In the 2011-12 playoffs, the Indiana Pacers were the team that forced the Heat to implement Erik Spoelstra’s title-winning vision. If Chris Bosh’s injury was the fuse, the size of the Pacers provided the gunpowder to make it all happen. Spoelstra’s big plan? Go small, space the floor and slay the opponent with speed.
It was unconventional, but it worked. The Heat countered the Pacers’ enormous stature up front (David West and Roy Hibbert) by going in other direction -- align Shane Battier or LeBron James at the nominal 4 while playing only one traditional big man. The rest is history.
This time around, the big plan to go small likely won’t change.
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MIAMI -- As a four-time league MVP and the catalyst for the NBA's defending champions, LeBron James isn't accustomed to having his rhythm disrupted these days.
Good defenders rarely bother him.
Great schemes do little to knock him off his game.
But the only thing to stop James in his tracks recently has been a self-inflicted wound of sorts: His team's dominance so far this postseason. The Miami Heat are 8-1 through two rounds of their best-of-seven playoff series.
And that kind of success requires patience. Plenty of it.
For the second time during these playoffs, the Heat find themselves uncomfortably idle as they await the start of their next series after making quick work of an opponent.
After sweeping Milwaukee in the first round, Miami dispatched short-handed Chicago in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the third straight season. But after enduring a seven-day break between facing the Bucks and the Bulls, the Heat now have a six-day hiatus before they play Game 1 of the conference finals Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Miami could learn its next opponent as early as Saturday, when the Indiana Pacers look to close out the New York Knicks in Game 6 at home. With a win Saturday, the Knicks will force Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Monday.
After saying he needed at least 24 hours to decompress after a mentally and physically taxing series against Chicago, James declared Friday his body was recharged and ready to play again. But he can only be a spectator.
“I'm not where I need to be as far as getting ready because I don't know who we play,” an already-restless James said Friday. “As far as physically, I could play a game tonight if we had one. I'm ready to go. But mentally, I'm not there yet because I can't hone in on who we're playing just yet.”
The only preference the Heat had in this ordeal was to have been playing on Monday instead of waiting another two days. But the Wednesday start was locked in by the league once the Knicks beat the Pacers in Game 5 on Thursday.
For now, the Heat's priority is to avoid a repeat of the rusty play they carried into their opening game against the Bulls following the previous layoff. Miami's players and coaches on Friday still credited Chicago for playing tough defense and riding momentum to a 93-86 upset in Game 1 of the series.
But there was also an acknowledgment in hindsight that rust and a lack of offensive rhythm also played a much larger role in the loss than the Heat initially let on before rolling off four consecutive wins to put away the Bulls.
Miami scored just 35 points in the first half and shot just 39 percent in that loss to Chicago, but responded two days later with a 37-point win in Game 2 that accounted for both the largest postseason victory in Heat history and the most lopsided loss the Bulls were ever handed in the postseason.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said his staff has examined every step the team took during the previous layoff between playoff games, from how frequently and long practices were held over the break, to what sets were run and how the team executed early in Game 1 against the Bulls. Spoelstra didn't say what exact changes might be made, but the Heat spent Friday's practice on shooting and timing drills.
“It's conditioning, shooting, rhythm, timing, sweating,” said Spoelstra, who gave the team the day off Saturday. “We're day-to-day right now in terms of our planning. You can't cheat the game, so you have to work at it. You're almost a week out from competing again, coming off a very intense series, your natural reaction is to not to want to come in here and get after it and sweat. But you can't shortcut it.”
There aren't any shortcuts to better health, either. Conventional wisdom would suggest that another extended dose of rest would be a good thing for Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who has struggled at times to play through a bruised right knee that's given him problems for two months.
But Wade, who bounced back with his second-best game of the playoffs to help close out the Bulls Wednesday, said he was resigned to the fact that his knee won't get much better regardless of the time off until after the season.
“I'm (still) dealing with this,” Wade said Friday. “I had 10 days off last time, so it really doesn't matter. At this point, we have a month (left) in the season. That's all I'm focusing on. I deal with stuff. I'm mentally strong enough to come out and still be effective, still be able to do what I do.”
Although Miami has shown a propensity to recover from early deficits to win playoff series the past two seasons, Wade doesn't want to keep playing from the same script. The Heat have trailed at some point in six playoff series since 2010 and have rallied to win five of them. The lone exception was the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas.
In three of those six series, Miami dropped Game 1 and came back to win four straight, which was also the case in the Finals last season on the way to beating Oklahoma City.
“We'll continue to rise to the occasion, no matter who we're playing,” James said. “The stakes are higher now, being in the Eastern Conference finals. Our game will continue to rise, and we have a lot of room for improvement. We had a lot of mental breakdowns the last round we can improve. That's the best thing about our team. We don't really dwell on things we did well. We hate the things we did bad.”
The Heat have a bit more time to nitpick as they wait, and center Chris Bosh can think of a few adjustments.
“You just feel a little off,” Bosh said of initial challenges after a long layoff. “I wouldn't say rusty. You're rusty when you're coming back from the offseason. It's just a mental aspect of dealing with some shots that won't fall that usually go in. We were a step slow on defense, our awareness just wasn't where it was supposed to be. We want to hit the ground running and have a good rhythm this time. We're just going to have to continue to tinker with some things (the next few days) and just figure it out.”
No team has figured out how to get through playoff series faster than the Heat these days. But there's only one problem: They hate to wait.
This rapid postseason progress is really testing their patience.
The coach was asked at Heat practice on Friday if he feels pity for the video coordinators these days. After all, they have to prepare not one, but two, full scouting reports, one for the New York Knicks and one for the Indiana Pacers, because the Heat still don't know who they're playing in the Eastern Conference Finals. Actually, it's possible that the idle Heat won't know who they're playing until Monday night ahead of Game 1, which starts on Wednesday.
