Miami Heat Index: Miami Heat
The surprising Atlanta Hawks are flying to Miami to take on the Heat, who are riding a three-game winning streak.
1. Can LeBron sustain his 60-plus shooting percentage?
Israel Gutierrez: As long as the players around LeBron James allow him to be this selective for most of the season, yes. With Dwyane Wade relatively healthy, Michael Beasley contributing at an efficient level, and the Heat shooters taking and making good shots, LeBron doesn't have to force much at all. And it's clear he wants to do better than last year's 56.5 percent. Getting to 60 is quite a leap, but it's also a heckuva milestone achievement for a "perimeter" player.
Tom Haberstroh: Can he? Yes. Is it likely? No. That would represent the biggest year-to-year jump of his career. Yes, LeBron has raised his field goal percentage in each of his past seven seasons, but that becomes tougher the higher you go. But it's possible.
Brian Windhorst: Probably not. We've never seen a wing-based player or a scorer like LeBron shoot 60 percent in a season in the modern era. The closest was Bernard King, who shot 59 percent in 1980-81. I was 3 years old at the time so I have no idea how he did it. That said, LeBron did shoot 57 percent last season, so it's not a huge stretch. Erik Spoelstra always says never to put a ceiling on him.
2. Is Rashard Lewis a fixture in the Heat rotation now?
Gutierrez: He should be, at least until he shows signs of regression. He's shooting 50 percent from the floor (nearly 48 percent on 3s), he's not a liability defensively, and he's moving the ball quickly when his shot isn't available. He's not a major factor on the boards, and if that comes back to hurt the Heat, maybe his minutes will slowly diminish.
Haberstroh: Sure, but don't count on his being part of it come playoff time. The Heat are just too deep, and at this rate, it's only a matter of time before Michael Beasley takes Lewis' minutes. Most imagined that James Jones would be the biggest beneficiary of Mike Miller's departure, but Jones has played four more minutes this season than I have.
Windhorst: The Heat have eight players they steadily play when healthy, and Lewis is not one of them. The ninth is constantly changing, and sometimes there isn't a 10th. Spoelstra has been going to Lewis in that role rather often, but some of that is because of the health of a few of the top eight. Lewis has played well and probably will continue to get chances when there are injuries, or as that ninth or 10th guy when warranted.
3. Are the Hawks with Millsap and Horford a top-three East frontcourt?
Gutierrez: The Pacers' frontcourt is the class of the East. After that, a handful of teams have a good case. When it comes to matching up with Miami, the Hawks' frontcourt is troublesome. But, when healthy, the Knicks' frontcourt is a matchup problem, and when the Bulls' Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are right, they're equally, if not more, of a problem. If DeMarre Carroll were more productive, it would put the Hawks up there. But right now, no.
Haberstroh: Yes, if we're talking frontcourt tandems, but I'm an unabashed Paul Millsap-Al Horford fanatic. Assuming we're not counting LeBron as a power forward, I'll probably take the Pacers and the Pistons to round out the top-three. I just can't get on board with Kevin Garnett yet for Brooklyn to be included.
Windhorst: According to the PER standings, they are the top frontcourt in the East at the moment. Of course, in current PER, Michael Beasley is seventh overall. Horford and Millsap are two of the more underrated bigs in the league, so their tandem is naturally going to be underrated. Where they rank will fluctuate depending on health elsewhere, but they're formidable.
LeBron James is hurting and so is the Heat defense. Is a visit from the Bucks what Miami needs in order to get better quickly? Our Heat Index crew previews Tuesday's game.
1. Should the Heat consider giving LeBron some time off to rest his back?
Israel Gutierrez: The Heat should absolutely consider it, even though this type of back injury isn't uncommon for James this time of year. But it never hurts to play it safe with your most important asset. The Pacers jumping out to a lead in the conference shouldn't be too much of a concern.
Tom Haberstroh: Yes. The goal is to have LeBron James in prime condition for the playoff run. Since joining the Heat, he's played 400 minutes more than anybody (including the postseason) and almost 2,000 more minutes than Dwyane Wade. If LeBron's back is truly bothering him, trust that ol' "better to be safe than sorry" adage.
Michael Wallace: Not unless he raises his hand for relief. As LeBron sort of jokingly told reporters Monday in Miami, it's time to stop treating him like Dwyane Wade when it comes to all of the injury questions. LeBron's back tightness sounds more like a conditioning issue he routinely works his way through more so than a serious concern right now.
2. What’s the key to Miami tightening up on defense?
Gutierrez: Effort. This is exactly what the skeptics talked about when they say fatigue sets in while trying to win three straight titles. This team knows how to defend at a championship level and can do it now, if it was needed. But until it is needed, it's difficult to ramp up that kind of energy nightly.
Haberstroh: It's November. It's an exhausting defense that makes up for a lack of size with speed. They don't have Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol or Dwight Howard so they have to make up for it by sprinting all over the floor and wreaking havoc with athleticism. It is unrealistic to do that for 100 games straight and the players know it.
Wallace: This sounds simple. But it's all about focus and effort on that side of the ball. We've seen the Heat put in the work to put together some of the best offensive performances of the Big Three era already this season. Their ball movement and assist numbers are off the charts but they have to care enough on defense to make the magic work there, as well.
3. Other than slowing down O.J. Mayo, how do the Heat stop the Bucks?
Gutierrez: The Bucks' perimeter unit isn't the most efficient group of all time, so the Heat probably need to make sure they don't get pushed around inside. That means keeping a body on Zaza Pachulia and not letting John Henson have a breakout game.
Haberstroh: Well, they need to keep Larry Sanders off the floor, but he already took care of that. Kidding aside, if the Heat's transition defense shows up, they should run away with the win. Transition defense has been an Achilles' heel for the Heat and on Saturday, the Boston Celtics took advantage. Milwaukee could do the same with its young core.
Wallace: By avoiding another slow start and closing strong in the fourth. We've seen this Bucks team left for dead a few times this season only to rally back to set up a close finish or even steal a game. Another key for the Heat is to close out defensively on Milwaukee's shooters. The Bucks are second in the league in 3-point shooting at 43.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Heat forward LeBron James believes that a lack of continuity might be a factor contributing to the team's defensive struggles to start the season.
