x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Rest of NBA may not be able to take the Heat

The Heat are all about LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but it seems rookie guard Norris Cole has become their spark.

For all the talk of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it was rookie guard Norris Cole who delivered the Miami Heat's knockout blow to the Boston Celtics.
For all the talk of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it was rookie guard Norris Cole who delivered the Miami Heat's knockout blow to the Boston Celtics.

That deflating sound you hear is the suspense beginning to leak out of the NBA season.

Yes, it is only a few days old, but a fifth of the schedule has already been erased by the lockout and, if the Miami Heat have figured out how to attack zone defences, it is over. No team is going to beat them.

In the opener they blew out a Dallas team that last season came back to steal the finals by gumming up Miami's offensive machine with a zone defence.

On Tuesday, they outlasted a Boston team that deployed the same defence in the second half to avoid getting run out of the gym.

In the eight quarters the Heat have played this season, they have trailed for only 14 seconds.

Get used to it.

Miami has already fixed most of the problems that were so apparent when LeBron James and his super sidekicks, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, made their debut together against Boston to kick off the 2010/11 season. They can play sustained, ferocious defence and they are even more opportunistic - and spectacular - than they were in transition by the end of last season.

Even so, Eric Spoelstra, the Miami coach, used some of his free time during the lockout to pick the brains of some of the country's best coaches - Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky's John Calipari and Oregon football coach Chip Kelly, who runs a particularly hectic version of the no-huddle spread offence - looking for ways to rev up Miami's attack.

The lessons appear to have taken.

The faster pace and extra space on the floor means more room for James, Wade and Bosh to take advantage of individual match-ups, which plays into Miami's strength.

Doc Rivers, the Celtics coach, didn't need to consult the scoreboard at halftime on Tuesday night to convince him of that. He had watched the finals, saw how well a zone worked for the Mavericks, and despite a commitment to man-to-man defence from the outset of his NBA career, began working on the scheme over the summer.

Boston unveiled their version in the third quarter, while the Heat stood around and settled for jumpers, and the Celtics slowly climbed back into the game.

An 18-6 run - as Miami helpfully misfired on their last eight shots - brought the Celtics to 91-83.

That margin seemed comfortable enough, though, until former Heat guard Keyon Dooling scored seven straight points for Boston to cut it to 108-105 with 2:02.

In Wade and James, the Heat have two of the best finishers in the game, but they still haven't sorted out the question of who is going to finish which game, especially when they're facing a zone defence. They still hadn't figured that out when crunch time came against Boston - the duo combined for just seven points in the fourth quarter.

But they might have come up with an alternative in rookie point guard Norris Cole, who had his hands filled most of the night trying to slow down his opposite, Boston's Rajon Rondo, but found his shooting touch from the perimeter when the Heat needed him most.

In quick succession, James and Wade played supporting roles to set Cole up for jumpers and he drained both.

Turns out all the talk about Cole's remarkable play during Miami's abbreviated training camp might not have been an exaggeration.

"He's earned their respect. Even though it's been a short period of time, about three weeks, because he's pure, he's all about the team," Spoelstra said. "He's mature ... and he gets them the ball. You're always a popular guy when you find people when they're open." Whether Cole turns out to be a dependable alternative at the end of games remains to be seen. He's likely to get the chances, though, because the Heat are certain to see plenty zones before the season has run its course.

Either way, considering how little preparation the lockout afforded them, they're certainly going to get better at countering it, based on the admittedly slim evidence of two games.

"We have confidence in whoever's on the floor at that time," said James, though he said much the same thing with less conviction last season.

If that turns out to be true this time around, look out.