The Heat are playing the waiting game, the team's video coordinators and scouting staff are feverishly working double time. But what his "video guys" are dealing with now is nothing, Spoelstra insisted.
Spoelstra has been in their shoes. He started in the Heat organization as a 25-year-old video coordinator back in 1995, working long hours cutting film in the Heat's Dungeon, as the staff affectionately calls it. Since then, he's worn every hat in the coaching staff directory and seen it all when it comes to last-minute prepping.
But this current staff has been been studying up on the Pacers and Knicks since the beginning of May.
You think two teams is bad?
"The worst one ever," Spoelstra recalled.
It was back in the 2003-04 season while Spoelstra was the assistant coach to then-head coach Stan Van Gundy. Shortly after graduating from the Dungeon, Spoelstra was in charge of writing the scouting reports for Van Gundy and the rest of the coaching staff, as well as a separate one for the players.
Spoelstra never saw it coming, really. That season, the Heat had started 0-7 and hadn't even reached .500 until the last week of the regular season. After a mad dash to finish the season (winning 17 of their final 22 games), Spoelstra instructed his video and scouting staff to prepare for the seventh seed or eighth seed.
"I prepared A-to-Z, four of the teams of highest probability, ranging from 60 percent to 90 percent probability that we'd play them. We had the books, video, everything," Spoelstra said as he pretended to lock up a safe.
"Turn the key, done."
On the final night of the regular season, four teams -- the Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Hornets, New York Knicks -- jockeyed for position in the playoff picture as the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh seeds were up for grabs.
The Heat beat the New Jersey Nets by 12 points in the final game of the season to finish with a lukewarm 42-40 record. After the win, the coaching staff hurried down to the Dungeon to watch the end of Toronto-Milwaukee game, which would decide their playoff fate. Of countless scenarios entering the day, it all hinged on this one game.
If the Raptors beat the Bucks, the Heat would net the fourth seed and play the Hornets. If the Bucks beat the Raptors, the Heat would be the fifth seed and play the Bucks.
Sure enough, Toronto's Jalen Rose hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with five seconds to go, but the Bucks had one more opportunity to get the fourth seed. Michael Redd, playing at the time for the Bucks, missed a last-second 27-footer.
Buck lose, Heat nab the fourth seed to play the Hornets.
This would normally be a time for unbridled celebration for the coaching staff, right? Only one problem: the Hornets weren't one of the four teams that Spoelstra selected. They weren't even on Spoelstra's radar.
"There was a 1 percent probability of that happening," Spoelstra said. "I hadn’t watched one second of film of New Orleans."
They needed a fifth book. Instead of rejoicing, the whole room groaned. Except for one guy.
"As soon as it happened, Stan just started laughing," Spoelstra said with a grin. "He walked out and said, 'Have a good night!'"
And with that, Spoelstra and his staff crammed an entire week's worth of scouting in one night -- or early morning, you could say. Spoelstra had to watch the film, write up the scouting reports on each Hornets player and scout their entire playbook. Deadline was 1 o'clock the next afternoon in time for a coaches meeting, which was 13 hours away.
Of course, Spoelstra got it done. He had already written four 20-page books that week. What's one more?
"I think I was up 50 straight hours," Spoelstra said.
Dozens of copies of those four books, hundreds and hundreds of pages all gone to waste. How many trees did they kill?
"Put it this way: We recycle now," Spoelstra said. "I’m from Oregon. I ethically had a problem throwing away that much paper. Now we have a big green bin, and it's mostly digital anyway."
Video coordinators these days, they don't know how good they have it.
"Two teams over the course of two weeks?" Spoelstra said. "Nah, that's easy."
LeBron James 5-14 FG | 12-15 FT | 7 REB | 8 AST | 23 PTS On to the Eastern Conference finals. As the never-say-die Bulls clawed back from an 18-point early deficit, we waited for LeBron to make his presence felt. That moment finally came in the third quarter after he spent the first half trying to set up teammates. LeBron is probably relieved to get rid of Jimmy Butler, but Paul George might be waiting around the bend.
Dwyane Wade 7-13 FG | 4-4 FT | 5 REB | 6 AST | 18 PTS After aggravating his bruised knee in Game 4, Wade decided to give it a go in Game 5 and, man, are the Heat happy he did. Wade left the court in the third quarter and spent some time in the locker room. When he came back in the fourth quarter, he looked like the Dwyane Wade of old. Whatever he did in there, pretty solid move by him.
Chris Bosh 4-8 FG | 2-4 FT | 7 REB | 1 AST | 12 PTS It's not easy to bottle up Joakim Noah, but Bosh managed to do that for most of this game. He did run into foul trouble, which compromised the Heat's board game for a bit, but he was able to return in the fourth and help close out the Bulls.
Norris Cole 2-5 FG | 1-2 FT | 2 REB | 1 AST | 5 PTS Not sure what more Cole needs to do to earn playing time over Mario Chalmers, who played like he forgot it was a playoff game. At one point in the third quarter, Chalmers dribbled around in circles and then laid it up over the backboard. I didn't make that up. Cole's driving dunk in the fourth quarter made the AmericanAirlines Arena roof pop off.
Chicago Bulls Have to hand it to the decimated Bulls. No Derrick Rose, Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich in the series. Noah battled plantar fasciitis. And still, they managed to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals and steal a game from a team that was as dominant as any in recent history. After falling behind big early, they led for most of the game, but talent prevailed.
With the win, LeBron James reaches the Eastern Conference finals for the third straight season in Miami after only getting there twice in Cleveland.
You wouldn’t know it by the chatter, but the Miami Heat are up 3-1 against the Chicago Bulls with a home game Wednesday night. The Heat could wrap up the series in a few hours, but that’s not the focus of the conversation these days.
