Let’s preface this article with the following disclaimer: The Miami Heat are still one of the best teams in basketball. They’re the two-time defending world champions, they have the best player in all of basketball and since we’re only 23 games into the 2013-14 season, this might not even matter come April. But lately, Miami hasn’t been a very good third quarter team, to the point that they sometimes look vulnerable.
In the month of December, the Miami Heat have been outscored by their opponents 171-144 in the third quarter of seven games. That’s an average of about four points per game, which doesn’t sound like a lot on paper. But if the Heat played as badly for the entire game as they do in that one quarter, they’d be outscored by about 12 points per game every night. Just for reference, the team with the worst point differential in the league is the Milwaukee Bucks at -8.9 points per game. So yes, the third quarters are a slight cause for concern.
Even though the game didn’t mean as much to the Heat as it did for the Pacers, we saw Miami’s apathetic third quarter strike again in a game against the team that poses the biggest threat in the East to LeBron James and company. This recent trend is particularly disturbing because Paul George, Indiana’s best player and a potential game-changer in a playoff series, is a third quarter player. George lets the game come to him in the first half but takes charge of games in the third quarter, evidenced by his 8.8 points per game in that quarter.
The third quarter problem struck again in Miami’s most recent game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all showed up to play, but the Heat were still outscored 28-16 in the third and allowed the Cavs to cut a 16-point halftime deficit to just four heading into the final period. Miami is talented enough to flip the switch against a struggling team like Cleveland, but that kind of third quarter play is something Erik Spoelstra should be highlighting as an improvement Miami needs to make as we move further along in the season.
On the year, Miami is averaging 25 points per game in the third quarter and they’re seventh in the league in third quarter point differential at +1.8, so it’s not like they’ve been struggling in this area all season long. That production puts them on pace for 100 points a game, which, when combined with the Heat’s imposing defense, is more than good enough to beat 80 percent of the teams in the NBA. But the Heat play that 80 percent during the regular season. When the playoffs roll around, Miami will be facing that other 20 percent.
If you’re still not convinced, consider how Miami has fared so far in December against likely playoff-caliber teams (and yes, I understand the Eastern Conference will have plenty of teams make the playoffs that probably don’t deserve to be there). The Heat are 4-3 so far this month. Their three losses have come to the Indiana Pacers (20-3), Detroit Pacers (11-14), and Chicago Bulls (9-13), who are all probably playoff teams. Their four wins have come against the Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers (9-14), Minnesota Timberwolves (12-12) and the Charlotte Bobcats (8-10). Realistically, had Chris Bosh not come to the rescue, Miami would’ve lost to Charlotte too.
In an 82-game season, it’s only natural for teams to not bring their A-game every single night. It’s a long grind and losses in December don’t make or break a championship team. But because the Indiana Pacers, Miami’s biggest competition in the East, elevate their game to dangerous levels in the third quarter, this trend is something to keep an eye on for the time being.