The Heat spent the bulk of Monday's practice searching for answers to their 4-3 start to the season that has them ranked 25th among the league's 30 teams in defensive efficiency. But the contrast between Miami's top-ranked offense and its defensive lapses is staggering.
James pointed to several issues that have led to the Heat's inconsistency.
“I don't know if it's because we've had guys out of the lineup, guys dealing with injuries, whatever it's been,” James said Monday. “Whatever it is, we need to fix it.”
James said Saturday's 111-110 loss to Boston on Jeff Green's buzzer-beating 3-pointer should serve as a wake-up call for the Heat. Had Green missed the desperation dagger from the corner, James said there's a chance Miami would have left the game with a false sense of security.
Instead, James and his teammates are dealing with the defensive miscues head on.
“Our offense is as good as it's ever been,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “So it's all defense with our team. It's defensively where we need to have more focus. First you have to understand what the problem is, then you have to own the problem, then you have to go out and fix the problem consistently. Not just for one game but for [several] games.”
Wade essentially said the Heat were embarrassed by their effort against the Celtics. Miami allowed Boston to shoot 52 percent from the field, 48 percent from 3-point range and overcome a four-point deficit in the final 3.6 seconds of the game. For the season, Miami is allowing opponents to shoot 47.3 percent from the field and score 100.9 points per game.
“Right now, we have something that this team needs, and it's something to get better at, something to pique our interest, as well,” Wade said. “Looking at the film, looking at the team that was on the court the other night, it's not the team we like to represent for our organization, for our fans, for ourselves.”
Heat forward Michael Beasley certainly doesn't like to be yelled at on most occasions. But those instances don't include the moment Saturday night when LeBron shouted at him to keep shooting.
Beasley said Monday he was initially hesitant to look for his shot when he entered the game against the Celtics, but that he gained confidence after his exchange with James on the court. Beasley obliged and put up seven shots in eight minutes to finish with 10 points in the loss to Boston.
“It would have felt better with a win, but it feels good to get minutes,” Beasley said. “L.J., he yelled at me. It was two times when Mario [Chalmers] drove baseline, and I had a wide-open shot. And I passed it to [LeBron]. He yelled at me. He said, 'Do what you do. You're not here to pass the ball.' Once he told me that, I just kind of focused my attention on the rim.”
While James (back soreness) declared Monday he would be in the lineup for Tuesday's game against Milwaukee, Heat forward Udonis Haslem didn't sound as certain. Haslem missed Saturday's game against Boston with back spasms, and has been dealing with soreness for about two weeks.
“It started a day or two before the Chicago game ... it just wasn't getting any better, and actually it was getting worse,” Haslem said Monday. “I just got to the point where I was unable to move and run and jump and do what I wanted to do. I needed to give it a little more attention and take care of it.”
Haslem said Monday was the best he's felt in weeks and that he hopes to play Tuesday. But ultimately, he doesn't want to come back too soon and have another setback.
“I'll continue to work with it, be patient and be smart,” Haslem said. “It's not something I want to deal with all season. It'll be up to the trainers. I don't want to take one step forward and two steps back.”
Did you know?
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose mother is from the Philippines, is contributing to the relief efforts as the nation recovers from last week's devastating typhoon. Spoelstra said Monday that the majority of his relatives there live in the capital of Manila and were directly impacted.
Quote of the day
“I'm active. Y'all going to stop trying to treat me like D-Wade around here.”
- LeBron James, joking to reporters when asked about his ailing back and status for Tuesday's game against Milwaukee.
MIAMI -- Chris Bosh insisted he felt 10 feet tall as he held his newborn daughter earlier this week and skipped a game in Toronto to remain in Miami with his family.
Bosh could certainly use the additional length when he returns to the lineup for Thursday's game against the Los Angeles Clippers and face their explosively athletic front line anchored by Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The Heat get their first crack at the new-look Lob City crew, which added coach Doc Rivers and a revamped supporting cast around Griffin, Jordan and catalyst Chris Paul to push them to the front of the Western Conference.
And Bosh is back just in time to get a close-up view of the high-scoring, highlight-making Clippers as they look to rebound from Wednesday's 98-80 setback in Orlando.
“I'm glad I didn't look at the game last night,” Bosh said of the Clippers' stunning loss to the Magic. “You could see they were a little sluggish yesterday, and Orlando caught them off guard. But we know we're going to get their 'A' game, because we get everybody's 'A' game.”
It's already been an emotional week with little sleep for Bosh, who had his most complete game of the season with 24 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two assists in Sunday night's victory against the Washington Wizards. A few hours later, Bosh's wife, Adrienne, went into labor and delivered baby girl Dylan Skye Bosh at 5:55 a.m. ET on Monday.
Bosh missed Monday's practice and didn't travel with the team later that afternoon for Tuesday's game in Toronto. The Heat had the day off Wednesday, so Bosh said he's ready to get back to work and pick up where he left off.
“I'm able to just get out of the house for a little bit, play a game and then go back home,” Bosh said after Thursday's team shootaround as he sarcastically poked fun at his wife and youngest daughter. “I've got two women, you know, yelling at me now. So, it's a lot of fun [at home].”
Bosh doesn't expect to catch many breaks on the court from the Clippers, who average a league-high 112.3 points per game. Paul also leads the NBA with 12.6 assists a game. Bosh said he's already seeing a difference Rivers has had on the team during his initial weeks as coach after leaving the Boston Celtics following a successful nine-year tenure that included two Finals appearances and a 2008 title.
“Doc is going to continue to give them a lot of confidence, because he's coached at a championship level,” Bosh said. “He's going to motivate those guys to elevate their game.”
Of course, elevation has always been a vital part of the Clippers game, with Paul tossing lob passes that routinely result in crushing dunks by Jordan and Griffin. Rivers' main challenge is to improve their defense, particularly in late stretches of games against playoff-caliber teams.
