Superstar calls -- from coaches

By Henry Abbott

These are the highlights of last night's Wizards vs. Heat game. Missing are the three lowlights.

They were all Gilbert Arenas plays, and they were all in crunch time.

Dwyane Wade and Gilbert Arenas had been going back-and-forth all night. Two great scorers, doing their thing.

The game was tied before Wade, in isolation a step inside the 3-point line, stuck a jumper with 24 seconds left to give the Heat a slender lead.

It was Arenas' turn in the mano-a-mano battle.

He was guarded by the notably slimmed-down Quentin Richardson. Earlier in the period, he had burned Richardson badly on the perimeter and made his way easily into the lane. He evidently planned to do the same thing. Even after taking a timeout, the Wizards inbounded in the backcourt, giving Arenas a chance to get a full head of steam. And he did.

Creating space to get off a shot in the NBA is generally about varying speeds, to keep the defense from being able to predict where you'll be. This is one of those things that a lot of college players have yet to master. (At Train Like a Pro, we practiced running at five different speeds, and were instructed to vary them constantly.) But Arenas eschewed that thinking, and just hauled ass almost from halfcourt. He sailed right past Richardson. It looked like a reasonably good idea, as he made it down to where Heat center Jermaine O'Neal was protecting the rim.

But then something really odd happened. The kind of thing that doesn't happen to NBA superstars who aren't coming off major injuries. Arenas just lost the ball. Out of bounds.

Big fancy duel, lost to a sad little rookie mistake.

As someone who really likes coaching and plays and cutting and passing and teamwork, I'm always sad to see NBA coaches remove themselves from NBA crunch time by calling for superstar isolation after superstar isolation (teams score better in other parts of the game). When the superstar just throws it out of bounds, I instantly think about all those great Flip Saunders plays they could have run, but didn't. For this.

I don't even blame Arenas. He's getting back into the rhythm of things. He knows what he's doing. He just dropped the ball. I'm sure he's yelling at himself plenty about it -- don't know what the point would be of piling on. (Never got that, by the way. Dropping the ball is like tripping. If you trip, and I yell at you, would you trip less in the future? Or would I make you less relaxed, and more likely to trip or screw something else up? To me yelling is about fixing problems of lack of effort, or attention. But not problems of lack of coordination.)

After a foul, the Wizards got the ball back, and once again, of course, the play was for Arenas. The Heat, now up three after a Wade free throw, were all over the 3-point line. With plenty of time left (his last play didn't take long!) Arenas drove to the available space in the middle of the floor. He was greeted again by O'Neal, who had left big Wizard Brendan Haywood alone under the hoop.

Arenas had a beautiful idea: Lob it to Haywood, get an emphatic dunk, fire up the fans, and duke it out in a one-point game at home with nine seconds left.

But his lob was miserable. It hit the near side of the rim. Haywood only even jumped for it as a courtesy -- he had no chance. And the game was basically over.

Only there was one more Wizardly possession. Arenas came off some screens, caught the ball in the corner, and again made his way straight for the hoop, where he skillfully negotiated a layup for himself ... and missed it as he fell down.

That's three crunch time Miami possessions, zero successful passes to anyone other than Arenas, and zero points.

I get it: Superstars have earned the right to run those plays. But what's more important: Feeding the star, or playing your team's best possible basketball? I admire teams that surprise opponents in crunch time. Didn't we learn anything from Keith Smart? Steve Alford was the man on that team, but Indiana won a title because his open teammate got the ball and the green light. Why is that so rare in the NBA?