Heat's All-Star venture coming along
The Heat spent their last week before the All-Star break on a road trip through the North, and without really expecting it, the time afforded them a chance to truly take stock of where this high-pressure season is taking them.
The news has been both good and bad.
In the short run, the Heat have stared a truth in the face. They are a flawed team in several respects, with issues at point guard and center and a massive problem located in Boston. The Heat haven't beaten the defending East champs yet in three tries, which makes it hard to envision them winning four times in seven games in a potential playoff series this spring.
That reality slapped the team in the face last weekend in Boston with another loss to the Celtics -- when Boston was depleted and not playing all that well while the Heat were rolling -- and it actually seemed to toss the team into a 24-hour depression.
While they're at it, the Heat haven't beaten the Bulls yet, either. They face a pivotal game Thursday in Chicago when Joakim Noah could be back from injury.
Then there's the long view, their collective spirit as they depart for some glamour in L.A. Just more than 50 games into their agreed four-year experiment of teaming up, the Heat's big three All-Stars have decided they are indeed cooperating.
They believe now, perhaps even more than this past July when they absorbed a lot of risk to their reputations and bank accounts, that the grand plan is going to ultimately work out the way they had hoped.
"We're on the right path; it's working," LeBron James said this week. "If you look at our numbers and you look at our success, it is definitely working."
Those numbers say the Heat's big three combine to average 70 points, 22.5 rebounds and 13 assists per game while shooting a shade less than 50 percent as a trio. They're powerful, they're efficient and they're 31-7 since Dec. 1.
Miami finished off its run before the break at 10-1, fighting back into the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and doing it by playing a more sustainable brand of basketball than when they were hot in December. Their defense, mostly, has looked strong and their half-court offensive execution, the stuff that's rather important in the playoffs, has progressed significantly.
They lead the league in victory margin and defensive field goal percentage, two of the golden numbers when it comes to forecasting serious championship contenders, and are fourth in the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession).
"We're getting more confident every game," said Dwyane Wade, who can legitimately consider himself a Most Valuable Player candidate along with James. "It's been a process and we've needed the time but we've been getting comfortable."
There was no dodging major questions about this plot from the start. How would James and Wade, two players used to being the centers of their own respective universes on the floor, be able to play together? How would Chris Bosh, accustomed to being the franchise player, grapple with essentially becoming the third option most of the time? With so many so-called "alpha dogs" and each possessing a bit of a renowned ego, who is going to demand to take the last shot?
Well, those answers have started to be cleared up.
It has been a transition; we've never gotten caught up in who is the second guy, the third guy. We're still evolving. It may take months or years, but we're making progress.-- Chris Bosh
Although high profile, the last-shot issue has had a strange outcome so far. Recently, none of them has taken the last shot. In the past three games in which a clutch shot was required, it went to Eddie House, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller, who missed a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer Sunday in Boston.
"We have a lot of eyes on us," James said. "We'll continue to trust our teammates in those situations."
Meanwhile, the truth is Wade and James didn't play all that well together when they were worrying about playing with each other. Even now, when they're on the court together, the sheer stats say it isn't a perfect marriage.
But mix in Bosh and the cocktail works, as it better enables the two wing stars to be themselves. Since making an agreement to stop worrying about the other so much, Wade and James' offensive production has soared along with the Heat's record.
"Early on, to see what our plus/minus was together and where it is now is night and day," James said. "It was the first time for us to be playing with superstars, and we had to learn each other. The time has helped."
Those plus/minus numbers James talked about report that when he and Wade are on the floor without Bosh, the Heat get outscored. They also say that when Bosh and James play together without Wade, the Heat get outscored. But when Bosh plays with just Wade or when James plays without both, the Heat are very successful.
That is how coach Erik Spoelstra has learned to rotate the players, to put them in a position to have that success.
And when all three play together, they outscore their opponents by 14.5 points per 48 minutes. Which means, on average, they now blow out the competition playing as a unit.
Beyond the troubles with some injuries, inconsistency and matchup issues with the supporting cast, that is what has the Heat's trio feeling good about their decisions.
"It has been a transition; we've never gotten caught up in who is the second guy, the third guy," Bosh said. "We're still evolving. It may take months or years, but we're making progress."