“They didn't get the name Lob City by just rolling the ball out there,” Bosh said. “They have a specific scheme. We're going to have to meet those guys early. They have a huge upside in athleticism, they can really jump up there and go get it. So our ground game is going to have to be pretty good. But that's what we do -- we take [on] the challenges.”
The Heat also want to continue their efficient and aggressive offensive play from the past two games. The Heat regrouped from consecutive losses last week with wins over Washington and Toronto. Miami had 30 assists in back-to-back games for the first time since 1995.
Bosh said some of the keys to Thursday's game including playing at comfortable tempo that gets the Heat out in transition but without turning the game into a track meet. Miami is trying to kick a habit of getting off to slow starts. Defensively, Bosh said, the goal is to keep the Clippers as grounded as possible by forcing them to settle for jumpers.
Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have enjoyed their share of Clippers highlights the past few seasons. But the goal is to prevent Paul, Griffin and Jordan from creating too many new ones at the expense of the Heat's defense.
“We've got guys who make highlights too,” Bosh said. “With the SportsCenter generation, we know what's going to be shown most. But if they do make a great play, we take the ball out and we move on. We don't want to give up a lot of dunks because that gets guys going. If we keep them from doing that, it'll kind of take them out of their rhythm.”
It might as well serve as a declaration to the league.
“I'm on my way. I'm getting there,” James said. “I ain't where I want to be, but I'm getting there slowly but surely, and I have to continue to work my habits, continue to get a great feel out there, and then …”
James paused and smiled.
Well, and then what?
“Watch out,” James said.
James was referring to the traction he's gradually gaining with his game and his team as the Heat try to round their way into form after a sluggish first week of the season. But more than anything, James is in steady pursuit of the level of impact he's accustomed to having on the game. In other words, it's November, but James is on a midseason mission.
After demanding his team play with more urgency and chemistry in the wake of road losses to Philadelphia and Brooklyn, the Heat have responded with two of their most cohesive offensive performances in decades as they start to work through the kinks and challenges of a new season.
In the process, Miami has tallied 63 assists the last two games, with 32 coming in Sunday's victory against the Wizards and 31 in Tuesday's win over the Raptors. It's the first time in 18 years the Heat have had at least 30 assists in consecutive games. It doesn't appear to be a passing fad.
If James and the Heat did experience symptoms of a championship hangover entering the season, they've reached an ideal point early in the schedule where they can shake off the cobwebs and build on their last two efforts.
Miami plays seven of its next nine games at home, starting with Thursday's marquee showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers in what could be a NBA Finals matchup.
James admitted that chemistry and conditioning issues have contributed to some uneven stretches that have left the team searching for consistency dating to early in training camp.
Establishing cohesion has been a challenge, with teammate Dwyane Wade sitting out last Wednesday's game in Philadelphia with knee soreness and center Chris Bosh missing the Toronto game after the birth of his daughter.
At the same time, James is using the initial weeks of the season to regain his rhythm and conditioning -- a process he routinely has handled late in the summer.
James and the Heat appear to be turning a corner on many of those fronts and have primarily addressed some communication issues that cropped up as concerns amid last week's losses.
“We have to continue to communicate, obviously,” James said. “We had great communication. We're connected. Once we get on the floor, we made it happen. We'll continue to work our habits. We understand what it takes for us to win. It's something we know, and we have to go out and do it.”
In typical fashion, James has led by example with his play. After struggling with his offense in the Heat's season-opening win against Chicago, James scored 25, 26 and 25 points over his next three games. But that stretch also saw James commit a combined 15 turnovers as he tried to force plays and sort through coach Erik Spoelstra's fluid rotation.
There was a more assertive and attacking James in play Tuesday. In becoming just the fifth player in NBA history to reach double figures in 500 consecutive regular-season games, James shot 13-of-20 from the field and made all eight of his free-throws. He also had eight assists, eight rebounds, a block and just one turnover in 36 minutes.
It was late-season LeBron.
“I don't want to ever take it for granted, his greatness,” Spoelstra said. “I don't want to get to a point where that's normal, because he's not a normal player.”
If Tuesday served as a reminder of that notion, then Thursday stands to offer perhaps the best chance to make another strong statement to open a four-game homestand.
James hasn't been alone in trying to re-establish a comfort zone with his game. Wade is also coming off his most complete game of the season in Toronto and seems to be getting back on the same page with James, with the two delivering one of their familiar highlight-reel lob-and-dunk plays in transition. The ball movement has been as contagious within the team as last season's Harlem shake, with everyone getting in on the action in recent days.
Starting point guard Mario Chalmers has had 15 assists the last two games, Rashard Lewis added five off the bench Tuesday, and Ray Allen dished six on Sunday. All but 15 of Miami's 78 made shots the last two games have been the result of teammates setting up others for open shots.
“We know what works for us; it's just sometimes we don't always do it,” Wade said of the Heat kicking some of their more stubborn habits. “We just have to continue moving the ball and understanding that we are at our best when everyone is involved. It keeps everyone alert. That's the recipe for success for us, keeping everyone involved.”
Despite the positive signs of late, Heat players still caution they are far from a finished product. There will be hiccups and flat-out adversity along the way. They believe that's all part of the sharpening process that shapes them into peak form.
“We've all been together for a while now,” James said. “So we know where we are right now, where we need to get to in order to be at our best and what it takes to get there.”
That is a natural byproduct when 14 of the 15 players on the roster are scheduled to be free agents or can opt out of their contracts at the end of the season. Considering they’re the two-time champs, it’s a situation that hasn’t been seen since the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.
But there’s a flip side to that reality and it appears the Heat are going to benefit from it. The combination of players thinking about their next contracts and the respect being paid to an improving Eastern Conference has led to a fit and focused team from the first day of training camp. It looks to have blown any championship hangover right off. Signs of malaise or contentment, typical symptoms of success, were not to be found around the Heat over the last month.
Compared to last season especially, the Heat have been generally all business and appear to be intent on avoiding an uneven start like they experienced in 2012-13.
“Just about everyone came to camp at about the same weight and body fat they had during the Finals or less,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is an extremely focused group and they came into this season with a work mindset.”
