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Game preview: Warriors, Heat feature a battle of top 10 defenses at Oracle Arena

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The Warriors and Heat are two pretty evenly matched defenses statistically, but the Heat will have the more difficult defensive task when the two face each other tonight.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Matchup
Golden State Warriors
35-2 (17-0 HOME)
vs
Miami Heat
22-15 (7-7 ROAD)
Details
January 11, 2016
Oracle Arena — Oakland, CA
7:30 p.m. PST
CSN Bay Area | KNBR 680 AM
Blog Buddy: Hot Hot Hoops
Projected Starters
Stephen Curry G Goran Dragic
Klay Thompson G Dwyane Wade
Brandon Rush
F Luol Deng
Draymond Green F Chris Bosh
Andrew Bogut C Hassan Whiteside
Key Injuries
Leandro Barbosa (shoulder) - Questionable
James Michael McAdoo (toe) - Questionable
Kevon Looney (hip recovery) - Santa Cruz
Josh McRoberts (knee) - Out
Dwyane Wade (shoulder) - Probable 
Tyler Johnson (shoulder)  - Questionable 

★★★

In yesterday's post reviewing Golden State of Mind's trip to Sleep Train Arena, I mentioned that the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat are neck-and-neck in the league's defensive pecking order, ranking seventh and eighth, respectively, according to Basketball-Reference.

Bearing in mind that the Warriors' defensive efficiency has almost certainly been impacted by the number of injuries they've suffered, it's interesting to compare what makes the two teams effective with the Heat in town tonight for the first meeting of the season between the two teams.

And more than anything else, it's really difficult not to start with the play of Hassan Whiteside.

The Heat are second in the league in blocks and Whiteside leads the way with an eye-popping 10.4% block percentage — for a point of reference that I expect demand all Warriors fans to appreciate, that's mere percentage points behind all-time leader Manute Bol. Yet of course, blocks don't necessarily make for a great measure of defensive ability — although our understanding of the value of rim protection has advanced considerably since the days that Bol set the all-time mark for block percentage with the Warriors, blocks on their own are not necessarily a "goal".

As an example, Yaron Weitzman of SB Nation wrote a great article a few weeks ago about why the Heat's defense is actually better with Whiteside off the court. And the reason that Weitzman highlighted is particularly interesting as the Heat look to take on the Warriors.

...when it comes to using intelligence and instincts to deter opponents, Whiteside has struggled. Sometimes, he's glued to no-man's land and out of position. Other times, he's just slow to react...Whiteside, whether due to inexperience, concentration or disinclination, often fails to get to the spots where he can actually challenge shooters. That's why Miami's 116-109 home win over the Blazers Sunday could be a significant turning point. According to ESPN's Michael Wallace, the Heat spent the days leading up to the game showing Whiteside how to help on the perimeter and still retreat back into the paint.

It will be interesting to see how that plays out against the Warriors in particular, whether they go small or stay big — clearly the Warriors are a team that likes to spread the court and if they can get Whiteside in space, they'd be able to significantly limit his impact. It's clearly something the Heat are working on with him and he has apparently shown signs of improving somewhat rapidly, according to Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald.

Wade realizes it can be "uncomfortable" for Whiteside to come out to the perimeter, not only because "he’s so great at protecting the rim," but because "Hassan is very prideful." "He doesn’t want his guy getting dunks," Wade said. "So he had to be confident knowing that we were there to help him and be behind him." They were, during that practice. They were, during [the Jan. 3 game against the Washington Wizards]. And, often, they weren’t even needed: Two Whiteside blocks came far from the basket...He defended more than just that...He blitzed. He rotated.

Whiteside's defensive growth mentally could make the Heat a much more dangerous defense than they look like on paper — if they're rotating effectively, they could very much become just the type of long, rotating defense that could give the Warriors trouble.

Also interesting on the defensive end is the Heat's rebounding: despite playing more small ball than before, the Warriors are sixth in the league in offensive rebounding percentage but the Heat are 10th in defensive rebounding percentage. Clearly, something there has to give: if you can imagine a scenario where the Heat are able to bother Warriors shooters into misses and keep the Warriors from getting second chance opportunities, they could have the chance to break the Warriors' unbeaten streak that others have not been able to do.

Unfortunately (for Heat fans), that dynamic is far more likely to go the other way: the Heat rank 24th in the league in 3-point percentage (32.9%) on the 25th-most attempts meaning that even in a below average sample size this simply isn't a good team from beyond the arc. And it's not like that's a groundbreaking secret: the Phoenix Suns caused the Heat problems recently by running a zone, packing it in and forcing them into their weakness of outside shooting. Whether the Warriors should play zone isn't the point here: it's that the Warriors have a good enough defense to punish a team that doesn't spread their quickly-rotating defense out.

The Heat's defense undoubtedly makes them a worthy opponent, but the Warriors provide them a challenge that they haven't yet faced. And the Heat are uniquely positioned to appreciate the path the Warriors are on right now, as described by the Herald's Barry Jackson.

Eventually, history will judge how these Warriors — coming off their first Finals appearance — will compare to the Big 3 Heat team that made four Finals and won two.

"With us, it was so different," Bosh said. "They were built different. We came together different. [Their] story is still so much story to be told. They’re just now getting started, really.