While the Miami Heat managed to make the final score a respectable 80-88 against the Boston Celtics in their opening night matchup, the game was not very competitive for most of the night, with the Heat playing far below the expectations many set for them. The Heat finished the game with just an 87.9 Offensive Efficiency, and the offensive problems were far more severe than a problem of mere chemistry or unfamiliarity. Here are some of the key themes to why things went so wrong:
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The Problem with Joel Anthony
Joel Anthony is a solid rotation player in the NBA, a great athlete capable of making contributions on defense and the boards, and theoretically he is exactly the kind of hustle player you’d expect to fit in well with a trio of All-Stars. This isn’t your every day trio of All-Stars, however, and there are a few reasons why he is not such an ideal fit.
From an offensive perspective, all of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade are players who operate predominantly inside the three-point line, all being players who get to the rim very frequently. Because of this, putting a player with Joel Anthony’s lack of perimeter game on the floor with them can make things very crowded, severely hurting floor spacing and allowing top-tier defensive teams like the Celtics the ability to seriously take advantage of aggressive help defense. It also clogs up the pick-and-roll game, as it allows the opposition to double hard off Anthony onto the ball-handler, while Anthony isn’t much of a threat to do anything if he receives the pass.
From a defensive perspective, you’d think Anthony’s abilities would be a big-time help to a trio of stars, many of whom don’t have a reputation for applying themselves equally on both sides of the ball, but again, these are not your typical All-Stars, as all of them are well above average, if not elite, defenders in this league. While the roster is largely different, it’s important to remember that the Heat actually ranked third in the league in Defensive Efficiency last year, and their coach clearly knows what he’s doing on this end of the floor. Combine all of those things together and Anthony’s contributions here are largely negligible, a big problem when his presence on offense can throw such a wrench into everything.
We Want Z!
On the contrary to Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a player who has the perfect offensive skill-set to complement the big three, being a highly intelligent player with the perimeter jumper and passing game to really open things up for the team. It’s no surprise that Ilgauskas posted a +17 +/- on the night in just 11 minutes (while everyone other than James was in the negative on the game), playing almost all of those minutes in the third quarter alongside James, where the Heat outscored the Celtics 27-18.
Ilgauskas’ benefits to the offense are multi-fold, first in terms of general floor spacing by being a potent catch-and-shoot option with three-point range and second by being the best pick-and-pop big man on the team outside of Bosh, a critical skill to have when playing alongside Wade and James. Beyond that, it’s readily apparent he puts James a lot more at ease when they’re playing together, something the Heat really need from their primary ball-handler and scorer.
Defensively, Ilgauskas is underrated as a positional defender, though he clearly is a liability in the pick-and-roll game at this point of his career. Still, with three players who have the elite size, length, and athleticism like the Heat’s do, this is something that can be covered up, especially relative to the problems Joel Anthony brings on the offensive end. As strange as it sounds, the Heat’s role players around the big three are better served helping on offense than defense when you consider the coach’s strong points and the elite abilities of their stars.
Mis-Utilization of Chris Bosh
Chris Bosh had a terrible game offensively, largely in part to excellent team defense by the Celtics, excellent individual defense by Kevin Garnett, and very poor play by himself, but seeing where he was getting the ball in Miami’s offense is extremely concerning, especially considering what the Raptors’ offense was able to do for him.
Despite Steve Kerr’s repeated cries during the broadcast that Chris Bosh can’t post up, Bosh is actually one of the best post-up players in the entire NBA, ranking in the 90th percentile in post efficiency according to Synergy last season, scoring 1.09 PPP on a ridiculous 549 possessions in 70 games played. Only seven players in the entire NBA posted up for more possessions than Bosh last year (despite Bosh missing 12 games), and the closest to him in efficiency was Tim Duncan at 1.04 PPP!
So what went wrong against the Celtics? For one, nearly all of Bosh’s post-up opportunities saw him catching the ball 10 feet or more away from the basket, while the help defense the Celtics sent off Joel Anthony certainly didn’t help matters either. Pairing Bosh with a more threatening big man and using more off ball action in terms of screens and movement to free him down low will be critical to the Heat this year, and they’ll need to show a lot more creativity in getting him the ball this way in the future, as there was virtually none of it last night.
The Problem with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James
This may be the most concerning and critical factor of all in the quest for a championship, as even if the Heat sort out their rotation, floor spacing, and utilization of other players, it won’t be enough to save them from errant decision-making from their stars, not in series against the Magic, Celtics, and Lakers.
Too often last night it seemed to be decided with more than half the shot clock remaining that the best option for the Heat was for James or Wade to isolate their man and pull up for a 20-foot contested jumper, which worked about as well as you’d expect it to work. Having players with elite shot creating abilities like this is a massive luxury when the shot clock is running down or your team is down and you need someone to take over, both of which we saw on many occasions last night. But on the other hand, it is very much a double-edged sword if you allow it to bog down your normal halfcourt offense, and this it will be very important for James and Wade to tone down these tendencies, if not for the regular season (where they can get away with it against 75% of the league) then for inevitable postseason matchups against other elite teams.
The other question here is will Erik Spoelstra have the willingness to really come down hard on his stars when they derail the offense (and likewise will the stars have the respect for him to listen). The silver lining here is all three of the Heat’s stars are highly competitive and want to win, plus with expectations so high they shouldn’t be content with letting things go sour for too long. Still, Pat Riley is obviously lurking in the wings, and the more performances we see like last night’s, the more the public will speculate about Riley descending from the front office to the sidelines once again.
It’s easy to overreact about things based on one game, and the fact that the Heat only lost by eight and were within one possession with a minute to go last night despite playing so poorly puts in perspective how dangerous this team can be when they get things in full gear. Still, many of their problems won’t go away without adjustments, and it will be interesting to see how creative the coaching staff is in making them. The return of Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers to the lineup in the future will certainly help things from a floor spacing perspective, but it’s easy to see the Joel Anthony problem becoming a recurring issue against elite defenses should they keep their frontcourt rotation the same. Luckily for us fans, we only have to wait ‘til Friday’s game against the Magic to see another such match-up, where the Heat will obviously be looking to make a statement given how poorly their debut went against the Celtics.