The Heat finished 66-16 last season, which certainly was impressive. But their performance was a little lopsided. They started the season 25-12, which was just fine, but below their own expectation. Of the first 18 games they played against eventual playoff teams, they were just 10-8. Over the first 20 games of the season, they were giving up nearly 100 points a game.
Of course they finished the regular season a breathtaking 41-4 and by March they’d sliced off eight points a game from their opponents’ scoring average.
But as they look around the East with the Bulls getting Derrick Rose back plus the upgrades the Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers made, the Heat players have made it a mission to avoid what they considered a sluggish start last year.
Last year Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen had offseason surgery and eased their way into the season. LeBron James had an exhaustive summer playing for Team USA and only had a few days off between the end of the Finals and the start of training camp. Spoelstra decided to skip two-a-days to give his ailing and aging players some rest and midway through the preseason the team went to China for a week and was thrown off their schedules.
That and some satisfaction from winning the Finals 4-1 over the Oklahoma City Thunder was a recipe that saw the team not play at its best very much over the season’s first three months. Their reaction to various losses, even against contenders, was usually a collective shrug. In the end, it didn’t matter, because the Heat ended up going on one of the hottest streaks in league history to secure the No. 1 overall seed and eventually get two deciding Game 7s at home.
The veteran-laden team is not giving off the impression they assume that’s how it’ll work out again. The No. 1 seed this season may be harder to attain and therefore even more valuable.
“We won games early last year and didn't look good,” Shane Battier said. “We dropped a few that, looking back at it, we should have won. We know the Eastern Conference is highly competitive. We scraped by to get out of the Eastern Conference last year. Obviously, we want to play our best basketball at the end. That doesn't mean we can't start at a higher level and build toward that.”
The difference in the team’s attitude this year has been palpable. Spoelstra was gassing players with defensive drills in two-a-day workouts from day one and the players made it a theme throughout training camp.
“We didn't start off the season like we wanted to defensively last year,” James said. “But we knew. I think when you have a problem and you face it, it's very correctable, and we knew that. So one thing we talked about was defending. Everyone has bought in to what we’re trying to do.”
Wade and Chris Bosh came to camp in the best shape they’ve been in since the team was formed in 2010. Allen switched to a new diet and lost 10 pounds. Mario Chalmers gave up fried food and got into a weight-loss bet with Allen, which is a losing proposition but hardly the point. He has also given up crab dip unless it’s in his native Alaska after a bad batch before a preseason game in Washington ruined his night.
Nonetheless, there’s no questioning they’re all motivated to win a third title but there’s no missing the fact that all of them have the personal motivation to make a statement before contract negotiations. The circumstances are all different but these players have various things to prove before the Heat or another team makes them offers.
As for James, he took extended time off for the first time since the 2011 lockout but still is playing at his lowest weight in several years. James has closely guarded his weight for various reasons. At one point he went over 270 pounds but is back down to around 260 even though he’s been listed at 250 for years now.
Some nagging injuries and planned rest didn’t make the Heat’s preseason games look all the impressive. But they treated a game in New Orleans last week as a full dress rehearsal and the team’s core of James, Wade, Bosh and Allen combined for 75 points, 18 rebounds and 17 assists in a 13-point win in a game that very much resembled the team that blitzed through the league in the second half of last season.
That performance alone sent enough of a message. There’s way too much at stake and too much unpredictability to mess around. Just in case, the Heat have the look of a team that intends to play this season with no guarantees of another chance.
“Guys did an unbelievable job with as little time that we had off to get their rest a little bit, but also come in in great shape and come in prepared for a season,” Wade said. “We approached training camp the right kind of way.”
MIAMI -- LeBron James twisted in his locker room seat Friday night, clenched his fists to expose his knuckles and searched for the nearest wood structure to strike.
James and the rest of his Miami Heat teammates had one goal above all others entering Friday's preseason finale against the Brooklyn Nets at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“The best thing about coming out of camp -- I don't want to jinx it, so I'll tell you after the game,” James said. “But you know where I'm headed. Right now, we're all healthy. And if we can make it through the night, that will be perfect.”
The Heat certainly didn't thrive on their way to a 108-87 loss to the Nets in the final tuneup for both teams as they prepare for the start of the regular season next week. But at the very least, Miami did survive the preseason in one piece heading into Tuesday's opener against the Chicago Bulls.
The Heat took measures to ensure as much, with James and Chris Bosh sitting out Friday to allow reserves to get extended playing time. Dwyane Wade had the option of skipping the game as well, but decided to push through his third consecutive preseason game to build on his previous two strong performances. But Wade endured a testy and sloppy performance to finish just 3-of-11 from the field for eight points along with five turnovers in 25 minutes.
Wade's night also included a couple of chippy exchanges with Nets forward Paul Pierce as the two exchanged blows on consecutive possessions in the first half. Pierce raked Wade across the face as he tried to fight through a screen. On the following trip, Wade body-checked Pierce as he tried to get position inside the lane.
If there was anything about Friday's game that resembles the intensity expected when these teams meet for the Nets' home opener in a week, it was the Wade-Pierce clash.
“I got cut a little bit. It's competitive,” Wade said of Pierce, who had 16 points as one of five Brooklyn players to score in double figures. “I'm not going to back down from any kind of competition. And I know that guy is not either. So I enjoy my few minutes of banter with him, um, whatever.”
After the game, Pierce responded as if he didn't even feel Wade's presence the moment they collided in the lane.
“He gave me a forearm?” Pierce said. “Man, I didn't feel it. That wasn't nothing. You see I didn't move. I didn't budge.”
If there were any doubts as to whether the Heat's rivalry with the Boston Celtics would transfer to the Nets following the offseason additions of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, they've been erased during the two preseason matchups the teams have played over eight days.
Garnett sat out Friday to rest, but Deron Williams made his preseason debut after missing all of training camp with a sprained right ankle. Williams played just 10 minutes, but scored 11 points and knocked down three 3-pointers to set the tone for a night when the Nets shot 63 percent (17-of-27) from beyond the arc. But even Williams cautioned that much shouldn't be made of Brooklyn's two exhibition victories over Miami by a combined margin of 45 points.
