Doesn't Miami's Championship Season Seem Like it Happened 10 Years Ago?The Miami Heat won the NBA championship in the summer of 2006 but doesn't that seem like it happened a long, long time ago? Since then, the Heat got embarrassed by the Chicago Bulls on ring night to start the 2007 season and swept by the Bulls in the playoffs to close the 2007 season--and Miami has not won a game since then. In fact, the Heat have lost the last 17 times that they stepped on the court: the final two regular season games in 2007, the four game sweep by the Bulls, seven preseason games and the first four games of this season, the latest defeat being an 88-78 loss on Wednesday night to the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs. Manu Ginobili had a game-high 25 points, plus seven assists and seven rebounds. Tony Parker added 23 points and eight assists, while Tim Duncan had a quiet night (12 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one blocked shot). Shaquille O'Neal scored a season-high 17 points for the second game in a row but he shot just 6-13 from the field and had only three rebounds in 31 minutes. Ricky Davis had 14 points, also shooting 6-13 from the field. Smush Parker emerged from Coach Pat Riley's doghouse to play 27 minutes but his four points on 2-9 shooting coupled with his unwillingness to run the offense the way that Riley wants it to be run suggest that he will have some more DNP-CDs in the near future.
Dwyane Wade may be returning to action soon for the Heat, so ESPN's Jon Barry says that Miami fans should not worry because Dallas started out 0-4 last year and still won 67 games. Earth to Jon Barry: the Mavericks had the league's MVP (Dirk Nowitzki), a rising young All-Star (Josh Howard), one of the NBA's top sixth men (Jerry Stackhouse) and talented point guards Jason Terry and Devin Harris plus several excellent role players. Meanwhile, Riley is so desperate to add athleticism to his roster that this offseason he brought in Davis and Parker, two players who have little interest in playing defense and even less interest in adhering to the structure of Riley's offense. I have a better chance of dunking from the free throw line than Miami does of winning 67 games this year; it will take a Herculean effort out of Wade to carry this team to a 41-41 record.
Other than a brief flashback moment when he caught a lob and dunked on Fabricio Oberto, O'Neal seems to have little lift or lateral mobility. Moves that used to end in resounding dunks now result in layup attempts, some of which O'Neal misses. His defense, rarely a strong suit, now consists primarily of committing hard fouls against driving opponents (or simply watching them stroll to the hoop). In fairness to O'Neal, it should be mentioned that it seems like the only player on the roster who knows how to correctly feed the post is Penny Hardaway. Sadly, Hardaway seems to have even less explosiveness left than O'Neal does, although he put up a solid stat line (eight points, four rebounds, five assists, three steals) simply by using his veteran wiles to make up for what he has lost physically. If Hardaway's body can hold up to the workload, he should get some of Davis' or Parker's minutes simply because he actually understands how to play winning basketball and the offense runs more smoothly when he handles the ball. As Barry correctly noted, "The pass to the post is a lost art in the NBA." Maybe that is why the only player on the Heat who can do it correctly had been out of the league for two years.
The Spurs looked bored and sluggish in the first half. Miami's only hope, as assistant coach Bob McAdoo admitted to ESPN's Lisa Salters at halftime, is to slow the game down and muck things up. San Antonio only led 39-38 at halftime. Tony Parker had 12 points on 5-7 shooting but he told Salters that it would be his responsibility to speed the game up in the second half and to get Tim Duncan (eight points on 2-7 shooting) more involved. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich sought to provide a second half spark by starting Ginobili in place of Michael Finley and that move paid immediate dividends as Ginobili scored 12 points in the third quarter, helping the Spurs to go up by as many as 15 points.
One thing that Davis can do is score, as he showed by putting up nine points in less than three minutes late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter, helping Miami trim the lead to 65-60. After that, the Spurs quickly pushed the margin back to 15 and led by at least eight points the rest of the way. Miami's players either don't know how to feed O'Neal in the post or are disinterested in doing so. The interesting thing is that, other than a brief complaint after the first game of the season, O'Neal is not raising much of a fuss in public about this. Perhaps he has mellowed, perhaps he is resigned to his fate or perhaps he realizes that he does not have the ability to get off 20 good shot attempts a night. However, even though O'Neal can no longer score like he used to it still makes sense to at least start the halfcourt offense by passing him the ball. That forces the defense to react and could create some better shot opportunities for the perimeter players; O'Neal is a willing and effective passer out of the post and could still be of some value in that role.
Anyone who thinks that Wade can singlehandedly save Miami should consider a couple things. One, Wade may not be full healthy when he returns and he certainly will be rusty, so the Heat are not getting back the player who was the 2006 Finals MVP; that player may not show up until after the All-Star break, if at all, this season. Two, the Heat's record with Wade last year was 27-24 and their record without him was 17-14; his presence alone did not have much impact on the team's record (which highlights how remarkable it is that Kobe Bryant almost singlehandedly carried an even more injury depleted Lakers team to a playoff berth in the deeper Western Conference). The Heat had a 19-22 record when O'Neal returned to action after missing most of the first half of the season and then went 23-13 in the games that he played in the rest of the way. In other words, what salvaged the Heat's regular season last year was not Wade but rather the play of a relatively healthy and in shape O'Neal down the stretch--but watching him lumber up and down the court now, the O'Neal who can change the game in that fashion seems like an even more distant memory than Miami's championship.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 AM