The Miami Heat sit atop the Eastern Conference as the second half of the NBA regular season is set to begin. At 36-14, Miami holds a four-game lead over second-place New York in the conference, with a 7.5-game cushion over Atlanta in the Southeast Division.
LeBron James is having another MVP-caliber season, while Dwyane Wade is showing that rumors of his decline were vastly overstated.
Despite defensive struggles early in the season, the Heat remain the overwhelming favorites to win their third straight Eastern Conference championship and make a trip to the NBA Finals. But Miami is still looking to improve when they open second-half play Wednesday with a trip to face the Hawks in Atlanta.
"Just the fact that we had room to improve, we can play better on the road and we're still first in the East, that means a lot to us and that means we can get a lot better," Heat center Chris Bosh said last week. He said Miami would rate only a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, citing the team's difficulties on the road.
The Heat are an astounding 23-3 at home (only San Antonio has fewer home losses), but a ho-hum 13-11 away from the American Airlines Arena. If that seems subpar, it is interesting to note that only five teams in the NBA have better road records, and last year's squad was only 18-15 on the road (and 5-5 on the road in the playoffs).
A cursory look at the stats gives a pretty clear picture of why the Heat have risen to the top of the Eastern Conference yet again this season. The Heat are second in the NBA in offensive efficiency, scoring 112.3 points per 100 possessions (Oklahoma City is first with 112.4).
Miami is the best shooting team in the NBA, with an effective shooting percentage of 54.5% (eFG adjusts for the fact that three-point shots are worth more than two-pointers). Miami is third in the NBA in three-point percentage, shooting 38.6% from beyond the arc. Miami also has one of the lowest offensive turnover ratios (13.1%) as well as one of the highest defensive turnover ratios (14.3%).
But the Heat have not wowed on defense the way they did in 2011-12 (when they were fourth in defensive efficiency). Though the stat has fallen since the beginning of the season, Miami is allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions, just a shade under the league average (105.5).
Roster tweaks, including the addition of center Chris "Birdman" Andersen and increased playing time for Joel Anthony, have helped the Heat get better on defense, but in the second half the team will have to continue to become more cohesive on defense.
Miami's biggest weaknesses are rebounding and opponent three-point shooting. Opponents are hitting 36% of three-point shots, and whenever Miami loses it seems like the opponent won by getting hot from downtown. Miami is only grabbing 73.2% of all possible defensive rebounds, which is exactly the league average.
The Heat have masked these defensive shortcomings with its high-scoring offense and ability to translate turnovers into fast break points. They will use the second half to try to shore up its defense even further, and coach Erik Spoelstra could continue tinkering with lineups to find the right group that can deliver defensive stops in the clutch.
Though the Heat have no games remaining against the Lakers or Thunder in the second half, they do have a number of marquee match-ups to look forward to. Miami has a pair of games each against Eastern Conference rivals New York and Boston (one home, one road for both), as well as three games against the Bulls (two on the road, one at home).