“It's the preseason,” Williams said. “If we think we're going to come in and beat Miami by 30 points every time, then we're crazy. We did a lot of good things we can take from this, but saw a lot we can work on. We realize if we play like this, we can have a chance to win every night.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has been pleased with his team's conditioning and development since the start of training camp. But the one area he's consistently raised concerns about has been Miami's struggles to close out to the perimeter defensively and better guard the 3-point line.
“We have four days to get ready,” Spoelstra said. “We've had a productive October, so our guys are looking forward to Tuesday. We need to improve our 3-point shooting defense. We certainly need to re-insure some discipline of our defense, more so than the effort right now.”
Wade, who played in five of eight preseason games, said the only tangible thing he could take away from Friday's tuneup was the chance to get some conditioning work. The Heat will have the day off Saturday and return to practice Sunday, with two days of on-court preparation for Chicago.
“I just wanted to get out there and run around a little bit, and just continue to get my legs into it,” Wade said. “I was aggressive early, but I saw a couple things that didn't go my way, so I took my foot off the pedal. I didn't want to get banged up too much. I will save it for the next one.”
Three key takeaways from the Miami Heat's 108-95 win on Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
In was only a handful of minutes and featured barely a few encouraging moments. But the story of Wednesday's game took shape when Greg Oden finally made his return to NBA action in the second quarter after four years of recovery from devastating knee injuries.
Oden's four-minute stint just before the half marked his first game action since Dec. 5, 2009, as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, when he suffered the second season-ending knee injury since he was drafted No. 1 in 2007. Fittingly, Oden's first contribution was a dunk on his first touch just a few seconds after he checked in with 5:15 left in the second quarter. He added two rebounds, defensively altered a couple of shots and had a couple of fouls before he left with a minute left in the half.
"I'm happy I'm able to walk off this court and I'm able to play another day," Oden said during the Heat's postgame television broadcast. "I'm still getting it back, and I've got a long way to go. But I'm happy to get back out there. It's been three long years. My friends and my family and God, they've been there with me the whole entire way."
What does this mean for Oden and the Heat?
Initially, it means that Oden got his wish and that coach Erik Spoelstra proved to be a man of his word when he cleared the way for the 7-foot center to play in a preseason game as long as Oden progressed with his rehab and conditioning. But beyond that, the true significance of Oden's cameo won't -- and can't -- be determined until a measuring device is placed around his knees Thursday to gauge the extent of any swelling that may occur after Wednesday night's game and an overnight flight to Miami.
What Oden did on the court against the Pelicans is no different from the short stints he's played with the Heat during scrimmages over the past few weeks. He's had on and off days along the way, and there were suggestions last week that he had experienced a setback that sidelined him for several days after he practiced in five-on-five drills.
But Spoelstra has long cautioned that Oden is a long-term project and not a quick fix, that giving him a day or two off from extensive activity doesn't necessarily constitute a setback in his recovery or progress. Before Wednesday's game, Spoelstra told reporters in New Orleans that he believed Oden was "ahead of schedule" in terms of where the team figured he'd be at this point when Miami signed him to a one-year contract in July and started this process.
Spoelstra then told Oden to be prepared to play. Just a sneak peek of Oden's potential impact alongside Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade offered plenty of promise late Wednesday night. But just as vital for the Heat and Oden will be the patient approach they both must continue to take.
One thing is clear: Oden's plight has galvanized this team. If there was any thought the two-time defending champion Heat would struggle to find motivation and inspiration entering the season, their reaction to every move Oden made in his brief stint Wednesday should erase any doubt.
Rolling out the rotation
Spoelstra entered Wednesday's game with a regular-season approach, considering the way he worked his rotation.
He'll always keep his options open, but expect the lineup Spoelstra started against the Pelicans to be the one he'll go with in the Heat's opener Tuesday against the Chicago Bulls. Miami opened with Mario Chalmers, Wade, James, Udonis Haslem and Bosh. The Heat's first four off the bench were the same reserves who were in the rotation last season when Miami wrapped up its second consecutive title: Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen.
As was the case last season, James remained on the court with the reserves when that unit entered the game for the first time in the final minutes of the first quarter. A preview of what Michael Beasley's role could be initially came into focus when he entered for a short stint when James left the game near the end of the first quarter. That placed Beasley in the role of 10th man in the rotation.
Wade then opened the second quarter playing with the reserves as Beasley went to the bench. That 10th man role will continue to be a situational deployment, based on matchups. So it's conceivable that Beasley, Oden or, perhaps, Rashard Lewis could rotate that assignment. Lewis continues to be away from the team for a second consecutive week to attend to a family matter.
Big Three ready
While Bosh carried much of the production load in the initial preseason games, James and Wade have gradually worked their way into prime condition for the season.
James and Wade had their best performance in tandem during the victory, combining for 52 points, eight assists and seven steals. They each shot 10-of-17 from the field. Wade, who played in consecutive preseason games for the first time this fall, logged 33 minutes while James had a 29-minute night. Bosh had a team-high nine rebounds.
James and Wade each led dominant, game-altering runs for the Heat. James scored seven straight points during a 22-3 spurt that allowed Miami to overcome an early 15-point deficit. Wade knocked down his lone 3-pointer of the season and had a breakaway dunk during an 18-2 push that resulted in the Pelicans' first loss of the preseason.
It's likely that James or Wade -- possibly both -- will sit out the preseason finale Friday at home against Brooklyn.
So from a historical perspective, he commands quite a bit of credibility when he makes statements that are as bold as any of the clutch shots he's hit to build his resume as the most prolific 3-point shooter the NBA has ever seen.
As the Miami Heat prepare to make a run at a third consecutive championship, Allen believes this latest version of the team has the potential to boast the most productive bench of any squad with which he's played.
“On paper right now, I can say it is,” Allen said after a group of Heat reserves helped boost Miami to an 86-75 preseason victory over the Charlotte Bobcats in a neutral-site game at the Sprint Center. “You'll definitely see it more when you see the production from points to rebounds to plus-minus and how we keep leads when games formulate themselves. But we definitely have a chance.”
And beyond that, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will definitely face a chore when he finally gets down to the tedious task of having roles develop on a supporting cast to complement LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh this season.
