Heat Read: Role players will make a difference
MIAMI – When sizing up the Los Angeles Lakers for a potential NBA Finals showdown, few teams in the league are as equipped with tape measures as the Heat.
Miami's two key offseason acquisitions bring a combined three seasons of experience from facing Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Co. in the NBA Finals. Now, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis see a far more potentially dangerous Lakers team developing in Los Angeles, with the additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, than any of the previous squads each of their teams met from 2008 to 2010.
“They've got a lot of great players over there, Hall of Fame players,” Lewis said. “But we feel like we can match up with not just one particular team, but anybody in the league. We've got guys who can play multiple ways, and a team that can play multiple styles, regardless of opponent.”
The Heat's combination of experience, flexibility and versatility are considered their main strengths with a roster anchored by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Barring injuries, conventional wisdom suggests the Lakers are capable of matching -- perhaps even surpassing -- the Heat's star power in would shape up as the most anticipated NBA Finals matchup in decades.
But Lewis and Allen believe that a series with so much at stake against the Lakers, or any opponent out west, will ultimately be decided by the team with the more reliable supporting cast. That was the case last season, when even the best postseason of James' career might have come up short had it not been for Bosh's late-playoff return from an abdominal injury or Shane Battier's breakout play early against Oklahoma City or Mike Miller's magical shooting display in the Game 5 series clincher in the Finals.
By adding Allen and Lewis to a supporting cast that already proved to be deep and effective enough to win a title, the Heat think they took significant steps to further compliment their catalysts and boost their chance to repeat.
As the Lakers recover from the early turmoil that resulted in coach Mike Brown's firing and the transition to Mike D'Antoni, they also find themselves trying to make high-profile pieces fit amid intense scrutiny and expectations.
In Miami, Allen has had to adjust to a new and sometimes volatile role after essentially five seasons of stability as a starting shooting guard with the Boston Celtics.
Making matters a bit more challenging is the fact that injuries prevented Miami's second-unit -- Allen, Lewis, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller and Norris Cole -- from developing chemistry in training camp or the preseason.
“It's still going,” Allen said of the meshing process. “You've got a lot of guys on the bench that are very prideful in how they play, guys that have been starters on previous teams. We're still trying to figure that out, in terms of how we're going to work together offensively. And defensively, we're trying to improve our communication.”
That could be a season-long process for the Heat. But when they figure it out, Allen believes he'll be a vital member of unit in Miami that could be as effective as his ultra-deep Celtics' team was in 2008 when they beat the Lakers.
That Boston team overwhelmed Bryant's individual dominance with balance, defense and depth.
Beyond Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Celtics boasted rapidly improving Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins in addition to a second unit of James Posey, P.J. Brown, Leon Powe, Sam Cassell and Eddie House.
But not even those names truly speak to how amazingly deep those Celtics were. This does: Two other members of that team, Tony Allen and Glen Davis, were stuck on the inactive list at times during that 2008 Finals series.
So if Allen sees that kind of potential in the Heat's weapons beyond James, Wade and Bosh, a lofty bar is set.
“When you talk about these kind of matchups, you know what your starters and key guys are going to give you -- we all see it year after year,” Allen said. “But it comes down to that guy that other guy who has an impact, whether you get a loose ball or somebody averaged 12 points in the series, but was really averaging seven or eight in the regular season. That's what it comes down to a lot of times.”
Lewis saw that advantage shifted decisively in the Lakers' favor in the Finals the following season against Orlando. In 2009, Lewis was a starter and second-leading scorer on a Magic team that limited Bryant to 43 percent shooting (although he averaged 34.2 points) and held Gasol slightly below his season averages in points and rebounds.
But Orlando could never account in that series for the impact of role player Trevor Ariza and sixth-man Lamar Odom. Ariza's production spiked to 14.6 points and seven rebounds over the final three games of the series. Meanwhile, Odom shot 54.2 percent and averaged 13.4 points and 7.8 rebounds through the five-game series.
That experience provided Lewis lessons he carries into his Heat role four seasons after his first trip to the Finals.
“What I learned is that you have to have role guys and bench guys who can come in and release some of the pressure off your main guys,” Lewis said. “That was our first time there, but (the Lakers) had been there before. We had guys trying to get over the hump, and they had guys who knew what you had to have. That makes a difference.”
Even after defeating the Magic for the title, the Lakers reshaped their championship roster around Bryant and Gasol. It's similar to what the Heat did this past offseason. Los Angeles won a second consecutive title by defeating Allen and the Celtics in seven games. In typical fashion, the stars offset one another. But the series was altered by the loss of one role player and the emergence of another.
The Celtics, up 3-2 and looking to close out the Lakers, lost Perkins at center to an injury in Game 6. Los Angeles then got 15- and 20-point games from Ron Artest, who replaced Ariza on the roster that season, to rally for the series win.
Through both pain and prosperity, Allen and Lewis have experienced what it takes to beat the Lakers with a championship on the line. Now, they've joined forces to try to help the Heat become the first team since their shared nemesis to repeat as NBA champions this season.
“We just want hope to be guys who come off the bench and make big shots,” Allen said. “In moments when this team needs us, regardless of what your role is now, it's all about doing what it takes to pull through.”
“If you look at the history books, it's very tough to defend a championship, and win it two years in a row,” Lewis said. “Not too many teams have done that. But at the same time, for a lot of reasons, I think we're built to win another title.”