|If the Heat don't change their style of play, Ken Berger thinks they're in trouble. (AP)|
BOSTON -- In the aftermath of another hideous performance by the Heat on the road, it remained impossible to explain why basketball sometimes is so hard for them. The answer, in part, is that they're making it hard on themselves.
The Celtics, who pounded Miami 91-72 Sunday without Ray Allen, deserve credit for resurrecting their season and climbing back into the Atlantic Division lead. With regular rest and practice time, they will be hard to deal with in the playoffs. But they don't have to be this hard to deal with for the Heat.
Same goes for the Bulls, and for anyone else in the Eastern Conference. Same goes for the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers out West.
The Heat, 1-7 on the road against playoff teams since the All-Star break, continue to do this to themselves. They are killing themselves with convention, with a refusal to understand that a unique collection of talent requires what some would consider to be an unconventional way of playing.
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I started riffing away on this theme in November 2010, when Miami's newly formed Big Three were having trouble figuring out how to play. They eventually got it right -- right enough to lose to Dallas in the NBA Finals, anyway -- and made some tweaks this season that were a step in the right direction.
The simple way to describe the unconventional approach Miami needs is to say that LeBron James should play point guard on this team. Or at the very least, James and Dwyane Wade -- two of the most unguardable open-floor players ever to step onto an NBA court -- need to share the initiation role in the Heat's offense. When you have two players who are that unstoppable with the ball in their hands -- and a player of LeBron's otherworldly gifts for passing -- there's no need for Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole to be in 29 of your 30 most frequently used lineups this season.
I could've kept going as I scrolled through the handy-dandy advanced metrics tools at NBA.com/stats, but I grew tired of finding their names.
James and Wade don't need a point guard on the floor with them. They certainly didn't need one Sunday, when Chalmers (1-for-5, two points) and Cole (2-for-11, seven points) were utterly dominated by Rajon Rondo (16 points, 14 assists). James, one of the top two or three pure passers I have seen come into the NBA since I have been watching it, had zero assists in 35 minutes.
"We didn't make any shots," Spoelstra said, noting that Miami shot 35 percent from the field. "How do you get an assist on a missed field goal?"
Fair enough. But the Heat's problem -- on Sunday and come playoff time -- goes a lot deeper than that.
Spoelstra is a good, smart coach, and I give him credit for tweaking the Heat's early offense this season by incorporating a three-man pick-and-roll game on either side of the floor on semi-transition possessions when no set play has been called. Only two other teams in the league have run such an action this season: the Knicks, when they were coached by Mike D'Antoni, and the Suns, who still run his offense.
But like his mentor, Pat Riley, Spoelstra is wedded to tradition. He relies on conventional lineups, and that means he plays almost always with a point guard on the floor. If your point guard is Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Steve Nash, that's good. Not so much with Chalmers and Cole.
Furthermore, if James -- whose Magic Johnson-like playmaking gifts are now relegated to a once-a year exhibition in the All-Star Game -- played point guard in the games that count, he'd be better than all of the above. Or at least as good, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in slightly correcting me.
"Well, I don't know if he'd be the best, but he is a point guard as far as I'm concerned," Rivers said outside the Celtics' locker room Sunday. "He's Magic Johnson. That's who he is."
Simply put, Spoelstra needs to forget about convention, put the ball in James' hands, and watch every playoff opponent try and fail to stop him. The answer is: You can't.
"We trapped Wade tonight and we trapped [Chris] Bosh tonight," Rivers said. "But when LeBron had it, if he scored, he scored. But you can't score and get everybody involved. That's why he's the only guy maybe in the league that we have a no-trap rule. You don't trap him because he wants to pass."
I brought my theory to someone with a much more refined basketball mind than my own, Shane Battier, who raised some interesting counterpoints. LeBron at the point could work for stretches, he said, but playing that way consistently would test Miami's bench -- and LeBron's physical stamina. Also, such a lineup requires a 3-point shooter to space the floor. Ideally, that would be Mike Miller, who is currently listed as "questionable for the rest of his natural life" with another injury.
"For us, I think we'd have to be fully healthy with Mike Miller," Battier said. "I think he's sort of the key to that lineup. We could do it now, but I think our depth would be tested. With Mike Miller, I think we're a little more flexible with another handler. We could do it with James Jones to a lesser extent. That would entail somewhat of a shift in the rotation."
Then there's the issue of how much energy James would use handling the ball all the time and initiating the offense.
"The issue with that is, it's taxing bringing the ball up," Battier said. "It's taxing as it is now, because he has to run off screens and create under shot-clock duress. Preferably in an offense with your best players, you want to get them the ball after the defense has been shifted, the ball has moved from side-to-side, and they can do damage. That's when they're most dangerous. With a point guard, it takes a lot of energy for a guy like LeBron to bring the ball up, get off the ball, let it swing from side to side and then get it, make a move, run a pick-and-roll or a postup. So there is the economy of energy that you have to be concerned about. But I think for stretches, it could work."
Excellent points, which I will now counter with points of my own. The Heat don't simply have one unguardable open-court player on their roster; they have two. So Wade, who's made a career out of slashing to the basket and beating traps, could more than give James some time off the ball when he needs it.
As for how hard James would have to work to get the ball back after he gave it up, there are two points: 1) after he gives it up, it's going in the basket; and 2) he couldn't possibly have to work harder than he does in these half-court slugfests the Celtics and Bulls will try to lure him into during the playoffs. And James using energy to push the tempo, run pick-and-rolls and demoralize his opponent in multiple ways sure beats what he was doing on several occasions Sunday: standing in the corner with his hands on his hips. That's literally what he was doing on a possession with 5:09 left in the third quarter, when Avery Bradley stole an errant pass and set up Paul Pierce for two free throws. A five-point halftime lead had ballooned to 15, and would soon be 24 -- 80-56 -- after a 31-12 third quarter from the Celtics.
"This game was unacceptable, and we'll will fix it -- together, collectively," Spoelstra said. "We're not happy about it. We have not been able to come up with an answer on the road, particularly in the third quarter. We fell prey to that again, so we'll figure it out."
But how? With what? The Heat don't need more convention, they need out-of-the-box thinking to be as dangerous as they're supposed to be. If they keep trying the same old things, playing the same old way, the mere mortals who will face them in the playoffs will be all too happy to slug it out in a half-court boxing match that neutralizes the most compelling gifts of their two best players.
My specific suggestion, absent Miller rising from the ashes, would be for the Heat's starting and most-often used lineup to be as follows: James, Wade, Battier, Bosh and Joel Anthony. A healthy Miller for Battier would be better offensively, assuming Miller can still make 3-point shots, but worse defensively. Either way, it's worth trying.
Much to my surprise, and to Battier's, the Heat haven't deployed that five-man combination a single time -- not even for a single minute -- in 51 games this season.
"Really?" Battier said. "Interesting."
As Vinny Gambini said to Mrs. Riley in "My Cousin Vinny," maybe it's time to see the world through a different set of glasses. Maybe it's time to try something new.