<
>

Are the Heat beginning to jell?

12/7/2010
LeBron JamesMike Ehrmann/Getty Images Sport

The "20-game jelling process" turned out to be a pretty accurate prognosis for the big three.

For the first time this season, the Heat’s big three sat together at the podium Saturday night to field questions after the team's home win over the Atlanta Hawks.

It was a stark change to the postgame procedure. Normally, Chris Bosh emerges from the locker room by himself and answers media queries with the company of some extra microphones. Once he leaves, there's a brief intermission, then it’s time for the talking duo of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to take the dais.

But not Saturday night. Instead, Bosh joined Wade and James at the table in front of the flashing cameras.

The new arrangement was not a coincidence, and it was symbolic in many ways. On and off the court, the big three and the entire team have come together in recent days. And through this newfound unity, the Heat are turning the corner. They've won their past four games by an average of 19 points, just in time for a four-game road trip that will send them to the West Coast for the first time this season.

A lot has been made about the players-only meeting held after the eight-point loss Nov. 27 in Dallas. Typically, when word of such a gathering reaches the media, it prompts a catalog of articles that overstate the galvanizing effects of the chat behind closed doors.

But ask the players, and they repeatedly emphasize its importance to unlocking the Heat’s potential. Early in the season, the big three rarely looked like they were on the same page and looked downright incompatible at times.

Whether it was awkwardly playing hot potato with the ball on fast breaks or not making the extra pass in the half court, the big three looked like three individuals who had never played with an equal. Or rather, they looked like three individuals who had never played in a system of checks and balances.

“Of course, we’ve all played together in the All-Star Game and the Olympics,” Wade said after Saturday’s game. “But it’s not the same as it is here in Miami. We’re all good friends, but as good friends, sometimes you don’t want to say something to step on someone’s toes. And that meeting let us know to be friends and to be real with each other. If we see something wrong with our game, point it out. I think we all looked at each other and held each other accountable with our games.”

While everyone trumpeted the fruits of a SuperFriends collection of talent, the kinship seemed to plague the Heat in the form of complacency and reckless play. Now they’re talking and, more importantly, listening to each other and keeping themselves in check. The lifted spirits are all well and good, but how does this unity manifest itself on the court?

It begins with the relationship of Wade and LeBron. Earlier in the season, Wade alarmingly spoke about how he was afraid to take shots on consecutive possessions for fear that it would irk LeBron. It was odd to hear Wade’s measured apprehension, mostly because it seemed like a small quibble that could be easily cleared up with a quick chat with his buddy. But those comments came before the Dallas discussion, and since then, we’ve seen a difference in Wade and LeBron’s chemistry on the court and their rhetoric off the court.

“He stopped trying to figure out if it’s his time or my time,” James said about Wade’s recent improvement. “He had a lot on his mind at times. He’s just trying to figure this out instead of just going out and playing. And that’s the same for me, too. We’re both in those instances where we were both trying to figure things out at the same time and we’re kind of hurting the team.”

It took some time, but the Heat are finally exhibiting that team-first mentality that seemed to be missing from the club early on. It’s hard to imagine a more egotistical and poisonous preoccupation than shot-counting between two star players. But Wade and LeBron have stressed recently that that’s no longer on their minds.

And it shows. On Saturday night, the Heat beat the Hawks by 12 points. Bosh, the so-called third fiddle on the team, took twice as many shots from the floor (22) as James (11). Interestingly, Bosh has led the team in field goal attempts in three games this season, and the Heat have won each of those three games. Instead of worrying about “who’s getting his,” the Heat seem to be more focused what it takes to get the W.

Furthermore, the Heat players are buying not only into each other but also into their coaching staff. For all the talk about coach Erik Spoelstra losing his grip on the team, the Heat have made a clear shift in playing style. All season, the coach has emphasized that the team needs to make defensive stops and get out in transition. It’s a new tune from a traditionally conservative coach, but the players are listening and following the coach’s orders. Miami has turned on the gas of late, generating at least 15 transition plays in each of the past four games, according to Synergy Sports Technology. For perspective, the Heat reached that mark in just three of their first 16 games. It’s no surprise that James and Wade now rank 1-2 in the league in transition points, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. If the Heat continue to get out on the break, that ranking is unlikely to change.

It’s true that the Heat have played a light schedule recently -- the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers and a short-handed Atlanta Hawks team -- but circumstances were far from easy. If you ignore the situational effects, you assume this game is played in a vacuum, which it isn’t. The Heat could have buckled under the immense pressure this week. Responding to the bump controversy, falling to within a single game of .500, releasing Jerry Stackhouse and integrating Erick Dampier, enduring LeBron’s return to Cleveland, dealing with reports of internal mutiny -- all in one week. Instead, they obliterated the competition by a total of 76 points in four games.

Miami is on a roll at a time when everyone predicted turmoil. With a 97.9 defensive efficiency, the Heat quietly boast the league's most efficient defense. If things continue to click with transition and the big three, the offense won’t be far behind. As is, the Heat have the best point differential (plus-8.4) in the Eastern Conference, and that seemed like an impossibility a week ago.

This is a team that, in the face of adversity, has come together to turn the page. And through that process, the Heat have turned a corner as well.