NEW YORK — Sometimes the story of a basketball game is what doesn't happen.
So here's what didn't happen Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, not after the first timeout and even after the second:
Shane Battier didn't come out.
He didn't come out until after the first quarter had been completed, and he had thoroughly flustered and somehow outscored his main mark, Carmelo Anthony, by an 11-4 count.
Battier's unexpected extended early usage—part of a 30-minute night—was just one of head coach Erik Spoelstra's many surprises Saturday night, a night that, in a sense, signaled the early start of the Heat's more serious spring.
Spoelstra, who has typically used nine, 10 or even 11 players in the first half, used only eight until just 50 seconds remained in the fourth quarter. Only then did he want to get LeBron James (30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, six steals) and Dwyane Wade (22 points, four rebounds, four assists, two steals) off the floor.
The coach warned not to read too much into it, that he simply didn't want to remove Battier when the forward was going so well, and that he kept looking for places to insert Greg Oden.
That all may be true, and certainly Oden should get a shot on Monday against Detroit's massive front line.
Still, the players did see some significance in Spoelstra's shorter rotation. It was around this time last season that he settled on a regular nine and the Heat started to soar. If Wade can continue to feel anywhere near as spry as he did Saturday—cutting with precision as he made 10 of 15 shots—this season's Heat might finally get some continuity and cohesion.
"I think our starting unit's been pretty good the last few weeks," Battier said. "It's just when we get in a rotation and ending quarters we've struggled. That's where we have left a lot of points on the table. But it's about that time to start tidying up. And the exploratory stage for us is over. We need to figure out who we are going forward and what our game's gonna be come playoff time."
Over the last three months of last season, players began to understand when they would play, and with whom. It became clear, rote, rhythmic. Then, with fewer variations, players could adjust to every unusual circumstance that did arise.
"And there's value to that," Battier said. "Different guys have different chemistry with different people. My chemistry with (Chris Bosh) is different than it is with Bird. And some things, I have a nonverbal with C.B. that I don't have with Bird. It's those nuances that make a difference when the pressure's high and the stress is high. You have to have a connection with our batterymates out there."
Of course, this can be touchy.
Heat players genuinely like each other, and if Spoelstra eliminates all but eight from the regular rotation, spotting Oden against bigger teams, that means the likes of Rashard Lewis, Udonis Haslem and Michael Beasley join James Jones in the forgotten bin.
"Yeah, sometimes it's just tough for guys who are talented enough to play," Bosh said. "And that's the tough part about this team, we're so deep, and guys have to trust in what we're doing."
What Spoelstra did Saturday was play Battier (30) and Chris Andersen (29) their second-most minutes of the season while playing LeBron James (39) and Chris Bosh (37) above their averages. Wade (34), Mario Chalmers (28) and Norris Cole (26) were right at their averages. Only Ray Allen's minutes got snipped, from an average of 27 to just 15.
None seemed to be worn out.
In fact, James has thrived in the two games since he asked publicly for a greater allotment, playing 42 and 39 minutes and scoring a total of 64 points.
Maybe Spoelstra will trim him back, especially on back-to-backs.
But considering how uneven and unpredictably the Heat have played, the strategy makes some sense—as long as the core eight are healthy.
"You kind of understand, once you get to playoff time, you go to a solid eight-man rotation," Wade said. "And when there's foul trouble, you kind of open it up. So it was good to get to teams that we know kind of know the system, know what we're trying to do and can hold each other accountable. I thought it was a great move by him to tighten things up, tighten the offensive package up as well."
Oddly enough, it helped the Heat play loose.