ATLANTA -- Every couple of weeks or so, basketball enthusiasts are treated to the perfect version of the Miami Heat. Like a flash flood, the arrival comes without warning and, frequently, against a reasonably good opponent. On Sunday night, the Heat unleashed that storm in Philips Arena as they walloped the Atlanta Hawks 107-87 in a game that, as they say, wasn’t that close.
An NBA head coach has a constitutional duty to restrain his praise, even after a picturesque win during which his team gets virtually everything it wants at the offensive end. But even a perfectionist like Heat coach Erik Spoelstra offered a bounty of praise for his team.
“It was a solid, disciplined team win,” Spoelstra said. “There was a real focus and commitment to play to our identity.”
Spoelstra has a well-established lexicon that’s familiar to anyone who spends time around the Heat. Just as “process” was the Word of the Year during the 2010-11 season, “identity” might be the usage leader this go-around for the Heat.
How often does Spoelstra use the word identity when counseling his team?
“Over and over and over,” Chris Bosh said good-naturedly. “It just means we’re going to play our style, playing good defense, running teams off that 3-point line, keeping them out of the paint, giving them one shot, starting the fast break and getting the best shot possible.”
The Heat succeeded on most of those accounts -- though their defense behind the arc continues to be a nagging concern -- and also had a prolific night on the boards, outrebounding Atlanta 52-38 (with the Hawks trimming the margin during garbage time). Bosh’s 16 rebounds were a season high, while James notched his all-time high as a member of the Heat with 13.
“When you get stops, you’re going to clean up the defensive rebounds,” James said. “When we’re able to do that, we’re able to get out and do what we do -- and that’s run.”
The Heat racked up 21 fast-break points -- 18 during the first half when they effectively put the game away. Credit James with the lion’s share of them. He finished the night with 23 points to go along with six assists and those 13 rebounds.
The blowout couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for Miami. The Heat began their only back-to-back-to-back of the season on Sunday in Atlanta, after which they travel from the Deep South to the Great Lakes to face the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday, then move on to Indianapolis for a date with the Pacers on Tuesday.
By virtue of putting the Hawks away early, Spoelstra was able to pull Dwyane Wade at the 2:58 mark of the third quarter, while James checked out of the game for good at the third-quarter buzzer. They played only 24 and 30 minutes respectively on Sunday night.
“It’s a big luxury,” Wade said. “We came out and took care of business. It was a very professional win by us.”
Wade’s professionalism was on display in the second quarter, when he decimated the Hawks every which way. With 7:17 to go in the second quarter, Wade saw a double-team come from top in the form of big man Zaza Pachulia, he deftly spun baseline, encountered another line of defenders, but managed to muscle up a shot that almost fell in and drew the foul. In the box score, the sequence will look like nothing more than a pair of free throws, but it stymied a 7-0 spurt by Atlanta and buried the Hawks’ last legitimate stand to stay in the game.
A moment later, Wade initiated early offense for the Heat when, courtesy of a screen from Udonis Haslem, he sliced through the Hawks’ interior defense to restore the Heat’s lead to 15 points. Wade finished the half -- and the game -- with 21 points.
Armed with that 15 points lead with 4:22 remaining in the half, Spoelstra opted to go small, with James at the power forward spot alongside Bosh at center. During that stint, the Heat were able to stretch that 15-point lead to 22, as crunch time came early.
“The common denominator out of that was LeBron at the 4,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve been doing that all year long. It’s been a good lineup for us.”
Bosh affirmed Spoelstra’s impressions, emphasizing that making James comfortable at that spot is an ongoing exercise, but one that’s coming along nicely.
“Everything is interchangeable,” Bosh said. “It’s just ‘Who’s at that spot?’ We run the offense every day. It’s sickening how much we run it. ... It’s really starting to get a lot of overturn and it’s working for us.”
Repetition breeds a certain brand of competence, even if it is -- as Bosh kidded -- “sickening.” There’s a reason we hear players say that getting their “reps” in an important ingredient to their success.
Spoelstra has seen his top-ranked offense flourish, but still feels that the Heat haven’t achieved -- as he calls it -- their breakthrough: the great convergence of talent and precision. Even for a team as stacked as the Heat, experiencing that full awakening is elusive.
“We’ve played some very good basketball for large stretches this season, but we haven’t been able to do it consistently enough, ” Spoelstra said. “Like I said, knowing your identity and then being disciplined to that identity is more than half the battle.”
Could Sunday night’s near-perfect performance be the platonic ideal the Heat are looking for? Was the thrashing of the Hawks that crystalizing moment for Miami?
“You never know your breakthrough game until you look back on it,” Wade said. “When you’re in the middle of it, you never know.”