It’s been a decade since the Miami Heat started the season 6-1. Unless things go dreadfully wrong tonight at American Airlines Arena, that long drought will be over.
In their last matchup with the Washington Wizards nearly a week ago, the Heat were coming off a disappointing 104-96 loss to the Phoenix Suns in which they saw their stifling defense shredded in the fourth quarter by the perennial All-Star and two-time MVP guard Steve Nash for 25 of his 30 points.
The Heat redeemed themselves that night in Washington as Dwyane Wade scored 40 points and his teammates helped return Miami to their defensive ways. They defeated the Wizards 93-89.
Their defense was on display full-force two nights later as they held two of the previously unbeaten Denver Nuggets’ starters to no points, and clamped down on Chauncey Billups, allowing him only six points in the Heat’s 96-88 victory.
Coming into their second contest with the Wizards in less than a week, the Heat have arguably the best defense in the NBA.
They’ve held their opponents to just 41.7 percent from the field, which is tied with Detroit and Milwaukee for first in the league, and they’re only allowing 90.7 points per game, which ranks sixth in the NBA.
Combine that with the balanced production the Heat get from most of their roster—Jermaine O’Neal seems to have drank from the fountain of youth, Michael Beasley seems to be coming into his own, Udonis Haslem has thrived in his reserve role, and Quentin Richardson is playing better than he has in years—and it’s no wonder Miami is looking like it might just be a contender this year.
Speculation is running rampant about a possible move by Pat Riley to acquire LeBron James next summer in the 2010 free agent bonanza (something I wrote about with my first article on B/R, which you can read here), and many believed Wade wouldn’t have a team around him that could challenge the NBA’s elite until they made moves just like that next year.
Those who made those claims hadn’t—until recently—been speculating about LeBron (and I’ll be getting into that juicy story tomorrow after the game in anticipation of His Highness’ visit to South Beach), but they had felt Wade would need Chris Bosh or Amar’e Stoudemire to join him in Miami before the Heat could really have a shot at a title.
Whether the Heat are good enough this year to dethrone the Los Angeles Lakers, or even take out the Boston Celtics and other elite teams in the East, is still to be seen.
Yet, if they’re able to win tonight against the Wizards (as they should), it will go a long way in convincing people Miami at least should be in the discussion of any talk about who the best teams in the NBA are at the moment.
That being said, this game against Washington tonight isn’t something Miami should be looking past. Heat coach Eric Spoelstra should be doing everything in his powers to get the Miami players to understand that tonight’s game is all that matters at the moment.
If they’re thinking about the game against the Cavaliers on Thursday, and any potential matchups with King James and his Court, they aren’t doing their jobs.
Their job is to focus solely on Gilbert Arenas and his teammates, and make sure they remember their assignments.
During the offseason, the Heat saw all kinds of controversy, as the headlines were filled with the exploits and antics of Michael Beasley, who entered rehab.
Beasley entered training camp with a real focus after having completed the stint, and was joined by other teammates whose determination to play better this year was evident in many ways.
The preseason was one of mixed results, and plenty of questions about the Heat began cropping up, most centering on the backup point-guard position. However, there were also questions about Beasley, O’Neal, and Richardson, among others.
The preseason seemed to fail in answering those questions adequately. However, the first six games of the season seem to have provided some measure of an answer to most of them.
Prior to the season, the Heat acquired veteran point guard Carlos Arroyo, and he looks like he’s just the answer Miami needed for the backup point guard role.
His floor leadership when the second unit is on the floor is invaluable, as he’s led Dorell Wright, Beasley (when he’s left in with the second unit), Haslem, and Joel Anthony to some of the best ball I’ve seen out of our bench in years.
The starters aren’t anything to sneeze at this year, either. Jermaine O’Neal is doing everything anyone could have dreamed he’d do coming into this year. Shooting 60.7 percent from the field, JO is averaging 14.7 PPG to go along with 7.8 RPG.
He’s dominated in nearly every game except the second night of a back-to-back (and his nose was broken), and looks more and more like the All-Star he was while with the Indiana Pacers.
While O’Neal seems rejuvenated, Quentin Richardson looks reborn. Struggling over the past few years, Q-Rich came into camp with the Heat lighter and stronger, and probably in the best shape of his career. That is paying dividends for Miami, as he’s been a force at the small-forward position that not even Shawn Marion was last year.
His defense is stellar, and his offensive and rebounding production has been spectacular. In just the last three games he’s put up incredible numbers, logging 18 points and 10 rebounds in the loss against the Suns, 19 points and nine rebounds in the win against the Wizards, and 13 points and nine rebounds in the last win against the Nuggets.
All of this wouldn’t mean much if the Heat weren’t playing well as a team, and that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. Their interior defense is solid, as help comes quickly, and their perimeter defense is simply stifling, as everyone seems to be closing out on their man faster than they ever were last year.
Both O’Neal and his backup, Anthony, have been clogging the middle, keeping opposing centers from getting into the paint, and have been clearing the boards as they’re supposed to. In fact, Miami has only been out-rebounded in two of their six games; last year that number would have likely been five or six.
What’s most impressive, though, is how well the bench is playing. Moving Haslem to a reserve role may have been the most brilliant thing Spoelstra has ever done in his tenure as Heat coach.
Haslem has been a terror on opposing teams’ second units, logging double-doubles at will, and averaging 11.8 points and 10.0 rebounds. More important than the numbers, he brings grit to that second unit.
Also, while some have criticized this, "Spo" has been using Udonis with the starters later in the games in order to bring that solid veteran presence to the forefront. So far it’s worked, so how anyone could criticize Spo is beyond me.
I know many want Beasley not only to be given his chance (which he is being given), but to be handed over the reins entirely. That just isn’t going to happen.
Beasley isn’t a bust because he hasn’t produced in the same way players like Derrick Rose have, but he has struggled a little.
Part of that is because the Heat had a veteran power forward in Haslem and weren’t in need of "Beas" to put up huge numbers and grow quickly into his position.
They’ve also dabbled with putting him at the small forward, where his defensive liabilities really become pronounced.
The move to put him with the starters through most of the game seems to have allowed him to flourish, and I’m confident he’ll grow into the role more and more as the year goes on. Then with a couple months or so left, Haslem might be seeing minimal minutes during the late stages of the game and will play more with the second unit if it comes in to hold serve.
Along with Carlos Arroyo, "UD" has that second unit not only holding serve, but powering over their competition, keeping the starters fresh and ready to take on all comers.
Even Mario Chalmers seems to be doing better now that he’s had Arroyo giving him a bit of a push, as evidenced by his performance against the Nuggets, when he scored 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, grabbed five rebounds, and dished out four assists.
Back to tonight’s game against the Wizards.
If the Heat can get that kind of production out of Chalmers, if Jermaine O’Neal and Quentin Richardson can continue to play inspired ball, if Haslem, Arroyo, and the rest of the bench can hold serve or better, if the defense can remain stifling—holding the Wizards to under 45 percent from the field—and if D-Wade is D-Wade, this should be a cakewalk.
My prediction? Miami 98, Washington 84
Alan Ogg, a former center of the Heat, lost his life to a staph infection recently at the young age of 42. As someone who has suffered such infections, I know how dangerous they are.
All Heat fans should mourn the passing of this man. He may not have been a superstar or a legend, but he was a good man and a member of the Heat.