Who will step up to help the Heat's stars?
They command the shots and the headlines.
They bear the burden and the blame.
And that is as it should be, since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are the Heat's three All-Stars, as well as an enormous collective chunk of the team's salary cap. Between them, they represent $52 million of the Heat's $83 million in commitments for this season.
That's nearly 65 percent, and it correlates almost exactly with their nightly percentage of the Heat's scoring.
Still, they didn't win the 2012 championship alone.
They needed clutch shooting from Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers, strong defense from Shane Battier, solid screens from Joel Anthony, big rebounds from Udonis Haslem and even some pesky on-ball defense from then-rookie Norris Cole. His energy in particular helped turn Game 4 of the NBA Finals around.
The bench was supposed to be better this season, with the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. But, 45 games into the season, Erik Spoelstra is still in search of reliable combinations, especially when James is resting.
Against Indiana and Toronto, he experimented with a lineup of Bosh, Lewis, Battier, Allen and Cole. After that group was outscored 18-2 in those two games, he wisely chose to avoid that alignment against Charlotte. When asked after the win against the Bobcats about the Heat's balance among the Big 3, James' reply was telling.
"We even want even more balance, to get the role players involved a little more," James said.
So, on balance, what are the most important X-Factors for the Heat down the stretch of the season, and into the postseason?
As Miami's major annoyance, Shane Battier played a huge role in the 2012 playoffs
LeBron James missed just one of 14 shots on Monday against the Bobcats.
Shane Battier dunked. Two-handed. Slam.
"I was up there, I didn't know what to do," Battier said. "I was swinging on the rim, and I was like, oh Lord, don't let go of the rim and fall flat on my face, that would have killed the moment."
It was certainly unexpected, considering that Battier hadn't slammed since the 2009-10 season.
“We’ve been waiting for one of those,” James said. “He’s been doing them in warm-ups too, like trying to get his legs ready. D-Wade gave him the best pass he could have gotten, where all he had to do was do the 1-2 and get up there. That was big time. I loved it. That was awesome.”
"Shock, disbelief," Battier said, describing his teammates' reactions.
While he wasn't predicting any encores, calling it "Halley's Comet" and jokingly dedicating it to "all the suburban dads out there, who have been told they are over the hill, and they are a step slow, not as good as they once were," it spoke to something a little more serious for Miami.
"I've felt good lately," Battier said. "I've felt quasi-athletic."
It would be helpful to the Heat if that continues. Battier is shooting almost exclusively three-pointers this season, and his percentage is slightly elevated from last season. Where Miami will need him most is on the other end and, at age 34, feeling as good as he can get.
Mike Miller hasn't had much of a chance to let it fly of late.
Pat Riley joked, after last season, that Mike Miller could guarantee one more game like Game 5 of the NBA Finals. In that big game he somehow stiffly stroked seven three-pointers. Riley would have no problem shelving him until that.
Which is pretty much what has occurred of late.
While feeling much freer from back—and other—pain than last season, Miller has essentially lost his spot in the regular rotation.
That has occurred even after the Heat won three games with him starting in Dwyane Wade's place earlier in the season, with Miami struggling to rebound, and with him still shooting a healthy 38.9 percent from the three-point line.
Miller has essentially gone the way of James Jones, a career 40 percent shooter from deep. Until recently Rashard Lewis wasn't getting any time either.
That means, for all the talk of the Heat's collection of elite three-point shooters, a good number of those aren't getting anything more than garbage time.
The Heat is fifth in the NBA in three-point percentage (38.0), but ninth in attempts per game (21.1).
Ray Allen is getting the expected time. Considering all the space LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh create, it will be interesting to see if Erik Spoelstra will unleash another of his shooting specialists more often.
In the meantime, Miller, Jones and Lewis have all tried to stay sharp in pregame 3-on-3 battles—during which they get far fewer open looks than they would get in the games that count.
Chris Andersen has already brought some color to the Heat rotation.
The Heat locker room tends to be a fairly antiseptic, intellectual place.
Sure, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Shane Battier are capable of the occasional colorful quote, but players are just as prone to spend the pregame period reading 400-page books—with Bosh now immersed in "Unbroken"—than goofing off. Sometimes, quite simply, the place can be a bit staid.
Chris Andersen has provided some energy to the team on and off the floor.
When he concludes a second 10-day contract, he is almost certain to be retained for the remainder of the season.
How could that not be the case, after this endorsement from LeBron James:
"We love Bird out there, man. Everything that he does, he does it with aggression. He does it with a pace, and with a motor. He doesn't leave anything in the tank," James said.
Erik Spoelstra is trying to play Andersen only in short spurts, and Andersen intends to spend the All-Star break running mountains in Colorado until he gets his wind.
“I don’t pace myself at all, that’s the problem,” Andersen said. “That’s why I get exhausted, and that’s why I call for a sub.”
Andersen said that he's only shown "six feathers" out of 11, in terms of his total capability.
He's already shown, however, that he can offer something Miami was missing, which is why he has supplanted Joel Anthony in the rotation: relentless rebounding. It's a small sample size, but if he can sustain his 13.8 rebounds per 36 minutes, his role is bound to grow.
Mario Chalmers's fifth season has featured plenty of frustrations.
Mario Chalmers made his name at Kansas.
If he clicks his heels, he should hope to go back to Sacramento.
On Jan. 12, the Heat point guard drained 10 three-pointers. He might have had more if Erik Spoelstra had let him stay in the game, rather than worry about running up the score against the Kings.
In the 10 games since, Chalmers has made 12.
That, though, isn't the biggest concern Miami has with its point guard.
Over the course of the past five seasons, the Heat has constantly supplied him with competition, from Carlos Arroyo to Rafer Alston to Mike Bibby to Norris Cole, trying to bring out some consistency and concentration. It appeared that Chalmers had turned a corner in the NBA Finals, where he again showed the fearlessness that has endeared him to teammates, while moderating his mistakes.
But he continues to follow a strong performance with a sloppy one.
His overall numbers look a lot like those of last season, with his point slippage mostly due to dropoffs in minutes and shot attempts. He will get more of those minutes—instead of Cole—when he shows the necessary discipline on offense and intensity on defense.
It is important for him to earn Spoelstra's trust again, because, even as maddening as he can be, Miami has posted much better plus-minus numbers with him out there, compared to Cole. Because if Spoelstra won't play either, LeBron James will be burdened with all of the ball-handling.
As if James doesn't have enough to do.
At age 37, can Ray Allen give Miami offense every postseason night?
Wednesday in Miami, two subs will square off.
In the offseason, each signed for $3 million to provide scoring off the bench.
One of the signings shook the NBA.
The other no one noticed.
And yet, statistically, Ray Allen hasn't done all that much different for Miami than Carlos Delfino has for Houston.
In 25.6 minutes, Allen averages 10.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists, while shooting 42 percent from behind the arc.
In 25.1 minutes, Delfino averages 10.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists, while shooting 40 percent from behind the arc.
This isn't to say that Allen has been a regrettable acquisition, just that he may have been a bit overhyped. His defense has often been an adventure and—as good as he's been at home—he's often been atrocious on the road, shooting 39.5 percent overall, including 33.7 percent from deep.
Naturally, Miami will take comfort in Allen's postseason experience, so he's likely to render Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis and maybe even Mario Chalmers spectators in the minutes that matter.
That comfort may even afford him more minutes than his overall play deserves.
The Heat simply can't afford him to be errant.
(All quotes for this piece were collected as part of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics were accurate as of Tuesday afternoon.)