Heat pick up defensive intensity as playoffs draw near

Miami's Chris Bosh (left) and Udonis Haslem (right) surround Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas during a 93-83 Heat win Monday. The Heat have held the last five opponents under 85 points.

Robert Mayer

MIAMI — The Miami Heat have rediscovered their defensive intensity with the playoffs little more than two weeks away.

The Heat held each of their last five opponents to below 85 points. The last time Miami did that was seven consecutive games from Dec. 18, 2002-Jan. 1, 2003.

”I’m encouraged by it, but it’s something we need to constantly stay on top of,” coach Erik Spoelstra told FOX Sports Florida following Thursday’s practice.

”It’s elusive, it is. Yes, we’ve made a step forward these past 10 days… even including the Indiana game in terms of our defensive commitment… the Portland game… so there’s been a better commitment to it. Now, we gave to sustain it as we get guys back.”

Miami gave indication of a renewed defensive focus in a 93-91 home win against the Blazers on March 24. A three-game road trip included a loss at Indiana before wins at Detroit and Milwaukee. The Heat have returned home to defeat Toronto on Monday night and the Bucks on Wednesday night.

During those six games, opponents shot 39.9 percent overall and 27.4 percent from 3-point range.

Although the Pistons (27-48) and Bucks (14-61) were among the league’s worst teams, Spoelstra said he still can evaluate the quality of Miami’s defense when watching the game video.

”Our focus and our activity,” Spoelstra said. ”We’ve had good preparation going into those games. It starts with the film session, the shootarounds, the mental preparation before the game. And then once the game starts, are we playing with an energy and activity level, and is there a focus.

”Your habits are what you talk about. It’s not just about beating the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s about how are we playing. We have a defensive grade chart and it charts our activity level and our areas of discipline. If those are down, no matter who we play against — and we’ve proven that clearly this year even against sub-.500 teams — if we’re not reaching a necessary barometer in that area we lose.”

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Ray Allen, who missed the past five games due to the flu, and Dwyane Wade, who sat out the past four due to a hamstring injury, both practiced Thursday. Their status for Friday night’s home game against Minnesota would be determined close to tip-off.

Center Greg Oden, who has missed four straight games with a back injury, worked out on the side. It would be a surprise if he played against the T-Wolves.

The Heat (52-22) will enter Friday night’s game ahead of Indiana by percentage points in the race for top seed in the Eastern Conference. To stay ahead, Miami would benefit from continuing its stinginess on the defensive end.

LeBron James said the Heat’s defensive approach would not change no matter who’s on the floor.

”Competing, communicating, flying around and covering for one another,” James said. ”It’s not always going to be perfect but when you communicate, fly around and help one other defensively, it helps.”

Coincidence or not, Udonis Haslem has started the past four games.

When the forward did not play in February, it seemed the veteran had been pushed out of the rotation permanently. But these are the Heat, whose roster Spoelstra referred to as ”a bullpen” on Thursday because ”you’re going to be called upon at some point.”

Haslem returned to generally play 5-8 minutes in games during the first three weeks of March. But in the last five games, he has averaged more than 19 minutes and provided much-appreciated muscle down low and his mid-range jumper.

With the playoffs approaching, Haslem’s toughness and rebounding — he’s Miami’s all-time leader — likely will be needed going forward.

”I think it’s just an overall intensity difference,” Haslem said when asked to compare the regular season to the postseason. ”Intensity goes up a notch or two in the playoffs at both ends of the floor. Offensively and defensively, competitively, the juices flow a little more. Things just go to another level.

”You start preparing yourself (for the playoffs), you start trying to work out all your kinks. You want to be running on all cylinders when you get in the playoffs but there’s nothing like stepping on the floor for Game 1 in the first round, and then it just continues to build as you go on.”

You can follow Charlie McCarthy on Twitter @mccarthy_chas or email him at mac1763@bellsouth.net.