You can't ever read too much into a 5 game stretch. Barely six percent of the season has been played. Miami still hasn't gotten into its groove. Screw it. This team is good.
I'll start off with a quick note, one that excites me more than anything else.
The 2010-2011 New Orleans Hornets were supposed to be an amazing offensive team. Basketball Prospectus thought so, our eyes and intuition told us so, and even John Hollinger probably admitted it nightly while pouring his deepest, darkest secrets into his diary. All my pre-season projections that had us winning 45 to 50 games? They assumed we'd play defense like the 2009-2010 Hornets again. Maybe it was a stupid assumption to make, but I had no reason to believe differently two weeks ago.
Five games into the season, we know better. This team is alive on defense. For the first time ever, I enjoy watching my favorite team play defense almost more than I like seeing it play offense. And for an offense that features Chris Paul, that's a tremendous statement.
The energy and the sharpness that characterize every defensive rotation, every fought-through screen, every close out, and every hard foul are amazing. My favorite moment from this game might have been David West's hard foul to prevent a layup in the fourth quarter. 2009 Hornet post defenders, at best, would have offered no resistance; at worst, they'd have lightly scraped the offensive player to give up the three point play.
There's something fundamentally different about the way this team approaches the defensive side of the game. Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, and Emeka Okafor have been individually brilliant defensively. But our defense has been greater than the sum of its parts. It's why both a Dwyane Wade isolation on Marco Belinelli and a Lebron James isolation on Willie Green ended in missed fadeaway jumpers tonight. It's why Miami took 24 (!) shots from 16-23 feet, connecting on just 6 of them. For the first time in a while, players know where to be on defense, and they're executing.
Going into the game, I mentioned that New Orleans would need to maximize its advantages at point guard and center to have a chance. Chris Paul and Emeka Okafor destroyed the Heat's PG and C positions to such a ridiculous extent that the Wade-Bosh-James trio was more than canceled out.
Emeka Okafor has probably never played such a productive, efficient game in his career. 13 rebounds. 26 points on 13 shots. His only missed field goal came on a broken-play 20-footer at the conclusion of the first quarter. Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, and Zydrunas Ilguaskas didn't stand a chance against him. And sure, 12-13 shooting seems flukey at a glance, but it's more a reflection of just how nonexistent Miami's interior game is. I hate the Lakers as much as the next guy, but imagining what a Gasol-Bynum-Odom trio would do to Haslem-Anthony-Z is mildly hilarious.
Still, credit Okafor for stepping it up. He established post position all game long. I don't know that he was beaten to a single ball on the defensive glass tonight. He challenged shots, and patrolled the paint against perhaps the league's most dangerous driving team. He dominated the center position almost as easily as his teammate won the point guard battle.
Chris Paul shot poorly tonight. He also finished with 19 assists against a team that may challenge the all-time defensive efficiency mark this season. Chris Paul is insanely good at basketball.
Monty Williams went to the 10-man bench once again. For a fifth consecutive game, it worked. In a game where Dwyane Wade registered 40 minutes and LeBron James 41, Chris Paul played just 36 minutes, and David West played 28.
I'll criticize him forever for playing Mbenga over Aaron Gray, but Monty Williams' minutes management has been nothing short of spectacular. (I realize I'm throwing a lot of superlative adjectives around, but that's what a 5-0 start gets you I guess). The star players have been extremely well-rested, and overall team performance hasn't suffered as a result.
And how about Jason Smith? The Heat decided to leave him wide open, and he decided to make them pay. His 12 points on 10 shots and two offensive boards were critical tonight. I'd liked to have seen more Marcus Thornton (5 points on 3 shots in 10 minutes), but Willie Green again provided some solid defensive possessions.
I'm really starting to believe that the bench success is equal parts talent and Monty's mixing and matching.
A word on the officiating
It was poor tonight. Maybe we'll see this often during Heat games, and maybe we won't. But tonight, the refs refused to give NOLA the call in multiple instances of clear fouls. Perhaps the most egregious was Willie Green's floater in the third quarter; a defender got to the spot late, was still shuffling, and fell backwards on contact- basically the definition of a blocking foul. The ref waited to see if the ball would go in (it did) and declined to blow the whistle (because, hey, Willie Green). The Chris Paul charge call was flagrantly bad as well. Haslem got to the spot late, was still moving, and tried to take the charge after Chris Paul was well into his shot. We're fortunate indeed that the call didn't cost us the game.
Some bullets to close:
- Trevor Ariza drilled the dagger and generally came up firing all game long. He finished 3 for 7 from three and scored 13 points on 13 attempts. The rest of the team shot just 1 of 7 from three.
- I don't know that I wanted anybody but David West taking those final free throws. (Other than Jannero Pargo, duh).
- Jerry Stackhouse is a Miami Heat.
- Miami led for exactly 9 seconds tonight.