Monday, February 28, 2011
The Heat's loss is a case in point
By Michael Wallace
MIAMI -- This is what a real point guard sounds like.
“It's pride,” Chauncey Billups, the newly acquired New York Knick and long-time clutch performer, said after his work was done on Sunday night. “That's really what a team is all about. Different jersey. Different everything. But the pride and the passion stay the same.”
This is what a true point guard does down the stretch. When the New York Knicks needed direction stating their case to referees, nailing clutch shots and making a game-clinching defensive stand, Billups was the cop in the middle of the busy intersection after the traffic light went haywire.
This is how a legitimate leader carries himself at the most important position on the court. Billups was the calm amid the chaos. He was the confident catalyst who engineered the comeback that saw the Knicks overcome 40 minutes of terrible basketball with a total of eight minutes of chemistry and execution to slip past the Miami Heat 91-86 on Sunday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
And this, essentially, is the difference a quality point guard would make for the Heat.
Mario Chalmers has his moments, but the Heat miss the point.
Don't get this twisted. This is no plea to find a proven playmaker who could help this team address the harsh reality that's been staring Miami in the face all season. When you're the Heat and have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on your roster, you're in no position to complain about what you don't have. Any sliver of sympathy Miami might have garnered for the holes that exist elsewhere on the roster was lost the moment the new arrivals celebrated their free-agency hookup last July the way NBA champions usually toast in June.
You can put together stars who load up on stats, blow out bad teams, beat up on mediocre ones and occasionally flirt with a breakthrough moment or two during the course of a long regular season. But when it's time to take that next step from contender to champion, from talking about how it'll all come together eventually to ultimately showing proof of that progress, the Heat are missing a key ingredient.
A point guard -- especially one like Billups.
The Heat have all the talent in the world in their starting lineup at three of the five positions on the floor. But the team that won Sunday's much-hyped showdown that was supposed to be all about the star power of Lebron, Dwyane, Carmelo and Amare was won by the team that had a championship point guard.
The Knicks had Billups, who dropped in a 27-foot dagger for the go-ahead score in the final minute of the game. The Heat had Mario Chalmers, who despite some inspired play recently, blew a point-blank, breakaway layup earlier in the second half.
The Knicks had a veteran who didn't hesitate to take control of his team on both ends of the court and steer the stars without a second thought. The Heat, yet again, closed the game without a point guard on the court, and trusted that LeBron and D-Wade could win it with hero-ball.
The result was another explanation from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra about the process his team is going through in games like these, and the consistent progress it has yet to make. This is the second time in three games the Heat built a double-digit lead against a playoff-caliber opponent. Last week it was the Chicago Bulls. Sunday night, it was the Knicks.
What do the Heat have to show for it? L.L. -- as in Cool J. And clutch play at the point guard position was the difference in both outcomes. Last week, it was Derrick Rose with the game-winning dime to Luol Deng. This week, it was Billups with the go-ahead jumper and the game-sealing steal.
Billups had 16 points, four rebounds, two assists, three steals and five turnovers -- not a monster game by any stretch. But he was mistake-free in the clutch, with seven points and two steals in the fourth quarter.
“I always feel like the fourth quarter is a new game,” he said.
New game from Billups, same old song from Spoelstra.
“We will have our breakthrough,” Spoesltra said. “As painful as it is right now, there will be a time when we break through, execute and win a game like this against a quality opponent going down the stretch. What you hope is that the pain of a game like this resonates enough to make a change.”
But the results won't change until the personnel does. As things now stand, the Heat are playing at a disadvantage -- without a legitimate point guard. I've suggested a solution in the past. The best way for the Heat to address this problem is to convince Wade to take over the position full-time and commit to it on both ends of the court.
Miami's best perimeter lineup is Wade, LeBron and Mike Miller, anyway. But the problem is there's too much freelancing in the closing stretches of tight games. When other teams go to their point guard, the Heat goes to, well, roles that never seem quite defined.
When the Knicks were headed in that direction Sunday, when Stoudemire and Carmelo were on the verge of trying to upstage one another as the savior, Billups got things straight and restored order.
“He made big plays down the stretch, and I think he's a key part to their success,” said Bosh, who almost sounded envious as he talked about Billups' impact on the game. “Chauncey is big for them because he gives them experience at the point guard position. That's the most important position on the court. He's going to run the show and spread the court at the same time. I'm sure they're banking a lot of their success on him.”
Meanwhile, the Heat are banking on a breakthrough at some point at the point without really playing with a point in the most pivotal points of games.
Perhaps this problem will be addressed in the next couple of days, when the Heat could have options among players who are bought out by their current teams. Players who reach contract buyouts and are released by Tuesday are playoff eligible when they sign with another team.
Hope that T.J. Ford gets his wish and is released by the Indiana Pacers this week. Keep your fingers crossed that Mike Bibby would be foolishly generous enough to give back a nice chunk of his salary this season and next to be set free by the Washington Wizards.
When you've got Wade, James and Bosh, you can't have it all. But it's really a shame that you still don't have enough -- especially at a spot where seemingly every other contender in the East has an All-Star at the position.
Sunday offered yet another painful reminder.
“We know about Melo,” James said. “We know about Amare. But people always seem to forget about Chauncey. We never do. He continues to make big shot after big shot. That's why it's his nickname.”
The Heat can't seem to catch a break at point guard.
Meanwhile, the Knicks catch a keeper as a so-called throw-in on that Carmelo Anthony trade.
“That's why,” Spoelstra said, “it's an absolute mockery to say that he was a throw-in on that deal.”
Especially for a team that just hasn't gotten the point all season.