When the Heat were dropping games early in the season, Erik Spoelstra would sit behind the podium in the interview room at AmericanAirlines Arena and explain that the Heat were enduring a process. In Spoelstra's estimation, his team was a living organism. All that ugliness we were witnessing on the floor -- the lack of execution, direction and performance? Those were all natural parts of the transformation a team undergoes as it learns what it is.
Spoelstra's theory seemed smart after the Heat started to pull it together. As it turned out, the Heat needed "20 games to jell," even though that seemed like coach-and athlete-speak at the time. There were still some rough edges. The Heat were having trouble beating elite teams and still had a lousy record in close games, but those shortcomings were also part of the process and would be addressed in due time.
Due time arrived last night with the Heat leading the Knicks 84-78 with about three minutes left in the game. A six-point lead with six or seven possessions remaining in regulation gives a team a healthy margin for error. Grind out a bucket or two and you're basically requiring the opponent to run the table if they want to win or extend the game.
That being the case, we can tell a lot about a team's poise and competence by how it executes these possessions.
How did the Heat choose to approach these opportunities? Did they resort to hero ball, something they've been prone to do at their worst moments? Did LeBron James and Dwyane Wade trust their teammates, something Spoelstra preaches as gospel? Did the Heat use their superior talent and instincts to make smart basketball plays? Was each possession approached with a purpose?
With that six-point cushion, the Heat didn't need to be perfect. In fact, they didn't even need to be average. Even after Carmelo Anthony trimmed that six-point lead to four, Miami could withstand being significantly worse than New York and probably still survive.
It's one thing to say that a team has trouble closing out games, but that doesn't offer a specific diagnosis as to why.
How did the Heat manage only two points over their final seven possessions on Sunday?
Possession No. 1 (Heat up four, 2:50)
The Heat's lineup for the stretch drive includes Wade, James, Mike Miller, Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony.
Credit the Heat for a defined plan on this possession: to go to their shuffle/UCLA cut, something they've been using successfully over the past month or so. James brings the ball up the left side. Miller sets a back screen for Wade at the left elbow. If executed to perfection, Wade's man, Bill Walker, will get hung up on that screen and Wade will fly to the hole where he'll either be completely alone or, if Billups (who is assigned to Miller) makes the switch, Wade will have deep, deep post position.
Miller's screen doesn't get any space for Wade, but it's not the end of the world. This is a resourceful set with plenty of options. Once Wade clears, Miller quickly offers James an angle screen on the left wing, which gets LeBron a mismatch when the Knicks switch.
Miller is a busy dude. Once LeBron draws Billups to the top of the floor, Miller sets a pindown for Wade, who curls counterclockwise along the left sideline.
This is good stuff because there are few things more dangerous in the NBA than Dwyane Wade on the move. For months we've begged the Heat to do more work off the ball, and that's precisely what's going on here.
One problem: As Wade swings around with Walker trailing well behind him, LeBron's bounce pass is snared by Billups and we go the other way.
You can't fault the scheme whatsoever. This is a beautifully drawn play and, if LeBron can execute the simplest pass to Wade on the move, almost certainly results in a layup or at the very least a couple of free throws if a help defender can wrap Wade up in time.
Possession No. 2 (Heat up four, 2:22)
Again, it's difficult to fault what the Heat have conceived here. They want a two-man game with Miller and Bosh on the right side. When Amare Stoudemire fronts Bosh in the mid-post, Bosh offers a step-up screen for Miller in order to get open. He's successful, as Miller passes the ball to Bosh at the right foul line extended area.Isaac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty
Dwyane Wade: "We get the shots that we want."
It's debatable whether Bosh has sufficient room to launch an open jumper from 18 feet, but it's safe to say Bosh has attempted that shot with less daylight.
It's no matter, though, because the Heat have spaced the floor beautifully. Wade has been parked in the left corner. Once the Heat set the play in motion on the right side, Shawne Williams and Walker (Wade's man) cheat over. The moment Wade is no longer the focus of Walker's attention, he makes a sharp cut along the baseline to the basket, where Bosh tries to hit him with a pass.
Not unlike the previous possession, the Heat get Wade on the move to the hole. You can't ask for much more, except to make a clean pass. The feed from Bosh isn't horrible, but it's clunky enough to allow the Knicks to recover. By the time Wade gathers the ball, he's surrounded by a scrum of blue jerseys. Wade has to take a dribble in traffic, move from beneath the backboard, where he doesn't have a good angle, and launch the shot off-balance.
If he looks behind him, Wade would find Miller with not a soul within 10 feet of him behind the arc and Bosh wide open at his favorite spot at 17 feet. But with the ball that close to the hole and his propensity for drawing contact, Wade stays with the play.
The shot is no good.
Possession No. 3 (Heat up two, 1:41)
After Billups makes a runner, James -- unquestionably the Heat's primary point guard during this stretch drive -- brings the ball up.
Of the first three sets, this is far and away the least coherent, and it breaks down fairly quickly. After getting freed up from a down screen by Anthony, Wade received the ball from James at the top of the floor and gets a double stack high from Anthony and Chris Bosh. This is a play the Heat have run routinely and one that's also popular in Boston. Wade goes to the left of the screen, while Anthony rolls to the hoop.
