Despite getting out to a 2-1 series lead in last season's NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, the Miami Heat couldn't close them out, eventually losing the series 4-2. The Miami Heat collapsed due to a stifling Dallas defense, an opposing offense that caught fire, and the disappearance of Lebron James. While all these things have been documented already ad nauseum, what hasn't been discussed is how this may have been beneficial for the Heat in the long run.
It would be easy to simply point to tired clichés about how the Heat are "hungrier now" or how the loss "lit a fire" under them. While that may be true, there have been specific, observable aspects about the Miami Heat that have changed as a direct result of that loss. These changes are not only limited to certain player's games, but also seen in an overall change in the Heat's team philosophy.
Let's begin with Chris Bosh. The Miami Heat power forward struggled rebounding the ball at times last season, and he was clearly outmuscled against Dallas by Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood. The loss to Dallas made it clear that the Heat needed Bosh to be a stronger presence on the glass, due to their lack of a true center and front- court depth. With the added muscle mass Bosh put on in the offseason, the Heat has been stronger up the middle this season.
Along with Bosh, Dwayne Wade also altered his game for the better after last season's Finals collapse. During last season, Wade averaged 2.7 three- point shots per game. However, this season he has largely abandoned the outside shot, attempting only 0.5 per game. The deep ball has always been fool's gold for D-Wade, as he is only a .289 percent shooter from downtown for his career. By forgetting about the three-point shot, Wade has become a more efficient player. He's at his best when he is attacking the basket relentlessly and not settling for outside jumpers. Wade's adjustments to his game have helped the Heat's half-court offense significantly.
And then there is Lebron James. "The King" was largely blamed for last season's collapse in the Finals and he rightly deserved most of it. However, like Wade and Bosh, Lebron has also significantly altered his game for the better as a result of the 2011 Finals meltdown. The key change, or addition depending on how you see it, is in Lebron's post game. At times during the series against Dallas, Lebron was embarrassed in the post by being guarded by Shawn Marion and even J.J. Barea, players that James should easily have torched. Yet, he often struggled to come up with any offense even when he had the clear advantage.
During the offseason, Lebron committed to working on his post game. While he has added some new moves, the truly important change to his game is not in his mechanics, but rather in his basketball theory. Last season, Lebron seemed reluctant to go into the post often, even when he had a clear advantage against his defender. In contrast, he seems to be relishing his presence there this season. In doing so, he not only has become a more efficient player--- due to the fact that he no longer relies so heavily on fade away jumpers and three pointers--- but he also has made the Heat's offense more dangerous. Having Lebron in the post spaces the floor for the Heat's offense, allowing Wade to slash towards the basket for easy buckets, opening up the floor for Bosh's deadly jumpers and creating greater overall spacing and flow, which often leads to wide open three point shots for the likes of Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. Like the other members of the Big Three then, Lebron too has altered his game for the better as a result of last seasons Finals.
As we have seen, the Heat's individual players have clearly altered their games, but perhaps the most important change that took place because of last season's stunning loss is in the Heat's team philosophy. It was clear to anyone that watched the Heat last season that their offense was often stagnant. Too many times, the Heat fell into watching James or Wade dribble out the shot clock, only to launch a low percentage shot as the time ran out. This really became noticeable against the staunch Dallas defense and was a major reason as to why the Heat was unable to close out that series.
During the offseason, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra took time to pick the mind of someone most would have never thought to consider, Oregon Ducks football coach Chip Kelly. Kelly is the mastermind behind the Duck's spread offense, which is designed to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers as quickly as possible in as much space as possible. Interestingly, Spoelstra believed a variation of this (something he calls "pace and space") would help the Heat shake off their offensive doldrums. So far this season, it has worked. The new offense involves less play calling and allowing the Heat's talented trio to improvise and attack opponents without having to run through the exact same sets every time down the floor. Whether or not this new attack works in the playoffs remains to be seen, but so far it would be hard to argue with the current results.
Without a doubt, there will be some questions about the direct link between all of these changes and the Finals loss. But think about it for a second. If the Heat were rewarded in their first year together with a championship, why would they change anything? What need would there be for Bosh to bulk up, for Wade to abandon his prevalence for the three ball, for James to work out of the post more? What coach in their right mind would completely scrap an offensive system that had just won his team a championship in favor of an innovatively new system that isn't guaranteed to succeed?
Without that Finals loss, it's hard to see these changes occurring. Heat fans certainly remember the following season after the team last won a championship in 2006. The Heat didn't change a thing, were content with themselves, became fat and lazy (cough, Shaq, cough) and were subsequently swept by the Chicago Bulls in the first round. While it's unlikely that the same fate would have befallen this Miami Heat team had they squeaked by Dallas, it's equally unlikely that they would have changed so much about their respective styles of play. Yet, it is these very changes that have the Heat playing their best basketball of the Big Three era, finally appearing to be the team everyone thought they were capable of becoming. The scary thing is, many people still think they can get even better. If this comes to fruition, the rest of the NBA can thank the Mavericks for pushing the Heat to realize their true potential.