5 Ways Miami Heat Are Better in 2013 Than Title-Winning 2012 Campaign
There was nothing wrong with Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings showing a little confidence in himself and his team by declaring, "I could see us winning the series in six."
After all, as he noted, "What am I supposed to say?"
Making it happen, however, is another matter, and Sunday's Game 1 showed why the Bucks have absolutely no chance of that. They're a limited squad, dependent on two shot-happy guards to carry the offense.
And they're not facing the 2011 Miami Heat or even the 2012 Miami Heat.
They're facing the 2013 Miami Heat, a team that ended the regular season by winning 37 of 39 games, that has become stronger mentally over time and that has a much deeper roster than it did during the past two postseasons.
Two seasons ago, Joel Anthony got the fourth-most minutes in the postseason.
Now he is the team's 12th or 13th man.
LeBron James' comments after he scored 27 points on just 11 shots best embody that depth.
"We have so many threats out on the floor, it allows me to just play," James said. "We have so many guys who can also make plays."
They do, and that's why they should steamroll the Bucks.
The Bucks shouldn't feel too badly about it, since the same is likely going to happen to the Brooklyn Nets next.
(All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics are accurate as of Monday afternoon.)
5. Ray Allen's Experience
Erik Spoelstra calls Ray Allen "Everyday Ray."
It's a testament to the veteran's preparation, which is responsible for him playing 17 NBA seasons.
And while Allen hasn't been "Every Night Ray" this season in terms of his performance, struggling some early in the season, especially on the road, he demonstrated in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks why he can be so valuable during a postseason run.
“Ray is a threat out on the floor at all times, no matter if he is making shots or not, you have to account for him," LeBron James said.
That's true, and that opens the lane for James, Dwyane Wade and others.
And that was the case Sunday, even as he made only two of eight shots from behind the arc.
He was 4-of-5 from inside, while adding five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 29 minutes.
He handled the ball quite a bit, serving as a secondary ball-handler alongside the sometimes-erratic Norris Cole.
What matters most, when it comes to Allen, is that you know he can handle the pressure, pressure that will only increase as the Miami Heat inevitably advance through the playoffs.
Sunday was his 129th playoff game, and he's posted a career postseason average of 18.2 points while shooting 40.1 percent from three-point range. Nor does he appear to wearing down.
"I think it's unbelievable the way he's still able to move up and down the floor," James said.
His skill and experience should come in especially handy every day the Heat play in May...and June.
4. The Birdman's Successful First Miami Flight
Chris Andersen has always had the makings of a professional wrestler.
He's certainly big and strong enough.
He has a nickname, "Birdman," and he uses it to refer to himself in the third person, as in, "The Birdman takes care of business" and "The Birdman don't need wings to fly."
And, of course, he has a distinctive look, his body covered with tattoos, his hair spiked in a mohawk.
So it was only a matter of time before he would act like a wrestler, as he did after a putback dunk Sunday in Game 1 of the Miami Heat's first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Andersen turned, snarled and spread his arms, not to flap this time, but to salute the fans.
“That’s good that they’re getting involved, but I try to stay in the moment and stay focused on the game and continue to do what I do," Andersen said.
What he's done this season has been remarkable.
As team president Pat Riley revealed recently, coach Erik Spoelstra had wanted to add Andersen for a while, to the point where Riley joked that he would wring Spoelstra's neck if the latter texted again. But Miami needed to do its due diligence on Andersen's on-court issues.
The Heat finally signed Andersen to a pair of 10-day contracts, and then for the season. Miami is now 40-3 in games that he's played, which is not a coincidence. He has taken Joel Anthony's place in the rotation and, while both are capable shot-blockers, Andersen is a superior rebounder and finisher.
"He's had a great impact on our team on both ends," Spoelstra said.
Dwyane Wade said it better: "Bird has been huge for us."
3. Health, Depth, Growth of Supporting Cast
Mike Miller didn't have working thumbs during the 2011 playoffs.
He could hardly walk during the 2012 playoffs due to a back that was requiring frequent injections.
Now he's healthy, healthy enough to shoot 51 percent from three-point range when he got an extended chance to play during the season's last 11 games.
And he can't get in the Miami Heat's playoff rotation.
Nor can James Jones, who played heavy minutes for Miami in the 2011 postseason.
Nor, for that matter, can Rashard Lewis, who also performed well as Miami closed the season strong.
That speaks to the improved depth of the roster—specifically Ray Allen and Chris Andersen—but also the improvements made by a couple of players who returned from last season.
Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole may not be the NBA's most consistent point guard tandem, but each has made enough progress in enough areas that Erik Spoelstra appears committed to splitting each game's 48 minutes between them, rather than taking both off the court to let LeBron James take over the ball-handling.
There still are games when one or the other isn't especially effective; for instance, in Game 1, Chalmers made poor decisions that led to early foul trouble.
But they do enough well (Chalmers' spot-up shooting, Cole's on-ball defense) that Spoelstra is more likely to let them play through mistakes. That makes the Heat even harder to beat, because it frees James and Wade to focus on other areas.
2. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh Have Settled In
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had accomplished plenty by the time they became teammates during the summer of 2010.
In Wade's case, even an NBA Finals MVP.
In light of that, everyone assumed their collaboration—along with LeBron James—would be easy.
It wasn't, and Wade and Bosh both took plenty of criticism for that, if not quite as much as James.
They had to learn not to step on each other and, in the case of Wade and Bosh, that meant taking a step back in some areas from what they had previously done as the leaders of their teams.
As Wade put it:
Just giving the ball up, and playing off the ball. I've always played with the ball. I've always went and gotten the ball when I felt like it. Now it's a little different. Just that comfort of getting it up. But I've made that adjustment of finding a way to impact the game when I don't have it in my hands as much. You have to find your way where you can be effective on the team.
Wade and Bosh both have found that way, which is why each shot a career-high percentage from the field this season. For Bosh, that has meant embracing the Heat's preference for him to step outside and create space, rather than try to bulk up to be a back-to-the-basket bully.
“I’m just going to be all over the court, and because of that (attitude) I’ve become, I think, a much better player,” Bosh said.
His evolution, along with that of Wade, has made the Heat a much better team.
1. LeBron James Has Raised His Game
Reporters aren't the only ones running out of accolades for LeBron James' play.
So is James.
He has started to repeat the same answers, about how he's just trying to implement his offseason work, involve his teammates, maintain a high level of efficiency and, ultimately, win the game.
But he more than makes up for it on the court.
In a Game 1 win against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Miami Heat forward scored 27 points on just 11 shots.
Two years ago, if he had taken just 11 shots, critics would have ripped him for being too passive, of shrinking in the face of pressure, of being scared of the playoff moment.
A championship has changed that narrative.
James has changed too, and it's been a healthy change:
"The difference between the past to now is I really don't pay much attention to it. I really don't hear it. I'm so far removed from what's being said. I don't get involved. I just get involved, and do what I do on the court."
What he did on the court this regular season was superior to any of his previous brilliant regular seasons. And, as great as he was during the 2012 playoffs (averages of 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 50 percent shooting), his recent play suggests this spring will be even better.