Not that hitting Anthony with a pass inside is a very inspired idea, but Wade's feed is deflected slightly. Anthony is able to grab the ball but at this point he's surrounded by Knicks. Anthony manages to get the ball back to Wade along a congested baseline.
With the play disintegrating into chaos, Bosh does something smart: He streaks down a wide-open lane where Wade hits him on the move. But as he elevates for a close-range shot, Bosh has the ball slip out of his hands. The Heat get lucky, though, as the rock lands in Wade's hand on the right side at about 12 feet. With the shot clock clicking down, Wade launches a fadeaway that's short.
Sunday's night game was uncharacteristically sloppy, with plenty of poor passes and slippery execution. Place this possession into evidence.
Possession No. 4 (Heat down one, 1:01)
This possession follows Billups' enormous step-back 3-pointer.
Much of what Miami does offensively originates with the ball going into Bosh at the elbow. As is often the case, the nominal point guard (on this possession that's Wade) lobs an entry pass into Bosh, then moves to the corner to set a screen for his teammate on the wing. That's what Wade does, but Bosh senses a one-on-one advantage against Stoudemire at the elbow.
We often criticize Bosh for not being more willing to put the ball on the floor and attack, yet that's what he does here. As he drives middle, Williams moves off Anthony (and why not?) to help, which prompts Bosh to kick the ball out to the perimeter. Unfortunately, Bosh performs one of the cardinal sins of basketball and elevates before he knows where he's going with the pass. Bosh's intended receiver is Miller ... but the actual one is Billups.
Possession No. 5 (Heat down three, 0:43.2)
When the Heat get jittery, they often go back to the most rudimentary solution: put the ball in the hands of LeBron James.
James wants a high screen and, more importantly, a mismatch against a Knicks' big man. That's what he gets when Bosh screens Anthony at the floor. James promptly puts his head down and drives to the rack, beating Stoudemire and drawing the foul on the attack.
There's something almost poetic -- and somewhat ironic -- about the Heat's only two points in the final three minutes of the game coming from a set with the utmost simplicity. The Heat probably can't win a seven-game series running 3-4 and 3-5 pick-and-rolls for James more than a couple dozen times per game, but there are few things more reliable in basketball than James devouring a backpedaling big man on a dribble-drive.
Possession No. 6 (Heat down one, 0:12.7)
Eddie House is now in the game for Joel Anthony. Miller inbounds the ball to James who this time doesn't get a screen. The Heat spread the floor wide for James for a one-on-one drive against Melo in isolation. James attacks left and Carmelo does a solid job walling off the paint. James never gets the kind of space he wants, but still manages to get off a shot at close range.
But that's when Stoudemire darts over from the right side to challenge James at the rim. Stoudemire swats the ball away into the hands of Williams.
Whoever had the tandem of Anthony and Stoudemire stopping James on a decisive drive to the basket can claim clairvoyance. The defensive stand by the Knicks was as incredible as it was improbable.
Possession No. 7 (Heat down three, 0:06.7)
The Heat confronted this same scenario exactly two weeks earlier in Boston.This time, Miller inbounds from the right sideline into the half court.
Rather than rely on one of his 3-point shooters (and the Heat's best one, James Jones, is sitting on the bench), Spoelstra opts for the ball to be inbounded to James. LeBron gets open up top, courtesy of a sturdy pindown from Bosh at the top of the arc. Bosh pastes Carmelo Anthony as James darts to the top of the floor to receive the inbounds pass.
James has a reasonably clean look at about the 5.7-second mark, but as Carmelo eventually frees himself from Bosh to close out, James buys a little more time and space with a quick ball fake as Anthony approaches. LeBron then takes a single dribble to his left.
With 4.7 seconds remaining, James has another look, but he also has Wade open to his left. Wade has gotten himself free, like James, thanks to a down screen from Bosh.
Wade is a less proficient 3-point shooter (33.8 percent for James, 31.3 percent for Wade), but a more open one at this instant.
James takes the shot, and it misses. Game over.
Down three, does Spoelstra give his team a better shot at the win if he designs a play for Jones (again, not in the game), Miller or House? Does he give the ball to his superstar in this situation, irrespective of probabilities? How much of this decision is informed by Miller's inability to drain the shot in Boston?
After the game, Wade was asked by Brian Windhorst why the Heat have had trouble executing in late-game situations. Wade challenged the premise:
"I would disagree with you," Wade said. "I think we got good offensive execution, but all our shots haven't gone down all the time. We got what we wanted at the end of the game, with LeBron driving to the basket, and they made a very athletic play. I think we've executed pretty well. We get the shots that we want, that our coach draws up for us, that we as players want. A lot of times they just don't go in. But we don't win 43 games without being able to execute."
It's not so much the 43 wins as it is the 17 losses, including several games in recent weeks against the kind of Eastern Conference competition the Heat will encounter this spring. These seven possessions suggest that the Heat have the talent and schemes to generate points in pivotal situations, whether they're running a UCLA cut, crafty off-ball action or just relying on LeBron James to be LeBron James.
But even the best talent and most creative sets require sharp passes and smart decision-making and getting the ball to the right guys at the right spots at the right moments.
Can the Heat, with a straight face, say they accomplished what they wanted to last night?