For now, Spoelstra is having so much fun mixing and matching potential combinations that the Heat are one of the few teams in the league that hasn’t trimmed any players from the original 20 who opened training camp.
With James gradually shaking off the offseason rust to lead the way with 20 points, the Heat also got a combined 36 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists Friday off the bench from Norris Cole, Michael Beasley and Rashard Lewis. Allen was also on the court with those three reserves during some of the more potent and cohesive moments of the game.
There was only one problem. That second unit for the Heat didn't even include Shane Battier and Chris Andersen, who sat out Friday after playing in Thursday's win in Detroit and will be vital members of the rotation in much the same fashion they were during last season's championship run.
Add in the luxury of 11-year veteran Roger Mason Jr. and the possibilities that even a slightly effective Greg Oden can bring to the equation, and Spoelstra could be looking at the deepest and most challenging-to-manage rotation he's had since Miami began its run of three straight Finals trips.
Spoelstra recounted Friday how the Heat ultimately didn't have enough quality depth when they were eventually overwhelmed in six games by Dallas in the 2011 Finals. With James having slipped into a slump, the Heat had few reliable or healthy options beyond Wade and Bosh. That was a Miami team that relied at times during the season on the likes of Mike Bibby, Erick Dampier and Eddie House.
It's that memory that has driven the Heat the past two seasons to overstock the roster in some facets despite economic challenges presented by an increasingly punitive luxury tax assessed to teams that are over the salary cap.
“That's been our focus ever since the 2011 Finals,” Spoelstra said Friday. “We were beat up going into that last round, and we didn't feel we had the necessary depth to be able to survive the unpredictable injuries. So we've tried to build up our roster every single year, knowing that you have to get the right kind of pro, the right kind of guy to buy into the sacrifice … and that hasn't been easy.”
But it has been effective. And that recent success of getting players to buy in and sacrifice playing time and salary to round out the roster has led the confident Heat to take some of their biggest roster gambles of the Big Three era.
Much like Allen, James also sees the potential payoff if this team remains on the path it charted when a defensive-dominated camp opened two weeks ago in the Bahamas.
Since then, James has seen Beasley gradually progress from frustrated and apprehensive to shooting 50 percent from the field in a back-to-back set against Detroit and Charlotte while scoring at almost a point-per-minute clip.
James also sees Cole emerging as a point guard who can confidently run the second unit and Lewis opening the preseason with rejuvenated legs after finally getting past the aftereffects of knee problems the past two seasons.
And James already knows what he'll get from Allen, Battier and Andersen off the Heat's bench. Should Beasley continue to progress into a sparkplug off the bench who can create his own offense efficiently off the dribble, it could reduce some of the burden on James to consistently anchor both the starting group and the second-unit reserves.
“I prepare myself to be a starter and to work with that second lineup,” James said. “But to have that ability to go five -- we can bring in five guys off the bench and sit the whole starting lineup if we need to, because we have that type of talent. Guys are learning, getting better. That's definitely a luxury. We can do some really special things.”
That should be enough motivation to keep Beasley from self-destructing and squandering his opportunity as he tries to find his niche while on a non-guaranteed contract. The team went into Friday's game having to clarify that Beasley didn't actually require medical treatment after Thursday's game for punching himself in the head in frustration.
Although Beasley did strike himself in the third quarter against the Pistons for a series of mistakes he made, he claimed Friday that it was an errant elbow from Detroit forward Jonas Jerebko that caused the swelling and bruise on his forehead that required treatment from trainers.
Still, Beasley knows that those episodes aren't the kind of silly distractions he can afford if he wants a lasting and productive role in his second stint with the Heat.
“I'm coming into a delicate situation,” Beasley said. “I'm on a team that's really fighting for something, fighting for a spot in history. So it's not pressure, but it is a little more to think about. I definitely don't want to mess up. I definitely don't want to be the reason that the ship falls. I'm definitely taking it way more serious than my first two years. I'm just trying to work hard and gain the trust of my teammates.”
That’s the question that keeps popping in my head as I watch a tentative James shy away from a packed paint in the Finals. Much of that unassertiveness could be attributed to James and whatever mental obstacles stand in his way from being the unmovable force that destroyed the league in the regular season.
But I’m not buying that the root of the problem is in James’ head.
Sure, the Spurs are playing off James when he has the ball, but if you watch the tape, something else becomes obvious:
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
It’s more than just a historical question; it also is a central factor in how this series might end up playing out. Because the San Antonio Spurs may be just fine with it -- in fact, it might be an indicator that their game plan is working. It’s become clear the Spurs want to use James’ instincts against him, even if that means he gets what they consider meaningless triple-doubles.
Heading into Game 3 Tuesday night, James is just a couple of assists short of that triple-double average (17.5 points, 13 rebounds, 8.5 assists).
Only 10 players have ever averaged a triple-double in a playoff series, and only Jason Kidd (twice) has done it in the past 20 years. It’s never been done in the Finals. Kidd, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain are the only ones to have done it as late as the conference finals.
Move beyond those stat thresholds, though, and understand why James is seeing this surge across the board in numbers. He was “only” averaging six assists per game, for example, in the 16 playoff games heading into the Finals.
The answer is because the Spurs are baiting him into becoming more of a distributor with a defensive strategy aimed at forcing the ball out of his hands. That means assists are going to go up, but it also means the Spurs are making much more inconsistent players such as Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller or Udonis Haslem beat them, or players who are injured or slumping, such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Simply put, this is a deal the Spurs will take anytime. In Game 2, the Chalmers-Allen-Miller trio got the best of them. When the Spurs got on the plane to head home for a week, though, their heads likely were pretty clear when it came to their defensive game plan. They need to clean up things on offense, especially those turnovers.
But so far, the Spurs are winning in the vital game-within-a-game of how to control James.
There’s also been a major reduction in playing time for expert floor-spacer Shane Battier, which means James is spending significantly more time at power forward and playing closer to the basket, so his rebounding numbers have leapt as well. But it also means the Spurs are able to more comfortably match up because using Kawhi Leonard at power forward on James still allows them to play their best lineups.
