Over a week into the 2012-13 season, and the defending champs are being treated like the mid-market bores that they are. The Miami Heat has won three of four, their lone loss came in a nationally televised (on a Friday night, but still national) drubbing at the hands of the New York Knicks, and there hasn't been a whole lot of scandal to go around. The controversy behind Ray Allen's icy relationship with his former mates in Boston has died down, and the entire league can't seem to take its eyes off of the soap opera in Los Angeles and the frowny faces in Oklahoma City.
All along, the Heat keep getting buckets. In scarier and scarier ways, as they routinely look for the open man while keeping both opponent and head coach gobsmacked as to how great they are at moving the rock.
Earlier this week, after the Heat trampled the Phoenix Suns by 25 points at home, Suns forward Jared Dudley gushed to reporters postgame about the Heat's insistence on finding the open man. From the AP:
''I thought that was probably the most unselfish team I've ever played against since I've been in the NBA,'' Dudley said. ''It was drive, kick, swing, penetrate, flare, and they were hitting everyone. Even when someone had a good shot they would make an extra pass for someone to have an even better shot.''
This came after a blowout win that saw eight — eight! — Heat players make a 3-point basket. It should also be noted that Dudley has been in the NBA since 2007, plenty to see in that time, playing nearly 300 contests on the same side as Steve Nash on top of that brand of experience. Three games in, at that point, and the Heat went straight to the top of his charts.
After Wednesday's throttling of the Brooklyn Nets, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra chimed in:
"The ball is popping, it's moving, the unselfishness has become contagious," Spoelstra said. "The ego-less part of it, I think, is one of our biggest strides right now. … The ball just moves to the open man."
The "ego-less" quote will be what most league followers will take away, which would leave most to believe that the failed Big Three experiment from October of 2010 to last spring was burdened by ego and teammates refusing to look for the open man. It didn't quite cut that way, though.
What the then-failed experiment was burdened by was ball domination. There was plenty of passing, overpassing, but it was preceded by a predictable two-man game. The same style of offensive play that worked wonders for Dwyane Wade in 2006 (when Dwyane was far more sprightly) and broke LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers' offenses down in repeated postseasons. A mix of one on one ball, screen and roll orthodoxy, and hesitancy. Not because players were trying to pad their scoring stats, but just because sluggishness was the order the day.
Something clicked last May, when the Heat started moving more quickly into sets and giving up the ball with the full expectation that they were due to get it back soon enough. It isn't as if the Heat have become a full-out transition team — they still rank amongst the middle of the pack when it comes to possessions per game — but it does mean the Heat are exploring their significant options with alacrity and, hell, risk. There's danger here, as the ball darts to and fro, but danger that can sustain a league-best offense because three and sometimes four of the people on the court are the absolute best (all-around stud, scoring wing, lights-out shooter, offense-first big man) at what they do.
When Grantland's Zach Lowe predicted before the season started that the Heat would lead the NBA in points per possession, I didn't exactly scoff, but I did wonder just how the team featuring Mario Chalmers' turnovers and Shane Battier's front-rimmed threes could top the league's more offensive-minded squads. Miami made its run last spring and summer as an offensive juggernaut, but it was the defense that put them in a position to make those second, third, and fourth rounds. Top five, up from eighth last year? Sure. But first overall?
A week in, here we are. Basketball-Reference has the team just behind New York with the league's best per-possession offense. John Hollinger has them first. The difference doesn't matter — it's the way they're going about it. Quick, quick, quick. And even if it takes the Heat all of that 24-second shot clock to ring up a score, they're going to get there with plenty of passes along the way. No more waiting for the defense to collapse based solely on one man's attempt to get to the rim. No more overpassing while struggling to pass that alpha dog torch around.
Now, the Heat talk up "hockey assists." Tom Haberstroh reports that LeBron James has more hockey assists (the pass that leads to the assist, which the Heat document internally) than Wade, Ray Allen, and point guard Chalmers combined. In the (somewhat) typical box score, the team leads the NBA in the percent of possessions that end in an assist; a stat that doesn't always tip off as a sign of the NBA's best offense, but one that certainly doesn't hurt. Just as impressively, the group is fifth in fewest turnovers per possession. There's a lot going on, and while New York has played just as well thus far offensively, Miami seems a better fit to sustain that.
New York's skewed these guys, though. Both in keeping them from the ranks of the undefeated, and in creating some pretty lousy defensive statistics for the Heat because last Friday's blowout win over Miami counts so heavily in that five-game ledger.
Miami is just 23rd in defensive efficiency this season, after two straight top five finishes in 2011 and 2012. The tail off can't strictly be credited to starting Chris Bosh at center and only playing defensive-minded big Joel Anthony spot minutes — lineups featuring both LeBron and Ray Allen this season have resulted in some terrible defensive marks.
It's early, of course. And coach Spoelstra didn't make his initial coaching push as a defensive or offensive mastermind — he made it by watching more game tape by 7 a.m. than anyone else did all week.
The knowledge of what's gone wrong was never the problem in Miami, even when Dallas was pulling away with things in 2011 or Boston seemed ready to end things last spring. It's the execution, nodding at all the buzzwords from the huddle before trusting enough to dive into the actual application of the ideal play between the lines.
As a result, as Lowe predicted, there seems to be something lasting here that wasn't in place before. There are still 77 games to play and potentially two months' worth of playoff basketball to slog through, but does anyone think this is going away anytime soon?
Let the soulless cretins talk up LeBron James' supposed lack of a "clutch gene." He's not going to need one when the Heat enter every fourth quarter up 20 points.
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