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Last-shot question no longer plagues talent-rich Heat

The SportsXchange

MIAMI -- The Heat, off since Saturday's overtime win over Cleveland, returns to action Thursday night at home in a potential NBA Finals preview against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Heat will likely be without starting forward Shane Battier, who has a sprained right knee. He has yet to be ruled out, but the general consensus, even among players, is that Battier will miss at least the next two games.

The Heat will also be without something else - the "who will take the final shot" question that dogged them for much of the past 18 months, or ever since they added free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh and re-signed Dwyane Wade to create their Big Three.

Last season's NBA championship silenced their critics, and, at 10-3, the Heat are currently atop the Eastern Conference.

"It's interesting that our group at one time was questioned about their ability to close games," Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That couldn't be further from the truth.

"Our guys salivate in those situations. You can see it. They come to life. They want to make the big plays on both ends of the court, and you can't teach that quality."

Spoelstra said "we've come a long way" from the past two-plus years, pre-title, when the "who's going to get the ball at the end" question was asked at seemingly every interview.

The irony is that the answer -- even with superstars James, Wade and Bosh -- is sometimes none of the above.

High-profile reserve Ray Allen, who is averaging 12.8 points and is third in the NBA with a 52.9 percentage on 3-point shots, has two of the Heat's four last-minute, game-winning baskets so far this season.

Allen did it Nov. 3 in a 119-116 win over Denver and again Saturday against Cleveland. Both plays came on passes from James, who has the team's other two game-winners.

"It makes it a lot easier for us, because (Allen) makes big shots," Wade said. "We, very unselfishly, find him or we call our own numbers. But we have a lot of guys on the floor at the end of games who we feel comfortable with taking the last shot."

Spoelstra said there is an advantage to having the 6-8 James as such a tall passer, able to see and react to the defense with remarkable skill.

Cleveland coach Byron Scott was upset that his defenders would leave such a gifted shooter as Allen wide open in Saturday's decisive play, but that's what happens when the ultra-dangerous James drives the lane and draws a triple-team.

"(James) is so powerful when he comes down the lane, and he has so many weapons," Allen said. "We've just got to put ourselves in situations where we can help him."

According to Spoelstra, Allen is a master of doing just that, moving without the ball and losing defenders, if only for a split-second.

Spoelstra said Allen was the definition of "the ball will find energy", but it's really as simple as James being unguardable one-on-one, drawing help defenders and finding the open man.

"LeBron is a great passer," Allen said. "I've just been trying to read him and get in situations where I can give him an outlet."

James, who in the past has been criticized for passing up shots at the end of games, said he reverts to his training in those situations.

"I never cared about the criticism I received for making the right play," James said. "I was taught the right way how to play the game of basketball, and no matter if Ray makes it or misses it, I made the right play."

With Battier out, it will be interesting to see if Spoelstra makes the "right play" on who steps into the starting lineup. In a sense, the coach can't help but make the correct call because he has so many options on a deep and talented team.

But basketball chemistry can be a delicate thing. Keeping Allen with the Heat's second unit, where he has had so much success this season, may be preferable.

Spoelstra could start Mike Miller, a more perimeter-based player who seems finally healthy after the back issues that have plagued him the past couple of years.

The coach could also decide on Udonis Haslem, the Heat's newly crowned career leader in rebounds. Haslem could help Bosh with the Spurs' big front line, which includes reigning NBA Player of the Week Tim Duncan (6-11, 255 pounds) and the massive DeJuan Blair (6-7, 270).

The Spurs won 12 of their first 15 games this season, including their first four of their current six-game road trip.

They figure to provide a sturdy test to the Heat's 6-0 home record, one of only three NBA teams -- Utah and New York are the other two -- that are undefeated at home.

Bosh said Thursday's game will be no different from what the Heat has faced all season.

"We're going to get everybody's best," he said. "We have no room for error. Teams want to beat us. We have to take that seriously and we do.

"We have to get better. Our record is decent right now. It's encouraging that we can get better. Eventually, we'll get to where we need to be."
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