The buzz is all about Dwyane Wade and his bothersome right knee.
A bone bruise limited Wade to six points on 3-of-10 shooting in Game 4 after he aggravated the injury in the second quarter. Wade has been hindered by the knee for two months and he’s scoring 12.3 points per game in the postseason on 43.9 percent shooting along with 5.3 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 3.1 turnovers. Perhaps of more concern, he’s averaging half as many free throw attempts as he did in the regular season.
LeBron James 9-20 FG | 8-9 FT | 7 REB | 8 AST | 27 PTS Methodical. Magnificent. Those terms all simply describe what was another Monday night playoff game for James, who continued to play within the system and maintain his cool as the Heat completely wore down the Bulls. James didn't have his midrange shot working and a handful of turnovers kept him from reaching his normal standards of sheer dominance. But it was enough.
Dwyane Wade 3-10 FG | 0-0 FT | 3 REB | 4 AST | 6 PTS It just wasn't Wade's night from the outset. First, the decision to go with the polka-dot black flood pants, no socks and double-breasted suit jacket was puzzling at best. And then, his shooting struggles continued with another sluggish start. Wade also aggravated his bruised right knee in the first half. History suggests Wade will eventually bounce back. But he's been a shell of himself.
Chris Bosh 7-10 FG | 0-2 FT | 6 REB | 1 AST | 14 PTS After being outworked in a Game 1 loss to the Bulls, Bosh said he was tired of facing questions about Joakim Noah's impact. Then Bosh proceeded to do something to change the conversation. He continued his torrid shooting and defense for a second straight game and was clearly the best post player on the court. Bosh's emergence is huge at a time when Wade is slumping.
Chris Andersen 2-3 FG | 5-5 FT | 4 REB | 1 AST | 9 PTS The Birdman got back to making his imprint on the game with his energy around the basket on both ends. Andersen didn't play long, but he made a contribution to just about every line in the stat sheet. He even got the credit for Marquis Teague inadvertently deflecting a ball into the basket on a pass from Bosh. Andersen's defense off the bench will continue to be a huge key for the Heat moving forward in the playoffs.
Chicago Bulls The war of attrition clearly caught up with the Bulls, who were never in the game after missing 11 of their first 12 shots and fell behind by double figures. Nate Robinson came back to earth, Jimmy Butler was a nonfactor, Joakim Noah had little impact, and Carlos Boozer was, well, Carlos Boozer. They've been pushed to the brink of exhaustion and face elimination Wednesday.
The Bulls shot a franchise playoff-low 25.7 percent from the field, and also scored a franchise playoff-low nine points in the third quarter.
CHICAGO -- There will never be a question about how much Dwyane Wade has given the Miami Heat in his career.
He carried them to one title, bit his lip when several years of his prime were sacrificed on rebuilding, sold the team to LeBron James and Chris Bosh so they’d join him then relinquished his beloved and earned alpha status so James could carry the team to another title.
This dossier has been properly recognized and he’s been afforded plenty of praise for it.
But it can also be used as a crutch and that’s what has been happening so far in the Heat’s postseason.
Wade will explain that he’s being unselfish and his coaches and teammates will back this up with vigor. Sometimes coach Erik Spoelstra will almost be accusatory to the questioner when someone probes how little Wade seems to be producing, explaining just how smart and unselfish Wade is playing.
The party line is that James, Bosh and even Norris Cole are thriving and the Heat are up 2-1 on the Chicago Bulls because Wade is willing to take just seven shots, as he did in Game 3, and not make an issue of it.
“He’s showing a great maturity in this series,” Spoelstra said. “He’s playing very, very intelligent.”
Let us, however, address the elephant in the room. Wade isn’t playing well and he’s hurt and won’t talk about how badly hurt he is. The Heat probably can get past the injury-riddled Bulls with Wade playing a shadow of himself. But if they’re going to win two more series to repeat as champs, it will probably require Wade to return to some semblance of his form.
When the Heat are at their absolute best, it’s because Wade’s relentless offensive attacking combined with James makes them nearly impossible to defend. When they're feeling good, Wade and James strike fear in opponents at the mere hint of a fast break.
When they won 27 games in a row in February and March, Wade was fantastic, averaging 23 points and shooting 54 percent. He even pulled off the feat of beating out James for a player of the week award in that span. It was not unlike last season at this time, where the one-two action Wade and James delivered knocked out the Indiana Pacers’ upset bid when Bosh went down with an injury.
That is the championship Wade and the championship Heat. And simply, in his first six games of the playoffs, Wade has not been himself and is making a minimal impact. He’s averaging just 13.3 points and shooting just 46 percent. And the Heat have not been themselves against the Bulls.
Wade will not talk about the severity of his right knee injury, just like he wouldn’t talk about how bad his left knee was bothering him during the playoffs last season. It seems like it’s costing him explosion because he’s not getting to the basket. He has taken just two free throws in the first three games against the Bulls.
“I’m a big boy, I know I can shoot a shot any time I want to,” Wade said. “When I have the ball I try to make the best play. It’s all about winning to me. When you’re on a team like this you don’t know what night your opportunities are going to come. It’s different from game to game, it’s different from lineup to lineup. As long as we’re in position to win, I will never complain.”
This is where Wade will then talk about how he might miss taking 20 shots a game, as he did when he won the scoring title on an average team in 2008, but he doesn’t want to play that way. He’ll talk about how in 2010, when he was the alpha dog and the Heat were bounced from the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, he vowed never to let that happen again even if it meant slicing off a huge piece of influence by inviting James aboard.
“I had some things to prove five years ago, now I just want to prove I can win,” Wade said.
“I ask myself 'What memories do I want to have?' I want to have memories of winning. Did I think five years ago I would play in a playoff game and take just seven shots? Hell no. At the end of the game was I pissed about it? Nope. We won the game, I moved on and I had a good dinner.”
