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Friday, April 06, 2007

Heat Continue to Sizzle Even Without Dwyane Wade

The Miami Heat improved to 15-7 since Dwyane Wade's shoulder injury by defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers 94-90 in overtime at Quicken Loans Arena. The win clinched a playoff berth for Miami and--because of the NBA's quirky playoff format--dropped the Cavaliers from second to fifth place in the Eastern Conference. If the playoffs began today then these two teams would meet, with Miami holding the home court advantage. Shaquille O'Neal had 20 points and eight rebounds but his presence is felt beyond his own personal statistics; he commanded double teams, which opened up opportunities for Miami's three point shooters: the two main beneficiaries were Antoine Walker--who has been mired in a season long shooting slump but shot 6-8 from distance and scored 20 points--and Jason Kapono, who made three of his four three point shots, scoring 11 points. O'Neal is not quite the rebounder that he was during his prime years but he is still a very legitimate scoring threat on the block, shooting 9-13 from the field. He also had two assists but, more importantly, his passes out of double teams led to good ball reversal and culminated in open shots for his teammates.

LeBron James had 35 points, nine rebounds and five assists; his statistics look fantastic but anyone who watched the game knows that at times he struggled to find the right balance between attacking the basket, shooting jump shots and passing to his teammates. The Cavaliers battled back from a 15 point deficit to have a chance to win on the last play of regulation time but James dribbled out the clock before hoisting a low percentage three pointer over two defenders. TNT's Kenny Smith later commented that James has to give up the ball in that situation and let his open teammate shoot; if that player cannot make the shot then it is the coach's fault for having the wrong personnel on the court. Then, in overtime, the Cavs trailed 90-87 when James drove to the hoop, jumped in the air and threw the ball away to Jason Williams; on that play James should have shot the ball. The Cavs still got one more chance with five seconds left and Miami up 93-90. Donyell Marshall set a screen at the top of the key for James but Eddie Jones fought through and intercepted Larry Hughes' crosscourt inbounds pass. Smith's verdict on the game was simple and direct: "The difference between 90s basketball and 2000s basketball has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with decisions." Charles Barkley was even more blunt: "You're right, Kenny. These players today are dumber than rocks."

Miami's return to legitimate contender status in the East should not surprise anyone. After Wade's injury, when some commentators predicted doom and gloom for the Heat, I wrote a post titled Why the Heat Won't Miss Dwyane Wade as Much as Most People Think. I predicted that even if Wade did not come back that the Heat would move up to sixth in the Eastern Conference. Washington's total collapse has enabled Miami to take the lead in the Southeast Division and claim the fourth spot in the East. In fact, the Heat are only a game behind the Toronto Raptors in the battle for the third seed. The Eastern Conference playoffs should be very interesting because no single dominant team has emerged; Detroit has the best record but certainly does not scare Miami, Chicago or Cleveland.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM

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