Heat looking more like Cavs than Celtics

ATLANTA -- Remember how Boston’s newly formed big three blew out of the gate like gangbusters in the winter of 2007-08, winning 29 of their first 32 games en route to a 66-win season and a championship?

Suffice to say I’m not getting the same vibe from the Miami Heat’s new trio of stars.

Don’t get me wrong -- this team will win a ton of games and is still my clear favorite to be the last one standing in June. But a 29-3 start does not appear in the offing. Based on the preseason, it's going to take more time for this particular unit to fully gel.

For starters, the Heat are struggling to develop the cohesion and continuity that those Celtics seemed to posses from Day 1. Miami lost for the fourth time in seven preseason games Thursday, a 98-89 defeat to the Hawks, and compared to the ’07-08 Celtics face on crucial difference in the early going: Injuries.

Most obviously, Dwyane Wade played only three preseason minutes with LeBron James and Chris Bosh before checking out with a hamstring pull. Meanwhile, sharpshooter Mike Miller could miss the next two months with a thumb injury, taking two of the team’s three key wings offline during a crucial phase in their meshing. Two other key guards, Eddie House and Mario Chalmers, also missed time before rejoining the lineup Thursday. While the good news is that Wade will rejoin the team in Tampa Friday before its final preseason game (though he’s unlikely to play), the Heat have lost the opportunity to integrate their three stars before the real games start.

The difference was especially notable on this night for two reasons. First, I went to a preseason game and a regular-season contest broke out, mostly because both sides played their starters most of the game and left the scrubs on the pine. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward he was trying to use a regular-season rotation for this game, with LeBron James playing 38 minutes and Chris Bosh playing 40.

But second, I went to see the Miami Heat and a Cleveland Cavaliers game broke out. With James dominating the ball, a succession of second-rate Heaters trying to fill in for the injured Wade and Miller (James Jones started, for crying out loud, and played 34 horrifying minutes), and Chris Bosh weirdly ineffective, we largely saw a re-enactment of the Cleveland-era LeBron.

James was mostly brilliant, finishing with 38 points, 11 rebounds and a laughable two assists (he had at least three others that were clear-as-day, immediate-shot-after-the-catch dimes which somehow didn’t land on his ledger), but by the middle of the third quarter he seemed weary from dribbling around for 20 seconds on every trip.

Moreover, just like with the Cavs, the Miami offense often degenerated into the pick-and-stand-around play -- the one where James retreats after a high screen and then works on one-on-one from the top of the key. The only times Miami’s attack really seemed effective was in transition, where James remains an unstoppable freight train; on one play he completed a basket despite being tackled around the neck by Marvin Williams.

Granted, a LeBron-centric, Cleveland-esque attack isn’t exactly chopped liver. That approach produced 127 regular-season victories over the past two seasons in Cleveland, and one presumes James could chart a similar course in Miami given his performance Thursday.

The problem, however, is that the 1-on-5 approach is precisely what it seemed he wanted to avoid by joining forces with Wade and Bosh in Miami -- not to mention part of what undermined Cleveland in the past two postseasons. And Thursday, it seemed somewhat counterproductive. James’s stat line was brilliant, but his plus-minus was a minus-17; Miami’s best sequence of ball movement came in the second quarter when five non-stars played while James sat.

With all that said, let’s not overreact. This was the seventh preseason game played a group of unfamiliar faces trying to mesh into a unit, and they had a replacement-level player taking the minutes of one of the game’s biggest stars.

But talking to Heat spies before the game, they were insistent that they need more time to mesh before we can see anything close to their full potential. Thursday offered some tangible insight as to why.