Monday, February 24, 2014
Five truths about the defending champions
By Michael Wallace
MIAMI -- Every once in a while, there’s enough silliness and wild speculation out there that begs for the record to be set straight regarding the Miami Heat.
Keeping it real is the only way to deal with covering the two-time defending champions as they gear up for the stretch run of the regular season. Here are five truths about the Heat as they brush up for another playoff run.
1. The LeBron-less factor
If Kevin Durant used January to lap the field as the front-runner for this season’s MVP honors, LeBron James has put on the Usain Bolt burners in February to run him down and remind folks the race is far from over. But just as LeBron was hitting the best stride of his season, a broken nose disrupted his rhythm, sidelined him for Sunday’s win over Chicago and cleared a lane for analysts such as the Van Gundy brothers to suggest Miami would be in this exact same position in the standings had it played the season without LeBron. Technically, they’re right. At 40-14, Miami boasts the NBA’s third best record and sits only 1 ½ games behind Indiana for the No. 1 seed in the East. Given relative health, a Heat team led by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would still be good enough to hold second place behind the Pacers in the East. But that’s much more of a knock against the East, where the Heat emerged from the weekend with an 11-game lead over third-place Toronto, than a potential blemish on LeBron’s resume as he pursues his third straight MVP award and fifth overall. LeBron is the best player in the game, but Durant is carrying a greater burden every night this season.
2. Time to let G.O. go
No, not in the sense of releasing him from the roster. But rather unleashing him. Greg Oden took his most significant step when he was plugged into the opening lineup against the Bulls for his first start in four years. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is still trying to figure out how and when to use Oden on a regular basis, and it’s proving to be a more difficult challenge than both Oden and Spoelstra initially believed. Oden has spent the past four months trying to knock off four years of rust amid his recovery from multiple knee surgeries. But it’s approaching the time to take the training wheels off the 7-foot, 273-pound big man. Every team with adequate size the Heat have faced this season came out of the game saying Oden is a load even in limited minutes, because he gives Miami a dimension the team didn’t have in each of the past two championship seasons. The biggest benefactor has been Chris Bosh, whose production in his minutes at power forward has been phenomenal this season. Any notion that Oden should be spared and saved until the playoffs is flawed. He needs a steady routine these last 28 games to maintain his confidence and restore his timing. He’s no longer a novelty, luxury or mascot. It’s easier on Oden’s body and team chemistry to start him. It’s time to cut the stop and go with G.O.
3. Feeling the Heat
It’s funny how backlash works. Exactly a week has passed now since NBA TV aired the network’s midseason interview with LeBron, whose definitive message was that he could not see “as of now” any scenario in which he would walk away from the Heat should he opt out of his contract after the season and test free agency. Had LeBron’s message been different and opened the slightest door that he’s uncertain of his future in Miami, the topic would still be debated right now. Not Jason Collins’ breakthrough, not Russell Westbrook’s return, not even the Duke-Syracuse finish would overshadow the speculation surrounding LeBron’s approach. The fact is, the guy is happy and highly successful in Miami. He wasn’t necessarily both in Cleveland. And he can’t be certain that any other spot in the league can match or exceed what Miami has provided -- on and off the court. It shouldn’t be that difficult to accept. LeBron didn’t say anything in last week’s NBA TV interview he hasn’t suggested since the start of the season to local media who cover the team daily. His wife has established some professional roots in Miami. His kids have lived half their lives -- or more -- in Miami and are swimming outdoors and playing ball in youth leagues year-round. His in-laws have provided such an infrastructure for the household that he took time to mention their daily contributions during last year’s MVP acceptance speech. In other words, James is nearing 30 and will have far more factors outside of basketball to consider in his next decision. Heat president Pat Riley presented LeBron with a collection of championship rings when he recruited him to Miami four years ago. To keep him, Riley will essentially offer a blank slate of a roster this summer that probably gives LeBron more creative license than he’s ever had to build his next supporting cast.
4. No more doubting Spoelstra
It was around this time three years ago when Riley was on a scouting trip at a college basketball game when he was approached by New York-area reporters who pressed him on Spoelstra’s job security. That almost seems silly now when considering that Spoelstra on Sunday became the sixth-fastest coach in NBA history to reach 300 victories. Despite guiding the Heat to the playoffs each of his first five seasons, to the Finals the past three and to consecutive NBA titles, Spoelstra hasn’t come relatively close to winning the NBA's coach of the year award. The reality is that he probably won’t ever earn that distinction as long as he’s in Miami. He’ll have to keep settling for rings instead of high levels of personal recognition. He deserves more credit than he gets for taking a two-time MVP in LeBron and creating a system that improved his game enough to make him a two-time champion. That same system turned a perennial All-Star in Bosh into one of the most versatile big men in the league and also cleared the way for Wade to become more efficient than he’s ever been. Along the way, Spoelstra has endured some internal uppercuts and undercuts amid the growing pains. But he’s continued to roll with the punches and is now more secure in his impact and status than just about any coach in the league outside of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.
Still, it might not be until his next job or two -- should he ever leave Miami -- that his work is appreciated publicly to the degree it warrants. If that plight sounds familiar, it should. Riley was on a similar path that started with the Showtime Lakers.
5. Wading through wear and tear
After missing 15 games before the All-Star break, primarily to rest or recover from knee soreness, Wade said he will take a similar “day-to-day” approach over the final weeks of the regular season. But Wade also said he’s returned to playing “like the Dwyane Wade I know” coming off consecutive double-doubles for the first time this season. He had 23 points and 10 rebounds Sunday against Chicago after dropping 24 points and 10 assists last Thursday in Oklahoma City. Since returning from the break, Wade is shooting 54.3 percent while averaging 20 points, 8.0 assists and 6.6 rebounds. If Wade can sustain this level of play, mixed with an occasional night off for maintenance, the Heat will be champions for a third straight season. Book it. But that still remains a big “if” on Wade’s part. After covering this guy the past eight years, it’s easy to trust Wade’s heart, work ethic and motivation. Trusting his health -- or his ability to sustain it on those balky knees -- is a different matter completely. The health of Wade’s knees remains the biggest X factor of the Heat’s seasons moving forward. Ray Allen’s shot in Game 6 to save the Finals last season against San Antonio masked a few issues that would have been far bigger concerns had Miami lost that series. But what Wade is clearly showing in recent weeks is more confidence and investment in his "old-man game," meaning his ability to exploit opponents with his below-the-rim techniques. Wade has always had the Euro-step and pump-fake on his jumper as go-to moves. But he’s mixed in some up-and-unders around the basket, crafty spins and midrange post-ups to leverage his strength advantage. There are still moments of "Flash" when he’s above the rim, but there’s a bit more Mark Aguirre and Adrian Dantley emerging in Wade.