- Adrian Wojnarowski
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MIAMI -- Something has clicked now, something tumbling into place and suddenly these Heat have transformed from an odd cast of parts into a functioning, ferocious machinery. It starts with the player who was never, ever going to fit here, who had shimmied and shot his way out of favor as an NBA star, but here is Antoine Walker embracing a system that desperately needed him to embrace it.
"Without him," Pat Riley flatly said Tuesday night, "we don't win."
Once again in this series against the Nets, there was Walker making the Nets pay a steep price for investing so much manpower on Dwyane Wade, hitting a three-pointer inside the final two minutes to give the Heat the distance that they ultimately needed to hold off the Nets in Game 5, 106-105.
"They made a decision that that they were not going to let Dwyane beat them," Walker said, so there he was delivering his 23rd point of the night, killing the Nets in Game 5, the way he had done in Game 4, and sending Miami into the Eastern Conference final. Wade is going to be Wade, and Shaq is going to be Shaq, but so much of Riley's whole gamble on transforming these Heat would center on Walker.
It wasn't easy for him. He was used to having the ball in his hands, the game going through him, but no more. He learned to pick his spots with the Heat, learned to defer to Shaq and Wade in a way that had gone counter to everything Walker knew in the pros. In this series, Walker underwent something of a transformation. For the Heat, this was an extraordinary thing to happen with the NBA Finals just four victories away now.
"I took time to get into a groove and play with these guys," Walker said. "It's different for me. I'm playing a different role. We have two main guys that are 75 percent of our offense and everybody else has to fill in and make the best of the opportunities when they come. It's a different situation, but I've gotten used to it.
"It feels good."
Winning is a beautiful byproduct of the sacrifice, especially for Walker who spent his playoff life in Boston getting smacked by the Nets. As it turned out, he needed bigger, better friends on his side. He's found them in Miami.
Most of all, they've found him.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His book, "The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty," is now available in paperback.
Antoine Walker is learning to thire as a role player in the Heat system, Adrian Wojnarowski writes.