter work has been better than expected, too, in part because Justise Winslow is better than any rookie has a right to be. Opponents are shooting just 39.9 percent overall — and 27.3 from three-point range — with Winslow on the floor. Players guarded by him are shooting just 20 percent from deep.

So what’s happening? Partly, it’s personnel and, although the recently traded Mario Chalmers was defending well, the Heat likely won’t dip much, if any, with Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson getting more minutes. Partly, it’s a credit to Spoelstra’s rotations and strategy adjustments.

Toward the end of the Big 3 era, and extending into last season, Miami’s blitzing tendencies began to backfire, as the Heat was left scrambling out to shooters, particularly when opponents “short-rolled” to create an extra pass. Plus, as Luol Deng noted, with the injuries and turnover, “it was hard to stay consistent.” Deng added that, “with the great defensive teams I’ve played on,” the system has always fit personnel. And we did a lot this year, in order to fit, knowing that Hassan is back there,” Deng said.

He said the Heat is not “showing” aggressively as much, unless smaller players (like Deng or Winslow or Josh McRoberts) are serving as the pick-and-roll big.

“Those kind of things really help our personnel,” Deng said.

Plus, Spoelstra using more personnel has kept players fresher late. Miami has gotten stingier as games have progressed, holding opponents to 37.7 percent second-half shooting. If the Heat becomes stingier as the season progresses, no compliment will seem too crazy.