After landing its vaunted trio last July, the Heat was prematurely billed as the ultimate AAU team, stacked with flashy scorers who would surely care more about reverse jams than hard shows. In another organization, with another coach, the season might have devolved into a string of exhibitions. "But when you come here, you know it's going to be defense first," says former Miami point guard Tim Hardaway. "That's the culture Pat Riley created. It's the Heat Way."
James and Bosh could not fully understand what they signed up for until they reported to Eglin Air Force Base outside of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., for training camp, and Spoelstra didn't mention anything about offense. He assumed, correctly, that the Heat would generate plenty of points off stops and turnovers. In scrimmages Spoelstra pitted James against Wade, Bosh against Haslem. "The competition was fierce," Haslem recalls. "At camp you usually give up layups on the fast break because you don't want anybody to get hurt. We were contesting everything."
Spoelstra had to meld three megastars with 12 spare parts, and defense was the catalyst he used. Because the system relies so heavily on rotations, players had to develop faith in one another quickly. "If we're on Dirk Nowitzki and have to rotate, we have to trust guys to be there," says Bosh. Spoelstra did not even implement Miami's current offense until January and did not install its full fourth-quarter package until March.
The Heat faced many early obstacles—in crunch time, James and Wade would stand on opposite sides of the court so as not to step on each other's Nikes—but defense was never an issue. Spoelstra explained that NBA history is filled with headliners who won championships because they used their athleticism to do more than score. He rarely talked to the team about their offensive percentages, harping on defensive rankings. James and Bosh both became better defenders, surrendering lower field goal percentages and points per possession than they did last season with the Cavaliers and the Raptors, respectively, according to Synergy. "Obviously we have offensive firepower and talent that can take over at certain moments," Wade says. "But it's our engine, our effort, that's gotten us to this point and that, no matter what, we could fall back on."
The Heat loads up on the strong side, and against most teams, the players are fast enough to recover and rangy enough to contest when the ball gets swung to the weak side. But there were two opponents that worried Miami coaches all the way back in camp, because of both the speed with which they shuttle the ball around the perimeter and the accuracy of their three-point shooters. One, predictably, was the Celtics. The other was the Mavericks.
They landed in Miami at 7:30 p.m. on the Sunday before the series began, and while most of the Mavs went out to dinner, Nowitzki checked into his hotel room and immediately caught a ride to American Airlines Arena. (Yes, American Airlines is the winner in this series either way.) A lot of players like to take extra shooting practice during the Finals, but it is part of Nowitzki's routine throughout the season. "We are always waiting on him for dinner," says reserve forward Brian Cardinal. Even at home, Nowitzki will go through a regular afternoon workout with the team and then return at night to shoot alone.
Nowitzki is scoring 28.4 points per game in the playoffs on 50.6% shooting, 52.5% three-point shooting and 93.9% free throw shooting. He has always been underrated in the postseason, averaging 26 points and 10.4 rebounds for his career, and he attributes this year's spike only to experience and an improved supporting cast. His repertoire is constantly being expanded and honed in those after-hours workouts.
While Nowitzki tried to acclimate himself to the arena, the Heat probed for ways to make him uncomfortable. The plan was to deny him the ball to the three-point line, treating the perimeter like the post. By overplaying Nowitzki, Miami encouraged him to drive. Nowitzki has improved his ballhandling in recent years, but the Heat allowed the lowest shooting percentage at the rim this season of any team, with Wade, Anthony and James each ranking among the top shot blockers at his position. They preferred to see Nowitzki drive the lane rather than pull up on the perimeter.
Most stars have one or two sweet spots, places on the floor where they like to shoot. Nowitzki has at least four, and none are near the rim: both elbows and both "Malone areas," the spaces next to the key where Karl Malone used to camp out. The Heat forced Nowitzki to the baseline and trapped him with a second defender from the low block, a strategy the Spurs made popular. By pinning Nowitzki on the baseline, teams are able to shut down his passing lanes and limit his playmaking ability, though they also risk giving him shots to the left of the basket, yet another semi-sweet spot. The Heat prepared for Nowitzki with such fervor that Spoelstra had to cut short practice the day before the Finals because he was worried that his players might hurt each other.
Miami varied its double teams on Nowitzki, often helping Bosh with an extra defender but leaving Haslem and Anthony to fend for themselves. Late in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Spoelstra used Bosh but called off the double, weary of watching Nowitzki find open snipers. The Heat's 15-point lead had vanished. With 10 seconds remaining, Nowitzki made a rip move on Bosh from the foul line, and still the Heat did not double him. The Mavs could not believe what they were seeing. "You can't play Dirk Nowitzki one-on-one with a game on the line," says shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson. "You just can't."