Again, this is admirable. No one questions that if James was playing for the Bulls right now, which was possible, that Wade would be the man carrying the Heat. And the Heat would be the underdog.
The Bulls, of course, are playing a role in this. They are a strong defensive team and they’ve focused on trying to take away Wade’s post game, which is his go-to when his legs aren’t feeling the best, because they seem to know Wade can’t beat them off the dribble at the moment.
But it isn’t just about the defense, Wade averaged 20 points on 58 percent shooting against the Bulls in the regular season when they were much healthier. Much of this series Wade has been guarded by Marco Belinelli, who is not the team’s best defender.
Several Heat players and Spoelstra said they need to get Wade more involved. Obviously him taking just seven shots in Game 3, just one in the first half, was alarming. It figures getting him more active will be a part of the plan for Game 4.
At least it should be. Other than finishing off the hellacious Bulls, getting Wade into some sort of rhythm again has to be the team’s top priority as the Heat look ahead in the postseason.
“I wouldn’t bet I would shoot seven shots again, but I won’t say I won’t,” Wade said. “I’m not concerned about that. If I was worried about my numbers I wouldn’t be here in this position.”
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesBurdened with a bruised knee, Dwyane Wade has been a shell of his former self in these playoffs.
Is it time for the Heat to be concerned about Dwyane Wade yet?
It seems like a fair question in a vacuum, but of course, we don't operate in a vacuum. Actually, we’ve been here before. And Wade has made us look like morons for doubting him.
If you remember in last season's playoffs, Wade looked like a shell of his former self in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, scoring five points on 2-for-13 shooting from the floor against Indiana. Team doctors drained fluid from his troublesome left knee before the game to try to alleviate the discomfort, but the Heat fell behind 2-1 to the Pacers. It was commonly said that Wade was done and the Heat were done.
Wade then averaged 24.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists for the rest of the playoffs, and the Heat won the 2012 championship.
As if we didn’t learn our lesson the first time: Doubts about Wade's effectiveness were raised again during this past regular season. And sure enough, Wade made those concerns look foolish and premature after a torrid shooting tear, registering a preposterous 55 percent conversion rate after the All-Star break.
Fooled us twice, shame on us.
And now Wade is at it again.
Playing through a balky knee (is there an echo in here?), Wade has averaged just 13.3 points per game in the playoffs, which is just below Reggie Jackson and a smidge above Omer Asik. He’s shooting 45.8 percent from the floor, down from 52.1 percent during the regular season. His player efficiency rating (PER) has plummeted from 24.0 in the regular season to 17.5 in the postseason. Once again, Wade's play is begging us to doubt him again.
So what do we do with this information? Do we just move right along and pretend that it isn’t happening?
Of course not. Wade very well could put up 40 points in Game 4, but that shouldn’t stop us from analyzing what has been plaguing Wade so far. What exactly is happening?
Unhealthy knee, unhealthy game If Wade’s bruised right knee, which caused him to miss Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, is limiting his game, it shows. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has been praising Wade for his shot discipline after Wade took just seven shots in Game 3, but that discipline hasn’t carried over in other areas. Wade’s turnover rate has jumped from 13.2 percent of his possessions ending in a turnover in the regular season to 19.8 percent in the playoffs. In other words, Wade fumbles the ball every fifth time that he finishes a play. That's not good.
And those turnovers are telling. If you watch the film, you’ll notice that Wade hasn’t been able to slalom his way to the basket like he normally does. Instead, he has routinely stopped short in the midrange area for either an off-balance jump shot or a jump pass to the perimeter where he airmails it directly to a Chicago Bulls defender.
When healthy, Wade can hang in the air and use those jump passes as a weapon even though players everywhere are taught never to leave your feet to make a pass. But recently, Wade hasn’t shown the requisite lift to make it an effective counter. The result is gobs of turnovers off of jump passes that make youth coaches everywhere cringe.
Usually, Wade doesn't need those jump passes to be successful. He has made a living in the pick-and-roll where he can step around defenders and use his lightning-quick agility to maneuver his way to the rim. But that’s not the case anymore. Wade has scored a measly 14 points on 31 pick-and-roll plays this postseason, according to Synergy Sports video tracking. His efficiency on that action (0.452 points per play) ranks dead last in the playoffs among players with at least 25 pick-and-roll plays. Translation: Wade’s greatest strength has been reduced lately to a weakness.
No longer finding freebies Without a dependable pick-and-roll game to catch his defender off-balance, Wade has watched his trips to the free throw line vanish. This postseason, he has tallied one more free throw than Chris Andersen, even though Andersen has played 102 fewer minutes. Moreover, Wade has failed to reach the free throw line in two of the three games this series.
Want to guess how many free-throw-less games he previously registered since LeBron James and Chris Bosh teamed up with him in 2010-11?
Two (not counting injury-shortened games). That’s it.
Wade remains one of the great foul-drawers in NBA history and it's one of the reasons he's a terror to guard even at age 31. Taking away Wade's free throw game is like removing James' ability to pass the ball.
Taking a detour Wade has compensated for his lack of agility off the dribble by cutting to the rim and getting easy looks that way. In fact, 80 percent of his buckets in the restricted area this postseason have been assisted, whereas that number was just 57.1 percent in the regular season, according to NBA.com’s stats tool. This is when it helps to have that LeBron guy around.
Yes, we have to credit Wade for finding an effective detour off the ball, but the Heat can’t afford to watch Wade transform into Avery Bradley on the offensive end. Why? Because the road to a championship will get only harder. The Bulls' defense ranked fifth in defensive efficiency this season, but the four teams ahead of them? That would be the Pacers, Grizzlies, Spurs and Thunder. Two of those four could be next if the Heat get past the Bulls.
