The Heat are the story of the 2010 NBA season. We haven’t seen three guys this good on the same team in their absolute prime years since the mid-1980s—if we even saw it then.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the Heat. What sort of pick-and-rolls will they run? Will Erik Spoelstra give crunch time minutes to what, on paper, appears to be Miami’s best line-up: James-Wade-Bosh-Haslem-Miller? Will the Heat accelerate the re-definition of positions in the NBA? What are their weaknesses? In what ways are they going to be even better than we expect?
And most of all: How can the Celtics go about beating them four times in seven games, if it comes to that?
There are a million ways to think about these questions. That’s what makes the Heat exciting—we don’t know yet what we are going to see.
One thought among the many that keep popping into my head: Will the C’s have a hard time forcing turnovers against Miami?
The C’s shot through the Eastern Conference playoffs in large part because they played insanely good defense—significantly better than the defense they played in the regular season, which was top-5 quality in its own right. Among the things that changed in May and June: The Celtics began forcing a ton of turnovers against teams that didn’t typically cough the ball up at a high rate.
• The Heat in the regular season averaged 13.2 turnovers per game and turned the ball over on 12.8 percent of their possessions. Both of those numbers were better than the league average.
In five playoff games against Boston, the Heat turned the ball over 17.8 times per game—the equivalent of a turnover on 17.3 percent of their possessions.*
• The Cavaliers in the regular season averaged 13.9 turnovers per game and turned the ball over on 13.4 percent of their possessions. Both of those stats are around the league average.
In six playoff games against Boston, the Cavs committed 16 turnovers per game—the equivalent of a turnover on 17.5 percent of their possessions.
• The Magic in the regular season committed 14.1 turnovers per game and turned the ball over 13.6 percent of their possessions. Both of those numbers were near the league average.
In six playoff games against Boston, the Magic turned the ball over 15.7 times per game—the equivalent on a turnover on 15.7 percent of their possessions.
* Turnover rates calculated using Basketball-Reference’s formula to estimate possessions.
The Celtics decimated these teams by forcing turnovers. Through three rounds, the C’s were forcing turnovers at a rate the league hadn’t seen in the playoffs since the late 1990s, when hand-checking was legal and turnover rates were higher across the board.
I was struck at the time by how Boston was forcing turnovers, particularly against the Heat and Cavs. If you watch the tape of those games, you’ll see Dwyane Wade and LeBron James committing a ton of turnovers on screen/rolls. The C’s ran multiple players at James and Wade as they dribbled around screens, and they rotated aggressively along the back line to cut off the pass to the roll man. Watch those games, and you’ll see a lot of possessions on which Wade and James, hounded on the perimeter, force insanely difficult passes through thickets of Boston arms toward guys under the hoop or on the weak side.
A lot of those passes came as Wade and James negotiated their way to about the foul line before deciding it would be better to pick the ball up and pass it.
Wade committed 26 turnovers in 5 games against Boston.
James committed 27 in 6 games.
When I think about the 2011 Heat, I wonder how the Celtics could ever pull off numbers like those against them. Could they really pay that much attention to James on a James/Bosh pick-and-roll if Bosh is the one rolling, Wade is lurking on the near side and Mike Miller is spotting up in the opposite corner? Could they run the screener’s man out at James, gambling that the rest of the defense could find Bosh—one of the very best pick-and-roll men in the league—before James whips a pass his way?
Could they load up in the paint if Wade and Miller are the ones away from the ball instead of, say, Carlos Arroyo and Quentin Richardson?
Again: This is just one thing I think about when I contemplate the new Heat. They will not be indefensible, though they have the potential to be as efficient an offensive team as the league has ever seen. Still: there will be ways to at least contain them.
But the C’s blitzed through the East last year behind a ferocious team defense, and forcing a huge pile of turnovers was one of the two or three most important components of that playoff defense. Having three of the most talented offensive players on Earth in the same line-up would seem to ease the burden on each of them and reduce the likelihood that any individual player will have to try something very difficult in order to create a scoring chance.
If the Heat play the right way, it should be very, very tough to force them into 16 or 17 turnovers in any post-season game.
If that turns out to be the case, the C’s defense will have to figure out other ways to contain Miami. They have the talent and the defensive mentality to do that.