Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Miami Heat’s loss to Rockets shows tweaked offense still work in progress

Houston Rockets’ James Harden (13) gets tangled up with Miami Heat’s Amar’e Stoudemire (5) during the second half Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, in Houston. The Rockets won 115-102.
Houston Rockets’ James Harden (13) gets tangled up with Miami Heat’s Amar’e Stoudemire (5) during the second half Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, in Houston. The Rockets won 115-102. AP

There were smiles at Tuesday’s morning shootaround, smiles about tweaks to the offensive system that — since they were implemented at a practice nine days earlier in Chicago — had seemed to switch the Heat into a higher, faster, better gear.

Getting into sets quicker. Sliding two players from the wings to the deep corners to stretch the halfcourt, and, if Luol Deng or Justise Winslow, be activated as baseline cutters. Sticking someone, such as Dwyane Wade, in the slot, with defenders too fearful of leaving him to blitz the pick-and-roll, allowing Goran Dragic and either Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh to execute that with precision.

Yet, while the players were eager to endorse Erik Spoelstra’s adjustments, the coach preferred not to elaborate, partly because he’s not prone to touting tactics and partly because, as he noted, “It’s just a four-game winning streak.”

Spoelstra knows all progress with this particular team is tenuous, and that was evident again in the evening’s deflating 115-102 loss to the undermanned but undeterred Rockets, a loss that showed how Miami needs to balance its new approach with its old defensive principles.

Miami’s new system looked mostly splendid early, with the Heat making 16 of its first 24 shots, as Dragic probed the lane, Winslow slipped to the rim, and Stoudemire finished inside. But during that time, the Heat had as many turnovers (eight) as missed shots, as the Rockets’ smaller players — playing without Dwight Howard or Clint Capela — disrupted the passing and driving lanes.

And when the Heat finally started missing shots, the turnovers didn’t stop. That led to Rockets leakouts, which against a Heat defense that was already leakier than usual — both in terms of awareness and effort — and led to a loss.

Sure, Miami topped 100 points again, for the fourth straight game.

But the Rockets’ total was the most Miami has allowed all season.

“They sped us up with some of their small lineups,” Wade said.

So, sure, some will point to the absence of Hassan Whiteside, especially as the Rockets made repeated rim runs. But it’s unclear how much that would have mattered, considering how small Houston played so small, and even the lighter-footed Bosh struggled at times to get out to fill-in center Josh Smith — and sometimes fell for the pump fake when he did.

“We know we’re much better than we played tonight,” said Bosh, who was 3 of 11.

They’ll get a chance to prove it Wednesday in Dallas, on the second night of a back-to-back. There, they may face more conventional lineups, but they’ll still need to take some lessons from what happened here.

“Just because you speed up the pace doesn’t mean you have to take quick shots,” Bosh said. “You still want to work teams on the offensive end. You still want to move the ball and get the best available shot. Sometimes they bait you into those first open looks. We want to go from good to great. And that’s the first time we’ve seen something like that.”

Something else was new for Bosh. He said he’d never been double- or triple-teamed as much as he was Tuesday, which happened everywhere from the post to the perimeter, where they were intent to blow up his pick-and-pops.

“I told [Rockets coach J.B.] Bickerstaff, ‘Oh yeah, you made me feel special, man,’” Bosh said. “It made me feel like a first date or something like that. It was crazy. I think I made the right plays. I trusted my teammates, we just didn’t capitalize.”

Miami made just 6 of 17 from deep.

Houston made 16 of 35.

That included four three-pointers from Marcus Thornton, who has torched the Heat twice after Miami chose not to sign him this offseason. That included three from James Harden, who had 14 assists to go with 26 points, constantly beating his man off the dribble, forcing help that was often late.

“We still want to play with pace,” Bosh said. “We still want to get the ball up the court. But we still have to play our style.”

When they truly find that style, there will be more smiles.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

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