So you can blame the stingy Bulls defense for Wade’s struggles, but just know that it probably won’t get easier for the Heat here on out. The Heat have been able to absorb his ineffectiveness against a depleted Bulls squad thanks to Norris Cole and Ray Allen picking up the slack.
But going forward, the Heat need vintage Wade to show up. And if history repeats itself, it's only a matter of time before he does.
LeBron James 6-17 FG | 11-11 FT | 8 REB | 7 AST | 25 PTS Nice of LeBron to show up in the 46th minute. You would think that the Nazr Mohammed tackle and shove in the second quarter would set LeBron off, but he didn't use that as fuel at all. Instead, he stayed in facilitator mode when the Heat could've used something much more. At one point, he got blocked at the rim by the 5-foot-8 Nate Robinson.
Dwyane Wade 5-7 FG | 0-0 FT | 4 REB | 5 AST | 10 PTS Playing in front of his hometown crowd, Wade didn't so much ease his way into the game as he tip-toed around and hid in the background hoping no one would notice. The Heat absorbed an absent Wade for most of the game and still somehow pulled out the win. The concerns about his knees can begin now, but that's what we said in Game 3 against the Pacers last season.
Chris Bosh 8-16 FG | 3-4 FT | 19 REB | 4 AST | 20 PTS This will go down as one of the finest outings of Bosh's career. And the Heat needed it with LeBron and Wade stinking up the joint. Bosh opened the game by going to his bread-and-butter in the mid-range and he may have fallen in love with the 20-footer in this one, but you can't complain with the results. Can't overstate his work on the boards.
Norris Cole 6-7 FG | 3-3 FT | 2 REB | 1 AST | 18 PTS Who is this guy? Norris Cole has been Ray Allen-esque with his jump shot in the playoffs and hasn't looked anything like the point guard back in January who couldn't hit water if he threw a rock into Biscayne Bay. With Wario Chalmers (yes, Wario) showing up, Cole's scoring and composure kept the Heat in the game. Did I really just write that?
Chicago Bulls Coaches everywhere should study film of this Chicago Bulls team. With an enormous disadvantage in the talent and health departments, the Bulls have stuck with one of the most (previously) dominant teams in NBA history. The Chicago crowd couldn't ask for more from this fearless group, but stingy defense and relentless effort can only go so far. Is help on the way?
Chris Bosh set a career playoff high with 19 rebounds.
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
Neutralizing Carlos Boozer is one of the many subtle "plus plays" from Shane Battier so far.
MIAMI – Every so often you’ll glance at the official box score after a game and see a number that is so extreme that you’ll feel the urge to report it as an error. After Game 2 between the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls, there was one of these such moments.
In particular, the stat line next to Shane Battier’s name. In 22 minutes on the floor, Battier scored a measly three points on 1-for-3 shooting from downtown. He collected one steal, one rebound, one assist and got whistled for one foul. He attempted no free throws, took zero 2-pointers and didn’t block at shot.
Pretty standard Shane Battier game. Except for one thing:
His plus-minus for the game was plus-42.
I repeat: plus-42. That means that the Heat outscored the Bulls by 42 points in Battier’s 22 minutes on the floor. Has to be a typo, right? Has to be.
Of course, it wasn’t. As hard as it is to believe, the Heat actually outscored the Bulls 68 -26 in those 22 minutes that Battier was on the floor. It does not seem possible that such a blowout could occur in less than a half of basketball, but that's what happened.
“I saw that,” Battier said at Thursday’s practice when asked about it. “Bizarre.”
It’s so bizarre that, according to NBA StatsCube, we haven’t seen a plus-minus that large in the playoffs in almost a decade. Not since 2005 when Jason Terry posted a plus-43 in 40 minutes of action in a win over the Houston Rockets.
But Battier’s plus-42 feels more impressive considering A) he only played 22 minutes and; B) he barely did anything in the box score.
Battier gets geeked up about these sort of things. The way he talks about it, it’s almost as if someone challenged Battier to game the system: try to win games without leaving a footprint in the box score.
“That’s all I try to do,” Battier said of his plus-minus. “That’s my mindset: I want my plus-minus to be up as high as possible. I take pride in that.”
The Heat’s coaching staff couldn’t believe it either when they saw it. But then they looked at the film. And there was Battier, making winning plays that the box score misses. Battier wasn’t responsible for all of that 42-point deficit, but it’s no coincidence that the Bulls have outscored the Heat by 17 points in this series when Battier’s on the bench, but lost by 47 with Battier on the floor.
At Thursday morning’s film session, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra pulled up video of Battier doing what he does best: rebound blockouts. He showed his team three clips in a row of Battier attempting to transform his 6-foor-8, 220 body into a human shield against Carlos Boozer (who weighs 50 pounds heavier than Battier) and Joakim Noah (who stands several inches taller). These were textbook blockouts that a man of Battier’s frame shouldn’t be able to accomplish.And Spoelstra wanted his team to take notes.
“He was making blockouts that 99 percent of the players in this league won’t do,” Spoelstra said. “The focus and the level of effort with no regard for his health.”
Battier doesn’t want the rebound as long as his man doesn’t get it. Part of that is because he usually can't get the rebound.
“I don’t rebound anymore, I’m too old for that,” Battier said. “But I blockout every time. If you look at our team rebounding percentage, it’s usually up when I’m in.”
He’s right. So far in the Eastern Conference semifinals matchup, the Heat have hauled in 52.9 percent of the available rebounds while Battier is on the court, according to NBA.com/stats. In other words, the Heat have won the rebounding battle with Battier in the game despite being woefully undersized against the Bulls frontline. And when Battier and his blockouts check out of the game, the Heat’s rebounding rate drops to 47.9 percent. The disparity is larger when you zoom out and look at the entire postseason.
Because of these essential blockouts, Battier allows the Heat to go small and space the floor against the stronger, bigger Bulls. So far, he’s been a difference-maker in this series.
