MIAMI -- In the midst of an 18-game winning streak, much of the focus has been on the piles of statistics the Heat and their stars have tallied over the past six weeks. It has made it easy to overlook perhaps their greatest achievement: their willingness to be unselfish.
You read that correctly. The July dancing, pregame dunking, Harlem Shaking Heat might like to show off from time to time but they’re also playing a downright chivalrous brand of basketball.
Coach Erik Spoelstra, often overlooked because of the talent on his roster, created a bit of a daring game plan for this season that went against conventional wisdom and long-standing star-treatment traditions. He somehow has been able to sell it.
“He won’t win it -- because no one wants him to win it -- but Erik Spoelstra is the coach of the year, without a doubt,” a league executive said Sunday. “No one admits it, the way he’s gotten all these guys to check their egos and play this way is rare in this league.”
Let’s be real. LeBron James does not like defending bigger players. Dwyane Wade longs to shoot more. Chris Bosh dislikes playing center. Ray Allen gets frustrated he isn’t more a part of the offense. Shane Battier is getting bullied and beat up every night, forced to guard opponents he never thought he would. Mario Chalmers thinks he’s one of the best point guards in the league. Udonis Haslem thinks he should be getting playing time as though it’s still 2006.
Spoelstra doesn’t just get them all to play nice, he gets them all to play at a dominating level.
“Their interchangeability is ridiculous,” said a league scout who recently has been tracking the Heat. “Ray Allen is a classic [shooting guard]. Other than that, everybody they have they can move around and take different roles. Chris Andersen, who they just signed off the street, can play center in small lineups and power forward in big lineups. Even Wade, they have him guarding a 6-11 guy [Paul George] and then playing point guard on offense at times.”
James is on the hottest streak of his career and he took only 10 shots and scored a season-low 13 points Sunday in one of the biggest games of the regular season against the Indiana Pacers. Wade has never shot the ball better, but hasn’t shot less since he was a rookie. Bosh is an eight-time All-Star and if he gets his number called five times a game on offense he’s lucky. Battier is having the best 3-point shooting season of his career and didn’t even attempt one against the Pacers. Allen has gotten 10 shots in a game only five times during the Heat’s winning streak.
The ego management going on with the Heat team is simply remarkable.
It wasn’t a merry-go-round to get here. There were cracks earlier this season. It was especially evident one night in Salt Lake City in mid-January. Wade was benched for the whole fourth quarter and seething. Bosh also was benched for being eviscerated by the Jazz’s big men. James was so sore from banging with Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors that he very publicly took a postgame ice bath and tweeted out the photos of it.
The Heat were regularly getting pounded on the boards and regularly getting beat on the road, where their small-ball system sure looked like a flawed strategy. It looked like the demands of this style were wearing on the stars.
The Heat added Andersen in a midseason move and that helped, but otherwise Spoelstra has stayed the course. It’s paying off.
“When you put together a veteran team like this you have to have the right guys,” Spoelstra said. “If you don’t and guys are unhappy with the roles then your versatility and your depth doesn’t mean anything. For us to make other teams uncomfortable we have to be uncomfortable first. There’s always an easier way than to play to our identity.”
Only Spoelstra knows how often he has had to deliver that message behind the scenes when players have grown testy. Every coach at every level has players who think they should be getting more or doing more or playing more. In the Heat’s case, those players probably are right, most of them have the talent and experience to do more. But Spoelstra has been able to sell them on the collective and it has made for one fearsome juggernaut.
The streak, whenever it ends, has been one of the dominating stories of the season thus far. But the reality is the Heat have shown, as long as they remain healthy, the product of this ego-checking is going to be a terror for an opponent to beat in a seven-game series in the spring.
“We’ve got a great team. No individual will ever be able to win a game for us. We have to do it as a collective group,” James said. “We can play any game. We can play big, we can play small, we can play fast, we can play slow. Whatever presents itself, we’ve shown it. We just go execute the game plan Spo gives us.”