NBA

Heat proving defensive adage true

Special to FOX Sports MITCH LAWRENCE
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NEW YORK

This has to be another long and miserable offseason for Mike D’Antoni, and not just because his Knicks have not played a game now in 34 days and did not win a game against the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.

D’Antoni can see from his living room couch that the new Eastern Conference champion is built from the defense up — entirely different from how the Knicks are trying to go about their business. Whether they were running away from the Celtics at home with a 16-0 run in the last 4:30 of Game 5, or overtaking the Bulls on the road with their epic 18-3 run over the final 3:03 of Game 5, the Miami Heat have demonstrated they can stop just about anyone in an elimination game.

They stopped Boston’s Big Three and Rajon Rondo. They stopped Derrick Rose cold, from the end of Game 4 to the last seconds of Game 5, when LeBron James swatted away Rose's bid to send the game into overtime.

Can they do the same to Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs starting Tuesday in Miami? At this stage, no one would put it past the Heat.

How do you win NBA titles? The Heat have been putting on a clinic over the past few weeks.

“Our goal coming into the season was to be the best defensive team in the league,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, after his team closed out the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night. “And so we spent a lot of time working on it. I don't think our guys have been given enough credit for that in terms of being a work team, a grind team, a lunch pail team. They are very serious-minded about coming to work and to practice and building those habits on the defensive end. You know, we've tried to build those defensive habits to be able to give yourselves a chance to win.”

Three of the four coaches whose teams played in the conference finals — Spoelstra, Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks — come from the defense-first school. Dallas’ Rick Carlisle is known more for his offensive Xs and Os, although under his tutelage the Mavs have gotten the reputation for playing the best zone defense in the NBA.

So just as we’ve seen in years past, playoff basketball comes down to this: The team that can shut down the other guy in the final minutes — while also having an elite player who can force double teams, make shots or get to the line late in games — still has the best chance of hoisting the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy in June. Not teams built on offense. Not the D’Antoni teams in Phoenix or New York. Not the Don Nelson teams in Dallas or in Golden State.

Don’t just take our word for it. Look at the most recent coaching hire, with the Lakers’ surprise move to go with Mike Brown. He’s known as a solid defensive coach from his days in Cleveland. Here’s how you know that teams are operating more and more with a defense-first mindset. Out in Golden State, the Warriors had Brown on their radar.

Nellie already has been out of Golden State since last September, but the team’s interest in Brown shows that his way of doing things has been thrown into the trash bin. With new owners in charge and the great Jerry West on board to help change the culture, the Warriors wanted Brown and were said to be ready to offer him their head coaching position. At least that’s how the Lakers heard it, and that’s why they pounced on Brown the way the Mavs pounced on Phil Jackson’s team in the second round. While the Lakers were still considering Rick Adelman, the first choice of owner Jerry Buss, and Mike Dunleavy, they caught wind of the Warriors’ plans. That’s when the new guy in charge, VP Jim Buss, decided that they needed to grab Brown before Golden State did.

So here’s the big question: If the Warriors are starting to think that Nellie-ball has run its course and they need to stop trying to outscore everybody, can the Knicks be far behind?

Actually, the Knicks are expected to make D’Antoni address the team’s most critical shortcoming by having him hire an assistant coach whose specialty is defense. Among those being considered for the post are Orlando’s Steve Clifford; Memphis’ Dave Joerger; ex-Nets coach Lawrence Frank (who has been with Boston as Doc Rivers’ defensive guru since Thibodeau left for the Bulls); and Portland’s Bill Bayno.

The hiring of a defensive assistant in New York might not register with Carmelo Anthony or Amar’e Stoudemire, both of whom seem oblivious on this point. But it definitely strikes a chord with Chauncey Billups, the only Knick with a ring, and someone who knows exactly why his old Pistons teams advanced to six straight Eastern Conference finals, from 2002-2007, and two finals during that time.

“I know what it takes to be good and what it takes to win in the playoffs,” Billups said the day after the Knicks were swept into the offseason. “I’ve won before with tough, defensive-minded teams that are not going to give way out there. So I draw on my experiences. We need to find some big brutes, some tough guys who can rebound and stop people.”

But it really starts with a team’s philosophy. After years of working under Jeff Van Gundy and Rivers, Thibodeau brought a defense-first culture to the Bulls. The Bulls had more wins than anybody in the regular season, with 62, because they had Rose and also played the kind of defense that can take a flawed offense a long way. Thibodeau was rewarded by winning Coach of the Year honors right out of the box. Unless other owners are not paying attention, his success should result in more teams looking to hire the top assistants from the best defensive clubs.

“The championship contenders in our league all emphasize defense; they start there,” said one Eastern Conference GM. “That’s the only way you win in this league. Everyone else is just pretending.”

The Heat have always emphasized defense, at least from the first day that Pat Riley arrived in 1995. Spoelstra has carried on the tradition.

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“It’s in our DNA,” Dwyane Wade said during the Chicago series.

That appealed to James, who has always recognized the fact that defense wins titles. The Heat were already a very good defensive team before he decided to go to Miami. Then they got themselves a player who this season was named first team All-Defense for the third straight year. No wonder Miami has been putting on a defensive clinic in these close-out games.

“We felt like we could get stops in the fourth quarter,” James said after the Heat delivered their Game 5 knockout punch in the United Center. “That’s what we build on. We build on getting fourth-quarter stops.”

The series will long be remembered for James volunteering to guard Rose at the end of Game 4, and twice stopping the MVP on isolation plays. Then there was Game 5, with the Bulls totally paralyzed down the stretch.

It’s funny. When the Big Three joined forces, the rest of the league worried about stopping Wade, James and Chris Bosh. But that’s not how Miami’s superstars saw it.

“When we talked about playing together, that’s really all we talked about, how we would be as a defensive team,” Wade said. “We didn’t talk about how we would look as an offense. We talked about what we would do at the defensive end of the court and how good we could be.”

How good?

Good enough to claim a championship banner.

Mitch Lawrence covers the NBA for the New York Daily News.

Tagged: Celtics, Bulls, Heat, Knicks, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose

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