“I’m beyond the point where I expect people to fully appreciate my game, unless you’re a basketball guy and really understand the nuances of the game,” Battier said. “My game is 100 percent nuance. The 3-point shot is the only thing that’s tangible that people talk about.”
Another thing: Boozer has shot 0-for-5 and has scored no points with Battier on the floor. That impact can’t be understated. Outside of Luol Deng (who has been out this series with spinal tap complications), Boozer was the Bulls’ leading scorer this season and Battier has completely neutralized that threat.
Of course, he receives none of the credit in the box score.
Another example of Battier’s subtle impact? How about when LeBron James stole a cross-court pass from Nate Robinson in the first quarter. How’d that happen? Because Robinson wanted to get the ball to Boozer in the post, but he became so frustrated that Battier was successfully fronting Boozer that he impatiently flung the ball across the court to Marco Belinelli in the corner. James picked off the pass and got the steal, but Battier probably should get the credit.
Then there’s the time Battier took a charge against Robinson in the second quarter. Or the 3-pointer that Mario Chalmers made after Battier freed him up with a screen. Or how the numerous times he dragged his defender to the corner, thereby taking away one help defender and opening it up for a teammate.
None of it in the box score.
“I bust my ass to the corner every single time to help flatten the defense out because I know if I do that, LeBron (James), Dwyane (Wade) and Mario (Chalmers) will have room to attack,” Battier said. “If I stop at the break of the arc, it makes the difference between them going for a layup and having to pull up for a jumper. “
For Game 3, most of the audience will probably be fixated on the potential return of Derrick Rose, the job of the referees or the growing animosity between these two teams. But beneath it all, Battier will probably be lurking, making all the difference.
CHICAGO -- The vogue thing to talk about heading into tonight’s Game 3 of the Miami Heat-Chicago Bulls series is good old “physical play.”
It’s a common discussion point in every playoff series. Just like when one team loses, they say the other team was “more aggressive.” When there’s a technical foul or a flagrant called, the discourse instantly turns to “physicality.”
But let’s dispense with those boiler plates and get right down to it: The Heat want technical fouls called, they want flagrant fouls called, and they want whistles to fill the air all night. Even if some of those techs and flagrant fouls are against them. With every foul called, the Heat gain more of an edge.
Learning that the famously fickle Joey Crawford will be the crew chief for Game 3 is fine with the Heat. As far as they’re concerned, let Crawford T up the entire sideline. There were 51 fouls called in Game 2; why not go for 60 in Game 3?
Understand the rationale. If the Bulls are going to have any chance of pulling off the upset in this series, it’s vital they are allowed to play rough. They have to be able to jostle LeBron James and Dwyane Wade when they come to the rim. They have to be allowed to get away with hand-to-hand battles for rebounds.
The Bulls need there to be as few fouls as possible. And the last thing they want is for officials to be so nervous about a fight breaking out that they become oversensitive to regular playoff basketball and start issuing technicals to assert control.
Chicago’s lone advantage in this series is its size and ability to destroy the Heat’s often potent offensive firepower by beating them up. It needs games to be played slow and sore, not free and fast, like the Heat much prefer. Plus the Bulls have a depth issue due to injuries. Every foul cuts into the game plan and the bench.
“I understand the refs are going to try to control the game as much as possible, so you have to adjust to it,” James said. “We know definitely this game is going to be physical, and we look forward to it. It's a rivalry with this team. They don't like us. We don't like them. That's how it is.”
Let’s break that code: Is what James is really saying by “I understand” is “The refs should.”
You don’t have to recall too far back to the last time the Heat were in Chicago. The night the Bulls ended Miami’s 27-game win streak, the Heat were furious the Bulls were allowed to bash and batter James and Wade.
That night there were just 35 fouls called and one flagrant (the NBA later added one to Taj Gibson), and it was on James for a retaliation play against Carlos Boozer. James was angry, coach Erik Spoelstra was angry, and the Bulls were victorious.
“I play the game at a high level. I play with a lot of aggression. I understand that some of the plays are on the borderline of a basketball play or not,” James said that night in March in what were some of his most pointed comments of the season. “But sometimes, you know? I don’t know. … It’s frustrating.”
Heat president Pat Riley has issued two statements this season. One was in December as he complained about other teams “taking privilege” by roughing up their star players, especially Wade who had just been suspended. The other was directly at Boston Celtics’ president Danny Ainge, who Riley told to “shut the [expletive] up” when Ainge went on the radio and bashed James for complaining about fouls in that loss in Chicago.
So what do you think Riley was thinking when he was sitting courtside in Game 2 and watching the officials repeatedly jump in to whistle technical and flagrants on the Bulls? Even when it was Heat players “taking privilege” with Bulls players like Marco Belinelli or Nate Robinson, the officials jumping in favored the Heat’s ends. Riley must have been thinking he won this round of influence.
As you look at the way the brackets break down, it’s possible the Heat may have to deal with teams like the Indiana Pacers and the Memphis Grizzlies before it’s over. These teams play much like the Bulls, and their game plan will be much like Chicago’s, beat the Heat up and out.
Regardless of the rhetoric, the Heat will welcome Game 2’s trend continuing from now until they hope to hold another Larry O’Brien Trophy.
LeBron James 7-12 FG | 4-8 FT | 5 REB | 9 AST | 19 PTS His numbers weren't big, but we witnessed a return of "Video Game James." After a slow-and-steady Game 1, LeBron burst onto the scene in Game 2 and assaulted the rim early with an array of mind-bending moves. Somehow, he completely dominated the third quarter and didn't even score. He undressed the usually impenetrable Bulls defense with a flurry of assists that made just no sense even on the third replay.
