It takes 5. Where’s the other 4 at?
by Colin Powers
The late season momentum of the Miami Heat was certainly partially a consequence of a favorable schedule light on eventual Playoff participants. After bobbing above and below the .500-mark all season long, the powers that be gifted Miami a relatively soft stretch run, propelling the team all the way to the 5th seed. Though they weren’t conquering the goliaths of the League, they were taking care of business, finding their confidence, and laying the groundwork for a potential revitalized DWade Playoff showcase. 18-4 since the start of March and matched up with an aging group plagued by hubris in the Boston Celtics, shit looked ripe for No. 3 to make some moves this Spring. It had been too long since one of the League’s finest had the opportunity to play on the big stage.
Now two games into the series with Boston, ambitions of advancing towards a showdown with King James in what was sure to be a ratings bonanza have taken a back seat to crisis management and avoiding embarrassment. Last night, the Heat took offensive ineptitude to new heights while also somehow succumbing to the moves and shakes of the indomitable ‘Ticket Stub’ on their way to a massive beat-down. Facing a Boston team without KG in the biggest game of the season, the Heat were swept away without a modicum of resistance, reminding us once again why Pat Riley better have something major up his sleeve to stop Dwyane from getting the f out of dodge this summer.
Wade, to his credit, has competed through out, but the simplicity and predictability of the Heat offense, which features only one player capable of creating for himself and others with any consistency, is hardly even a challenge for defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau. Consequently, as Miami runs yet another high screen and roll at the top of the key, Boston’s bigs continue to hedge and control the driving lanes, Flash’s man continues to slip under the screen, the Heat’s screener continues to pose no real threat on the pop or roll to the basket, and any creativity, movement or flow Miami might otherwise have generated is stifled. Wade has to deal with two players containing his drives to the basket, precious seconds are lost off the shot-clock, and the possession eventually ends up either with a missed jump shot from one of his teammates or on occasion, a basket achieved solely by DWade’s unique individual ability. This monotony and lack of innovation on offense leads to prolonged stretches when MIA cannot find the basket and suddenly find themselves down 18 after another Shuttlesworth three. Last night following Boston’s second quarter run, Miami for the most part appeared apathetic and indifferent to their fate, incapable of the ingenuity necessary to bust themselves out of their rut.
A lot of the focus will inevitably fall on Michael Beasley because the gap between his talent and on-court production is the greatest of anyone on the Heat roster at the moment. That is a legitimate gripe. To be fair to Beas, however, I thought he came out in the 2nd half with fire and activity for an otherwise moribund team. He buried two quick jumpshots, was communicative and energetic on the defensive end, and looked like he finally realized, ‘damn, where’s my confidence at? I’ve been one of the best players on the court my whole life. Am I really gonna let Big Baby, Sheldon Williams, and Rasheed Wallace give me the business?’ Nonetheless, soon after that spurt he picked up a cheap foul and was ushered to the bench, the brief flicker of initiative was gone, and the Heat were left flailing haplessly in the wind. With Beasley out, Udonis Haslem, a tough, professional player but one with a game meant for the periphery of the action was again forced into a primary role, something quite simply beyond his skill-set. And that is not to begrudge the man; he has carved himself a niche in this League as a steady, intelligent and reliable player versed in the little things exacted of winning teams. He just ain’t a second banana, and neither is Jermaine O’Neal.
O’Neal, a 13-year pro has compiled a solid career unfortunately derailed by injuries just as he was truly emerging as one of the best players in the League. He has had a commendable season and is playing through pain this post-season. That said, his days as in the big-time ended in 2007, and he, like Haslem, are best suited in complementary roles now. Even as a role player, though, nothing went right in the Bean since last Saturday for Jermaine. In two games, he’s a combined 4-24, shooting an emaciated 16.7 percent from the field. And these have been open, clean looks: uncontested 15 footers and turnarounds and hooks within 4 feet in the lane. Sure, the Celtics’ defense deserves some credit, but O’Neal’s struggles are more self-inflicted than anything else.
Again though, we should take a look at some of the fundamental reasons for the Heat’s illness and not the symptoms as they appear on the court. As bad as O’Neal has been, some of the blame must directed at a Heat organization that has asked Jermaine to do what his body no longer can after 863 games in the Association. The entire roster is genuinely a Knick-esque collection of journeymen and young fellas grasping for an identity, directionless yet somehow driven to 47 wins because DWade is very, very good at basketball. As a result, their ceiling was lifted artificially high with this late season run, but the whole structure was built on the shakiest of foundations to say the least. They just don’t have the players. Without the instant evolution of Beasley, there isn’t enough in the Heat arsenal to even force Boston to play Dwyane honest and give him the chance for some ‘God disguised as Michael Jordan’ type moments.
Yes, there are long-term goals involved here, and the Heat are fully prepped in mind and body to undergo major reconstruction work this summer far beyond the cosmetic quick-fixes we have seen since the end of their championship window (Shawn Marion, JO, etc). But while all that may be true, and the purging of the decaying ’06 roster was unavoidably necessary, it’s still tough for me to think about the salary cap and the promise of the future when we as fans have now lost three years of Dwyane Wade’s prime. One of the most special players of the past 10 years has languished in what could be best described as mediocrity.
If things work out this July, great, as at long last we’ll get to see Wade again compete in meaningful games without having to go one on five like in that strange Jordan commercial that debuted his new shoe. Whether he stays to play for a newly formidable Miami Heat team or moves on to greener pastures, though, the frustration of the past two games (and the past three seasons) will truly linger with me (I can’t even imagine what he’s feeling). I’m sure it’s been painful for him to put off his immediate wants for more distant goals as the Heat’s situation has forced upon him. And so not to get ahead of ourselves, this series isn’t over by any means; perhaps the Heat will be reinvigorated by a white-out or some other gimmick at the half empty American Airlines Arena. But if they go out whimpering without a fight again this year, Pat Riley’s job of convincing Mr. Wade to stay will have grown far more difficult.