Heat, Rockets find success comes with defense

HOUSTON — At the time, it resembled one of those fluke setbacks good teams occasionally suffer during the trudge of a long, 82-game season, a result based more on one team being ambushed by another rather than any worrisome trend.

But when the Heat defeated the Rockets 109-103 in Miami on Jan. 17, it served as a harbinger for their subsequent dozen opponents. What was then viewed as a bad loss for the Rockets morphed over the ensuing three weeks as the Heat reeled off an NBA-best 13-game winning streak before succumbing to the Philadelphia 76ers last Saturday night.

And now, with their rematch with the Rockets (40-17) on tap for Wednesday night at Toyota Center, the Heat (24-32) look altogether different even after suffering a second consecutive loss on Monday, this one to the Orlando Magic.

“Every single night it’s a challenge,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re trying to get more consistent to an identity, a specific identity. We didn’t get to that the last two games. That’s what we’ll get to work on.

“We had been building much more consistently to our identity the last several weeks and that doesn’t guarantee you anything either. It just gives you a better chance at the result that you want.”

That “identity” comes on the defensive end. During the streak the Heat were second only to the San Antonio Spurs in defensive rating (99.9) and second to the Golden State Warriors in net rating at 10.5. They were fifth in the NBA in rebounding rate (51.3), with defense and rebounding complementing an offense that posted the third-best effective field-goal percentage (55.6) during that span.

Against the 76ers and Magic, the Heat allowed 117 and 116 points, respectively. With the high-scoring Rockets — third in the league with an 111.5 offensive rating — up next, it’s clear where Miami needs to refocus its energy to reclaim its vigor.

“It’s a learning step,” Heat guard Dion Waiters said. “We’ve got to get better from here.”

For Houston, the loss in Miami was at the heart of a difficult stretch that included seven losses in 11 games. The Rockets have gone 5-1 since, including a four-game winning streak that features a defensive rating (97.8) that is not only the best in the NBA, but represents the correlation between rest and productivity.

Over the span of nearly 60 games, the Rockets have proven to possess one of the league’s top offenses, one capable of surviving shooting slumps and rotation attrition. What the Rockets have longed for is consistency defensively, and with their recent schedule featuring welcome breaks between games, the Rockets have been able to both recuperate and revisit their defensive principles now that practice time as been ample.

The results speak for themselves, with the Rockets aiming for one more stellar defensive performance heading into the All-Star Game break.

“I think we’ve been focused these last few games being able to get rest, especially defensively locking in,” Rockets guard James Harden said. “We’re going to start the game off, strap up defensively, and offensively do our thing.”