Dwyane Wade 7-11 FG | 1-2 FT | 3 REB | 5 AST | 15 PTS There was some residual sloppiness from Wade after a scoreless fourth quarter in Game 1. Wade was a mess early; he flubbed numerous easy passes, routinely settled for jumpers, and the rim blocked him at one point. Then he turned it on late in the second quarter with flushes on back-to-back possessions and that was it. Wade was back.
Chris Bosh 5-10 FG | 3-4 FT | 5 REB | 3 AST | 13 PTS His box score numbers don't pop, but neither do Joakim Noah's. And that latter thing is far more important in this series. Bosh kept Noah grounded on the boards as Bosh sealed him in the post long before the shot released. He stayed patient offensively and his guards rewarded him with easy buckets. A much better outing from Bosh, and the Heat needed it.
Mario Chalmers 4-8 FG | 1-2 FT | 4 REB | 4 AST | 11 PTS With Chalmers, you take the good with the bad. And there was a whole lot of bad. He practically tried to rip Noah's head off trying to fight through a screen and promptly picked up a technical foul. But no one's talking about Nate Robinson today and that has a lot to do with Chalmers' aggressive play on both ends.
Chicago Bulls My, how things have changed. After the Bulls put the mighty Heat in a straitjacket in Game 1, LeBron James dissected the Chicago defense on command and made Game 1 a distant memory. The game got out of hand early and the Bulls completely lost their cool, causing both Noah and Taj Gibson to be ejected. But really, the refs probably did them a favor.
The Heat won by 37 points, setting a new franchise record for largest margin of victory in the playoffs.
MIAMI -- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra finally could celebrate.
He didn’t win the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year award.
As Spoelstra walked to the lectern to do his normal morning news conference before Game 2 against the Chicago Bulls, he was informed by a team official that Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl was voted for that honor. Spoelstra, as his bright smile showed during his press conference, couldn’t have been happier with the news.
“I congratulate George Karl," Spoelstra told reporters while fighting through a chuckle. "I know he didn't want to win it either, no disrespect.”
This is the paradox of the coach of the year award. Privately over the past several weeks, Spoelstra was hoping he wouldn’t win it. Out of respect to the league, he kept quiet about his dread that he might.
But he didn’t hide his relief on Wednesday.
“I was probably more pleased this morning than George Karl,” Spoelstra said.
Why the cheering for second place?
Spoelstra has been well-informed about the dubious track record of coach of the year award winners. For many coaches, the award is shortly followed by a pink slip. Before this season, four of the past seven recipients were rewarded by being fired within two years of winning the award, including Mike Brown in Cleveland, Byron Scott in New Orleans and Sam Mitchell in Toronto.
More importantly, it’s been a decade since a coach of the year winner won the championship in the same season (Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003). For the coaching fraternity, Spoelstra said there’s a certain stigma attached to winning the award.
"I'm not very superstitious, but all coaches, I think, understand [the stigma of] that award. It's not quite as definitive as the Sports Illustrated [cover] jinx, but it's pretty close."
The buzz for Spoelstra’s candidacy peaked when the Heat rambled off 27 consecutive wins -- the second-longest such streak in NBA history -- during a time in which the league usually suffers its yearly March doldrums. But the Heat’s streak attracted national attention even in the midst of the NCAA tournament and baseball spring training. And by proxy of being head coach, Spoelstra gained more recognition himself.
The voting wasn’t very close, however. Spoelstra received 24 first-place votes and 190 points overall, less than half of Karl’s 62 first-place votes and 404 points overall. New York’s Mike Woodson, San Antonio’s Popovich and Indiana’s Frank Vogel rounded out the top five.
When Spoelstra took over for Pat Riley as the head coach of the Miami Heat in April 2008 at the ripe old age of 37, he did not have the experience of many of his colleagues, nor a proven track record of ego management. After all, he never played in the NBA, nor did he have any head coaching experience beyond Summer League.
But for many observers this season, Spoelstra demonstrated enormous growth in his ability to lead a group of superstar egos during the Heat’s 27-game win streak. Sure, many coaches would love to have the talent that Spoelstra had at his disposal, but the expectations that come along with that talent can be a burden as well. Want hard evidence of the double-edged sword of star power? Look no further than the turmoil in LakerLand.
No, Spoelstra never received a single vote last season for coach of the year despite implementing a “pace-and-space” offense that ultimately led to him hoisting 2011-12 Larry O’Brien trophy. His 190 votes this season might indicate some overdue recognition for his work last season when he opened up the offense and largely did away with conventional positions, an idea he picked up from Chip Kelly, who was coaching the Oregon Ducks football team at the time.
In some ways, his finest work to date probably came not this season, but in the playoffs last season when Chris Bosh went down for several weeks with an abdominal strain. At the time, Spoelstra pushed for the Heat to “go small” and replaced him in the lineup with Shane Battier while others in the organization wanted to go in the opposite direction and get bigger up front. It was controversial then, but Spoelstra’s unpopular convictions were ultimately rewarded. Spoelstra put Battier in the starting lineup and the rest is history.
That’s not to say that the Heat didn’t improve this season under Spoelstra’s watch. The Heat won a franchise-record 66 games in the regular season while boasting the most efficient offense in the league, scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions.
Furthermore, the Heat’s performance in crunch time this season ranks among the best we’ve seen in recent history. Spoelstra’s team went a baffling 32-8 (.800) in games where the Heat were within five points in the final five minutes of the game. For perspective, the 2010-11 Heat were just 22-20 in such games.
Spoelstra believes that his job performance should be appraised at the end of the playoffs, not at the beginning. Ultimately, Spoelstra still has work to do in the playoffs, while Karl lost in the first round.
“I kind of knew Spoelstra wouldn’t [win coach of the year], because people expect us to be the team that we are,” Dwyane Wade said. “But the good thing about it is that he don’t care.”
