More than just a collection of individuals

The biggest misconception in the NBA is that the Miami Heat aren't a team, that they're strictly three big names and a bunch of empty jerseys.

Time to rethink that common theme. Rearrange the letters in Miami Heat and you get Team Aim Hi. And recognize that a collection of individuals doesn't reach the Eastern Conference finals, let alone win a game once there.

It takes more teamwork, not less, to get the effort required to play great defense when the shots and the glory won't be distributed as evenly at the other end of the court. And when the Heat are at their best, they're about defense, which is how they held the Bulls to 34 percent shooting and only 10 fourth-quarter points Wednesday night.

And the more they play, the more the Heat remind me of the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers, the squad that reached the NBA Finals with Allen Iverson taking 28 percent of the shots and scoring 28 percent of the points while the rest of the team played defense and rebounded.

Raja Bell, a rookie on that Sixers squad, recognized the similarities, while acknowledging the Heat have "way more punch" with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But there's a similar attitude among the players who fill out the roster.

"It's a thirst for trying to win something, buying in for the greater good for the team, figuring out what's going to be your role out there," Bell said by phone.

"It takes more of a team mentality to fit into a system like that. You really have to be selfless."

The Heat have triple the scoring options the 2001 Sixers had. Philly had Iverson ... and Iverson. But by the time James, Wade and Bosh are through, that leaves less than a third of the shots to be divvied up among the remaining players.

When you observe this team, there are clearly established tiers. Entire areas of the locker room can be reporter-free zones, as was the case when Mario Chalmers, Jamaal Magloire, Joel Anthony and Mike Bibby sat in a line of chairs by themselves after Game 2 while reporters crowded around James, Wade and Bosh. Even among the so-called Big Three there's separation, as over the course of the season Bosh did most of his interviews solo while Wade and James shared their interview time together, be it on stage or even standing next to each other during the less formal media availabilities at practice.

"Don't be deceived by what you see," Heat forward Juwan Howard warned, glancing over at the crowd of reporters surrounding Wade and James before practice on an off day in Chicago this week. He said team card games and dinner are more inclusive, noting that "we're not one of those teams that has a small group over here, a group over there -- we're united."

Mike Miller said, "The guys in here understand, and the three guys understand, that we need to be a part of it in order to be successful. We're about as close as any team I've ever been on."

There have been moments when the other players emerge from the shadows to become, if not the story of the game, at least a sidebar.

There was James Jones scoring 25 points in the first game of the Celtics series, for example. Or after Game 2 of the conference finals Wednesday night, when a Heat public relations official walked through the locker room and announced: "Udonis Haslem is going to the podium."

Yes, Haslem had a podium game, a performance worthy of leaving the locker room and addressing the media from the dais at the organized news conference in the wake of the Heat's 85-75 Game 2 victory. Thirteen points and five rebounds in 23 minutes will get you to the podium, particularly when they come after playing only seven minutes previously in the playoffs following a five-month absence to recover from foot surgery.

But for the most part, the rest of the players have their contributions go unrecognized, even by the stats crew. Take the time midway through the fourth quarter, with the score tied, when a short Wade jumper bounced off the rim. Mike Miller wanted the ball so badly that he went diving after it.

Wade also wanted it, coming from the left side of the basket to the right in pursuit of the ball. The hustle from the star and the sub caused the Bulls to knock the ball out of bounds. Neither Miller nor Wade got the stat (it went down as a team rebound) but the Heat got possession.

And Miller did secure enough missed shots on his own to get credit for seven rebounds in Game 2, helping the Heat win the statistical category they were dominated in during Game 1.

"Our job is to do the little things; you get open shots, you've got to knock them down," said Miller, who has shot a disappointing 23 percent in the playoffs. "Other than that, you've got to scrap."

If you can't make 'em, do something worthwhile while you aren't making 'em.

There never seem to be any numbers for Anthony, who continues to draw raves from the Heat anyway for deterring a shot or boxing out or deflecting a loose ball. Anthony is like the woman who is always late, but you put up with her because she's just that beautiful. They'll live with his offensive shortcomings and understand that for him, catching the ball or making a layup are 50-50 propositions, because he commits so much to the little things. He answered one of the critical questions about this team, especially after Haslem went down: Who would do the dirty work?

Howard has been in this league long enough to have experienced everything (except a championship) at least once before, and to him this team is similar to the three years he spent with the Rockets, when Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming scored as many as 44 percent of the team's points during a season.

"This is not anything new to me," Howard said. "If you want to win -- if you're all about winning, that's your makeup -- sacrificing will not be a problem whatsoever. Because there is a reward at the end. That's what was instilled in this team in the beginning. We all sacrificed by coming here. Everyone, from top to bottom, sacrificed."

The three stars took less than the maximum salary. Others took the minimum salary. Mike Bibby gave up $6 million to get out of his contract with the Washington Wizards and joined the Heat in March for the stretch run. For others, it's fewer minutes or fewer shots.

Yes, there have been yearnings both public and private for more playing time, but so far there hasn't been a mutiny by the overlooked guys at the end of the bench.

"It's a very serious-minded group," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It's a tough-minded group. The group's been hardened by a lot of experiences together, and it's a group that wants to do something special together. And guys have been willing to sacrifice to get to that."

That's what good teams do.