(Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

The Miami Heat, who failed to qualify for the playoffs last season for the first time in seven years, are rounding into contention in the Eastern Conference, touting a 16-10 record and the No. 2 spot in the conference. Erik Spoelstra’s outfit has won four of its last five games — all of which were played against playoff-qualifying teams from a season ago — and claim the East’s best record versus Western Conference opponents (8-1).

It’s been the team’s defensive recalibration that is paying dividends for Miami: The Heat are allowing 98.2 points per 100 possessions, a 5.6-point improvement from last season, and a mark that ranks fifth among all teams.

Last year, the Heat ranked outside of the top 15 in defensive efficiency, blocks, opponent field-goal percentage and opponent three-point field-goal percentage. Miami’s rankings have spiked into the top five in each of the aforementioned metrics this year. Teams aren’t finding much success from anywhere on the court except for the left corner against Miami.

Miami Heat

No matter what happens, we want to hold teams to a low percentage,” Chris Bosh told the Miami Herald in November. “We want to hold them to hopefully a low amount of points, too.”

Specifically, the progressions can be traced to the team’s tenacity on the defensive glass, and a more polished acumen and effort to combat opposing pick-and-roll sets.

Miami is averaging nearly four more defensive rebounds per 100 possessions (36.1 compared to 32.2) this season than last. In the franchise’s first season of the post-LeBron James era, Miami pulled down 73.4 percent of available defensive rebounds, good for 23rd in the league. Through 26 games this season, Miami is pulling down 77.9 percent, which ranks sixth. And that ability to keep opponents off the offensive glass has improved each month this year.


Secondly, Miami’s blueprint for controlling pick-and-roll sets has improved substantially. Bringing Bosh — a 6-foot-11 power forward with a 7-foot-plus wingspan — back into the fold to pair with Hassan Whiteside, a burgeoning 7-footer who swallows shots, has been suffocating for opposing offenses.

As Couper Moreland noted, Miami’s hesitancy to not stretch the perimeter on pick-and-roll sets is perhaps going to slightly adapt soon once Whiteside can safely approach the perimeter on a more frequent basis. However, even when Whiteside opts to stay back on pick-and-rolls, daring opposing teams to beat them with jump shots, it has mostly been effective.

The Heat rank no lower than third in both points allowed by the ball-handler and roll man in pick-and-roll plays this season. Only 152 points have been scored on Miami by the roll man, 15 points fewer than any other team in the league, mostly because Whiteside is turning away shots at the rim at a historic rate. Opponents are shooting 50.5 percent at the rim (No. 17 in the league) this season, which is nearly a 3 percent dip from last season’s average.

 

I’m just trying to get my ‘NBA 2K’ rating up,” Whiteside said after a 12-block performance last season.

An impending free agent who has blossomed into one of the top defensive centers in the game the past two years, Whiteside has more total blocks (104) this season than four teams have combined to produce. His four blocks-per-game average is higher than any player since Dikembe Mutombo in the 1995-96 season.


Once we just get things rolling we’re going to be a top-five defensive team in the league,” Whiteside said.

Someone should tell Whiteside that Miami already is.