The Miami Heat beat the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the 2011 NBA Finals by suffocating Dirk Nowitzki and friends. It's what the Heat have done all postseason long.
Understandably, when the Miami Heat's troika of perennial All-Stars -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- came together in July 2010, the focus was on offense. Projecting what James and Wade could do together became a sport of its own. Would they revolutionize the fast break as we know it? Adding Bosh, would they have four unbeatable pick-and-roll combinations? Would they average 120 a game?
Precious little attention was paid to the team's wondrous defensive potential, maybe because we just don't think about defense much during free agency, maybe because, despite their gifts on both sides of the ball, we think of these stars primarily as weapons on offense. Upon joining forces, the trio had 17 All-Star berths in 21 player-seasons between them, but just five All Defense berths.
But those who believed in Erik Spoelstra's ability to put together a great team defense -- he'd done wonders with the Wade-Udonis Haslem-Jermaine O'Neal bunch last season -- and the abilities of James and Wade to change a game on that end understood that the story of the Miami Heat would be built in part on the defensive side of the ball. After all, Pat Riley runs this team and groomed Spo, right? Riley may have coached an offensive juggernaut in Los Angeles, but since he took over team-building duties, it's been all defense, all the time.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that Miami's race to the NBA Finals, where the Heat took a 1-0 lead over the Dallas Mavericks with a 92-84 Game 1 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday, has been predicated on tough, suffocating defense. Through three rounds and one game in these NBA Playoffs, Miami has held its opponent below league-average offensive efficiency in 13 of its 16 games. Take a look.
Think about that: in 16 games, the Heat's opponent has only hit league average efficiency or better three times. Miami has held its opponents to less than one point per possession -- a gold standard for only the very, very best defenses -- seven times, including Game 1 of the Finals. In these playoffs, Miami has been more than twice as likely to keep its opponent at less than one point per possession than it has been to allow the opponent to score a league-average rates. It's nothing short of stunning.
It's been accentuated at home at the AAA: Miami has a defensive efficiency of 0.97 at home, versus 1.02 on the road. The road defense is excellent, the home defense is unfair. The Heat are now 9-0 at home in the postseason, and defense is the primary reason why. The Mavericks are a better offensive team than any of the Heat's previous combatants, but they couldn't crack the shell either. There's a whole lot of basketball left, and betting against Dirk Nowitzki as a scorer over the long haul is a fool's errand.
But if Miami keeps this defense, it won't matter that they have LeBron The Facilitator and Wade The Scorer and Bosh The Post Presence. Like the Celtics in 2008, the Pistons in 2004 and the Spurs in Two Thousand Always, the Heat are winning on defense. Who'd have guessed that when LeBron made his Decision?