LeBron James unveiled a new free throw routine in Game 1 and it looks very familiar.
MIAMI -- In his quest to perfect the game of basketball, LeBron James now appears to be perfecting the Ray Allen free throw.
Did you catch it in Game 1?
Dribble, dribble, dribble. Spin the ball. Collect. Rise off the heels. Release.
That’s the signature sequence of Allen’s free throw routine. He’s used it for years, propelling him to an 89.4 percent career free throw shooting percentage which ranks fifth-highest in the history of the NBA.
And now James appears to be trying to mimic it.
Jump over to the Heat’s website for team writer Couper Moorhead’s breakdown and you can watch the side-by-side video. The only difference between the two forms? James holds the ball slightly longer before starting his release. Other than that, James has it down pat.
Game 1 of the East semifinals was the first time we've seen it, but the osmosis makes sense if you’ve been hanging around the Heat practices this season. After every practice, James and Allen have partnered up for free throw shooting and jump-shooting drills. And if there’s one weakness in James’ game these days, it’s at the charity stripe. Literally. In reports this season, opposing scouts have listed free throws as his only weakness.
After finding out about his fourth MVP in five years over the weekend, James told reporters about his next big project.
“My free throw shooting,” said James, who has shot 74.7 percent at the line over his career. “I want to -- I need to shoot in the 80s. That’s my next goal. And then, just continue to do what I’ve been doing the last couple of years. But my free throw shooting is what I really want to zone in on.”
Sure enough, in his first game back since those comments, James unveiled his latest routine, which no longer features a deep bending of the knees. That’s something that Allen has tried to fix.
“The other day, we just looked at it and [James] was talking about missing,” Allen said at Tuesday’s practice. “I told him, ‘You got to stop dipping so much on your free throw. Keep it more consistent, the ball more in front of you.’”
It’s just one game, but James shot 7-for-9 in Game 1 with his new routine, which is slightly below his goal of 80 percent. We'll see if it sticks. As close observers know, James has been notoriously inconsistent over his career, switching his routine almost on a week-to-week basis.
Over the past couple of seasons, James has dabbled with a step-over move; he lunges forward after his release, which was borderline illegal. He doesn't do that anymore. Earlier this season, he went three dribbles and up. Not anymore; now, he twirls the ball as Allen does before rising.
To some, it's maddening that James hasn't developed into an elite free throw shooter yet. To others, it's a nice reminder that he is human. James has been working on his free throws throughout his career, but he's made it his top priority after sharpening his post-up game and 3-point shot to the point that they're both strengths.
And now he has Allen as his personal coach.
"I’ve been consistently in the top five in the NBA in free throws," Allen said, "so what better person to learn it from?”
James is learning through competition. The two future Hall of Famers engage in a little battle every day after practice, something they call "the swish game." The rules are simple: two points for a made free throw that doesn't touch the rim, one point for a regular made free throw, and minus one point for a missed free throw. First to 21 points wins. And James does beat Allen on occasion, but not enough that LeBron will tweak the master's formula. It's the other way around.
The swish game may help James reach his goal of 80 percent, but Allen has set a higher goal for James: the 50/40/90 club that Kevin Durant joined this season. That's 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point land and 90 percent from the free throw line. Durant became NBA history's eighth member of the club, joining sharpshooters Larry Bird, Steve Nash and Steve Kerr, among others.
One player missing from that club? Ray Allen. He wants to see James get there.
"We’ve been talking about 50/40/90 all the time, and the free throws right now is his nemesis," Allen says. "He’s great in every other aspect. This year, we’ve shot over a thousand free throws together. We’ve been trying to find a way to get him comfortable."
James has a long, long way to go before he reaches that 90 percent plateau, but it's certainly on his mind and has been for some time now. But if James can develop into a deadeye free throw shooter through his Allen impersonation, the Allen signing this past offseason will be worth it based on that alone.
LeBron James 8-17 FG | 7-9 FT | 8 REB | 7 AST | 24 PTS After being handed is fourth MVP trophy by commish David Stern, LeBron James went back to work finding open shooters and puncturing the opposing defense. Only one problem: No one could hit their shots, James included. That is, until the fourth quarter began. James came alive in the fourth with huge buckets early, but then Nate Robinson happened.
Dwyane Wade 7-16 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 4 AST | 14 PTS Wade was held scoreless in the fourth quarter as James took over down the stretch. But that bizarre 3-point attempt with 1:07 left sucked the life out of the building and broke the Heat's back. If Wade benefited from the eight-day layoff, it didn't really show. He seemed to bruise his previously non-bruised knee after diving into the third row at one point.
Chris Bosh 3-10 FG | 2-2 FT | 6 REB | 1 AST | 9 PTS Chris Bosh couldn't look more rusty if he wore 19th-century sheet metal. He picked up two quick fouls while shooting 0-for-3 from the floor and had to exit the game. Luckily for the Heat, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer both found foul trouble and struggled to take full advantage. His "dunk" throw late on Butler was pretty much his lone highlight of the game.
Slowing down LeBron If Jimmy Butler doesn't get an "Iron Man III" endorsement, then America has seriously let me down. After playing all 48 minutes in Games 6 and 7 of the Nets series, Butler checked LeBron for most of the game without rest and did everything he could to slow James down. For the most part, he did. Even Joakim Noah tried his hand at one point.
Chicago Bulls The Bulls are the Black Knight from Monty Python. Without Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng or Derrick Rose and beset by foul trouble to Boozer and Noah early, the Bulls still somehow managed to beat the star-studded Heat. A lot of the credit goes to coach Tom Thibodeau, the tireless Butler and fearless Nate Robinson, who chomped through his upper-lip after LeBron accidently sat on his head in the second quarter and still was the best player.
LeBron James set a new personal playoff low for points in the first half with two (previous first-half low was three points (done twice).