PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Defense is the primary focus of everything the Miami Heat does, and it’s been that way since Pat Riley arrived.
It might be more than a mantra this year.
Miami started the season playing defense at a level that made no one in the organization happy last season, allowing 100.6 points per game, ranking only 23rd-best league-wide after 17 games. In the 65 games that followed, they gave up just 93.6 points per game, the fourth-best rate in the NBA over that span.
Playing defense better from the start of the season has emerged as a top priority for the Heat, who left the Bahamas on Friday after wrapping up six practices of training camp that were devoted almost entirely to that end of the floor.
“We knew we didn’t start off the season like we wanted to defensively,” said Heat forward LeBron James, the league’s two-time reigning MVP and a four-time winner of the award overall. “But we knew. I think when you have a problem and you face it, it’s very correctable, and we knew that. So one thing we talked about was defending and finishing.”
Training camp officially ended just before 1 p.m. Friday, though the way James sees it, camp actually lasts until Oct. 28, the day before Miami hoists its second straight championship banner and opens a new season against the Chicago Bulls.
There’s a ton of things for the team to do in the next 3 weeks, including play eight preseason games, but continuing to hone that defense-first approach will remain paramount. They remember how frustrating it was to have an almost porous-looking defense for the first few weeks of last season, a year where the Heat wound up winning 66 regular-season games, 27 straight in one stretch.
“Sharpen. Sharpen the sword,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “We won games early last year and didn’t look good. We dropped a few that, looking back at it, we should have won. We know the Eastern Conference is highly competitive. Not that we can’t afford to get off to a slow start … but we can’t afford to get off to a slow start.”
Chicago will be better, with Derrick Rose healthy again. Indiana figures to be better. Brooklyn has eyes on a title. It’s clear that Miami will not have an easy time in the East, and the Heat remember how vital getting that No. 1 seed was a year ago. It gave them the right to play Game 7 in the conference finals against Indiana at home, along with Game 7 of the NBA Finals against San Antonio.
“We know the competition got better,” Battier said. “We scraped by to get out of the Eastern Conference last year. Obviously, we want to play our best basketball at the end. That doesn’t mean we can’t start at a higher level and build toward that.”
Even though the background was paradise — sun, sand, tropical music and water slides — the ballroom where the Heat did the bulk of their work on this trip was hardly a vacation destination.
James posted a photo of himself, grimacing in a chest-deep ice bath, to his social media accounts. Ray Allen said he dealt with some mild foot soreness while waking up muscles that had not been used since last June. Michael Beasley described camp as exhausting. Udonis Haslem said he was originally excited to spend some free time in the casino, then quickly realized that he would better serve himself by getting off his feet.
Point guard Mario Chalmers said this was a camp unlike any of his first five with the Heat, mainly because he didn’t recall a camp where everyone arrived in such good shape.
“Last year I think we had a little hangover coming off that first championship,” Chalmers said. “Maybe we celebrated a little bit too much. We didn’t come into camp as focused and ready as we did last year. You can tell right now, everybody’s hungry for that threepeat.”
Which, the Heat know, will start at the defensive end.
“I would probably say 70 percent of our camp was defense, other than player development,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That makes me a little bit uneasy. While we have corporate knowledge of our offense, we will need to spend a lot more time on it next week. And we will. We’ll address that.”