In the aftermath of the Heat’s Game 2 blowout win, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked about James’ play.
“He did a fine job,” Popovich said. “He took what was available.”
It was a dry compliment because frankly, the Spurs are thrilled when James does a “fine” job and takes “what’s available.” That means he’s not dominating offensively and imposing his will on the game by breaking down defensive schemes as he’s so accustomed to. Last season when he won the Finals MVP, James averaged 29 points a game. He averaged 29 points in the last round against the Indiana Pacers.
That’s not the James the Spurs want to have to attempt to manage. They are perfectly happy with double-teaming James and making him a passer, even if it does lead to impressive all-around stat lines. They are willing to let him get a few more rebounds because he’s playing more power forward if it means the Heat aren’t successfully able to use the devastating lineup with Battier that saw them cut down 27 consecutive opponents in the regular season.
Already, the game plan is lulling James in at times. By Game 2, when James caught the ball in the post, he waited for the double-team to come so he could pass out of it. When he came off high screens, he was studying where the help was coming from and looking where to deliver the ball, instead of attacking before the defense could move so he would force a foul.
This is exactly the way the Spurs want him to play, even if it means they’re going to give up some open 3-point looks.
“What I do know is sharing the ball is contagious, and it allows everyone to feel involved in the offense,” James said. “For me personally, I know I attract a lot of attention. This team has been set up the right way where when I do attract attention, we have guys that can make plays.”
James is correct; the Heat have been structured to have an antidote to the Spurs' strategy. But the Heat operate at the highest level when passing is one of James’ options, not the main game plan.
“He played solid basketball,” Popovich also said in describing James’ recent play.
A “solid” will not win it for the Heat.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tony Parker caused the Heat problems late in Game 1.
MIAMI -- The Miami Heat obviously knew that containing point guard Tony Parker would be a huge headache entering the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
There might not be enough time to find a remedy by Sunday for Game 2.
But after seeing him carve through their defense during San Antonio's mistake-free fourth quarter, the Heat now face the challenge of addressing their Parker problem while also managing to limit multiple side effects.
As it prepares for Game 2, Miami -- having lost 92-88 Thursday -- is dealing with the same sort of pick-your-poison predicament that its opponents usually face against the Heat, and is desperately scrambling for answers.
Parker scored 10 of his team-high 21 points in the fourth quarter, and had a counter for every defensive wrinkle the Heat threw at him -- including a shot clock-beating jumper in the final seconds to help secure the win.
Not even shifting LeBron James onto Parker in the final minutes seemed to disrupt the Spurs' late-game execution. Even as the Heat honed in on Parker, San Antonio's ball movement and spacing created opportunities for all five starters to score during a period in which the Spurs outscored Miami 23-16 and didn't commit a turnover.
“Against a very good basketball team, you hold them to 42 percent shooting, you hold them to 92 points, normally with our offense, we think we're in the driver's seat,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But there's a small margin of error both ways. You have to make plays every single possession. When you don't, and you don't concentrate on things you need to, you pay the price. We have to regroup.”
Among those adjustments for the Heat will involve finding a way to get a better handle on Parker without losing a grip on Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and floor-spacing shooters Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. It's almost exactly the same dynamic teams deal with when they try to stop James while also keeping close track of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and deep threats in Ray Allen and Shane Battier when the Heat's offense is clicking at its peak late in games.
The Spurs said they expected the Heat to try to slow Parker late in the game by eventually handing the defensive assignment to James. They were ready when James arrived.
Instead of Parker trying to force his own offense, he continued to run pick-and-roll sets that occupied James with the screener. When the Heat trapped Parker, he moved the ball to teammates for the first in a series of swing passes that eventually found an open spot-up shooter.
That balance led to a jumper from Parker with 3:30 left that put the Spurs ahead by four. A minute later, Parker was forced to give up the ball in a sequence that ultimately led to Ginobili swinging it to Green for a 3-pointer to increase the lead to 88-81 with 2:13 remaining.
The offense was far from flawless in a quarter that saw the Spurs miss 14 of 23 shots. But Parker's execution against the Heat's defense in key stages made it seem that way.
“Tony made some great calls to get some switches in the right places,” Duncan said. “We understand that when it comes down to it, LeBron is going to be their best defender. They are going to put him on Tony. We have to continue to execute, continue to attack and just try to get [Parker] as much space as possible.”
Parker said he's grown accustomed to teams using bigger players to defend him late in games. Miami has used James in a similar capacity in past playoff series on point guards such as Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. During the second-round series against Chicago this postseason, James even spent a few shifts on 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson after he torched the Heat for 27 points in the Bulls' Game 1 victory in Miami.
Parker said he watched film with coach Gregg Popovich of the Heat's tendencies when James changes assignments. The key was to avoid being rattled by the pressure.
“I knew he was coming,” Parker said of James. “I think the key for me in this series is to be patient and choose my moments when to be aggressive. If LeBron is on me, I just have to try to keep playing the same way. I have to trust everybody. We're a team. Everybody has to contribute.”
Containing Parker might prove to be as difficult a task as trying to limit James, who had 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists in the losing effort. The Heat have had problems all season with quick, efficient and aggressive point guards. Parker has averaged 22.6 points and 7.3 assists while shooting 38.1 percent from 3-point range in the postseason.
He's shown an ability to beat opponents with his shooting, by penetrating or strictly facilitating for his teammates. In Game 1, he was at the peak of his game. Parker played a team-high 40 minutes, had six assists and did not commit a turnover. It was the most minutes he's played in a postseason game in his career without a turnover.
With Parker knocking down 9 of 18 shots in Game 1, the Spurs improved to 8-0 this postseason when he shoots at least 50 percent from the field. Moving forward, the Heat might look to use multiple defenders and schemes earlier in games to push Parker out of his offensive comfort zone.
“Obviously, Tony is the engine behind everything, so we just have to do a better job,” Wade said. “As the series goes on, we'll make adjustments. We'll get to see where we can be better at defensively. Give them credit. They came in and didn't shoot the ball very well, but they stuck with it.”
The Heat head into Sunday's game believing that their own offensive ineptness in the fourth quarter created even more problems for them than Parker. Miami shot 27 percent and committed five of their nine turnovers in the fourth quarter, a period when Wade and Bosh combined for two points.
“In the fourth quarter, we had some mental mistakes,” James said. “And it's only a couple of teams you can't have mistakes against, especially in the fourth [quarter]. And San Antonio is definitely the No. 1 team.”
But the difference between winning and losing such a vital game has usually not been about him, but about his teammates.
James’ numbers in Game 7s -- one with the Cleveland Cavaliers in Detroit in 2006 in the conference semifinals, one with the Cavs in Boston in 2008 in the same round and last year against the Celtics in the conference finals in Miami -- are fantastic: 34.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game on 45 percent shooting.
But two others numbers stick out. James has averaged 6.7 assists in his 130 career playoff games. But in those three Game 7s: just 3.3 assists. Which also has something to do with his record in them: 1-2.
In his first Game 7 with the Cavs, the Pistons held his team to 61 points. Other than James, the rest of that Cavs starting lineup managed just 16 points combined. In his ’08 classic Game 7 duel with Paul Pierce, when both topped 40 points, James had only one other teammate score in double figures. That was Delonte West, who had 15 points.
Last year, the first time James tasted Game 7 success, it was with getting 23 points from Dwyane Wade and 19 from Chris Bosh. Shane Battier made four 3-pointers as well.
The formula to advance for James when the Heat face the Indiana Pacers tonight may come down to that. He may be able to play a great game, he may put up huge scoring numbers, but to be successful, he’s probably going to need help and probably going to need to give his teammates the chance to help.
“If we’re trying to figure that out now, we’re in trouble,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We have deep playoff runs where we’ve worked that out. We’re a stronger team when everybody is involved.”
Over the last two games, James has averaged 24 shots while Bosh and Wade have averaged just 14 combined, and the Heat have averaged just 84 points. In the first four games of the series, when Wade and Bosh were averaging a combined 26 shots, James averaged 19 and the Heat averaged 101 points.
That’s the tension that is pressing on James and the Heat. He’s expected to dominate a moment like this, but taking too much control could be a poor choice.
“It’s never been like that in team sports history. We can’t just sit around and expect LeBron to do all the work and hope that he has a 50-point game,” Bosh said. “We have to do our part.”
That, of course, is a challenge with both Wade and Bosh struggling. Wade has scored just 20 points total in the last two games and Bosh is in the midst of his biggest scoring slump since his rookie season in 2003-04. James has noticed and he’s been pulling away from them in the last few games.
James sent off some alarm bells after Game 5, which the Heat won, when he compared his team’s current style of play to the way it was when he played in Cleveland. In Cleveland, James never won a Game 7.
“We spent a lot of time trying to get on the same page about it,” Spoelstra said. “They’re big-game guys. The bright lights inspire them more than shrink them. This is why this team was put together.”
The track record says James will deliver a big game. But the track record also says he’ll need help and he’ll need to allow help from his teammates if the Heat are going to beat a strong Pacers team.
“To have one game to advance to the NBA Finals and there's two teams that's in this position, you can't substitute this feeling,” James said. “We should all cherish this moment.”
The first came in the opening four minutes of the game Saturday against the Pacers. LeBron James passed to Wade on the right baseline with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. James cleared out of the way for Wade, which allowed Wade to go at Lance Stephenson one-on-one. With his teammates retreating to the opposite side, Wade casually posted Stephenson up on the right block, dribbled three times, turned his right shoulder into traffic and found himself looking straight into David West’s armpit.
Uh oh. Now faced with a double-team, Wade tried a maneuver he’s successfully done throughout his career: draw contact and the shooting foul. Instead, West and Stephenson stood straight up and Wade flailed his arms wildly on a layup trying to get the whistle. While Wade was falling toward the basket, West already had snatched the ball away and begun to lead the Pacers’ fastbreak.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
James has been fuming the past few days after he was called for four fouls in the fourth quarter of the Miami Heat’s Game 4 loss that evened the series 2-2. He fouled out for just the second time in his career in a playoff game, and it came with a technical foul. James disputed three of those calls, and a review of the replays didn’t do much to ease his frustration.
On Thursday, his miserable finish to Game 4 was compounded by being fined $5,000 for flopping on a fourth-quarter play against Pacers forward David West. Add that retroactive penalty, and that fourth quarter in Indianapolis easily qualifies as the most penal quarter in James’ career.
That fine fired James up more because he believed West got away with a flop at the end of the third quarter when James was whistled for an offensive foul. That turned into a key play because the Pacers hit a 3-pointer just ahead of the buzzer with the extra possession to extend their lead.
Also bothering James was the belief that he had allowed the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson to get under his skin. Stephenson guarded James for stretches Tuesday night because James’ primary defender, Paul George, had gotten into his own foul trouble. Stephenson baited James into his technical and, as is his reputation, was disruptive at other times.
James bristled at even being asked about the matchup.
“If you are sitting here and talking about an individual one-on-one matchup between me and Lance Stephenson, I'm not going to harp on that,” James said.
Expect James to channel that emotion into the pivotal Game 5. Last season, after he fouled out of Game 4 in the conference finals against the Boston Celtics on a controversial offensive positioning foul that contributed to the Heat’s overtime loss, James responded with a venomous tear for the rest of that series.
He averaged 35.3 points and 13.3 rebounds the next three games, ultimately carrying the Heat into the Finals.
One of the noticeable differences in James’ game since his much-criticized struggles in the 2010-11 Finals is the way he approaches big playoff games. Earlier in his career, James sometimes played passively in these situations, and it led to plenty of questions about his ability to deliver in the clutch.
It has been a different James the past two seasons, especially in the late rounds of the playoffs.
“We’re excited for Game 5” was all James would say publicly. “We’re a confident bunch.”
The Heat have generally responded well to losses in the past two postseasons. They are 4-0 after losses dating to last season's conference finals. The Heat’s average margin of victory after losses to the Chicago Bulls and Pacers in the playoffs is 27.5 points.
“The main thing is how you respond to competition,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We understand the effort level and the energy level we’re going to have to bring, and we’re looking forward to that.”