Spoelstra key to strong start for revamped Heat

MIAMI -- To get an early assessment of the Miami Heat's potential this season, you could've picked any number of individuals to examine in their season opener against the Charlotte Hornets.

You could've focused in on Hassan Whiteside. The Heat big man is as unpredictable as he is crucial for this team, but if he can be a consistent force, Miami could contend in the Eastern Conference.

You could've watched Dwyane Wade, the same way you've watched him for years, checking for signs of healthy knees.

Chris Bosh, coming off the pulmonary embolism that cut his last season short, and Goran Dragic, beginning his first full season in Miami, were also intriguing subjects, along with the new additions like Gerald Green and rookie Justise Winslow.

But the real person to study during the infancy of the Heat season is the man who's managing all these pieces, coach Erik Spoelstra. The man who can legitimately play 12 actual NBA-caliber players on any given night, as opposed to last season, when he was forced to play as many as eight players who are currently not on an NBA roster (Michael Beasley, Henry Walker, Shawne Williams, Shannon Brown, Justin Hamilton, Andre Dawkins, Zoran Dragic and Danny Granger).

Spoelstra hasn't had a team this deep since taking over for Pat Riley in 2008, and the challenges are unique. The starting lineup is made up of the obvious choices, but together, Wade, Bosh, Whiteside, Dragic and Luol Deng don't make the most sense.

Wade and Dragic both want to handle the ball and create plays, and both are hesitant 3-point shooters. Deng isn't a classic floor spacer, and neither Bosh nor Whiteside are particularly adept at running the floor, which Dragic desperately wants to do.

In fact, Dragic appears to make more sense with the reserves, who are younger and more athletic. There are lineup combinations that appear offensively potent but defensively weak, and vice versa.

Somehow, Spoelstra needs to find the right combinations without discouraging anyone. And given how home-heavy the early portion of their schedule is, it's rather critical Spoelstra and the Heat find a rhythm quickly.

If Wednesday's opener was any indication, Spoelstra has a pretty decent grasp of this group already. In Miami's 104-94 win, Spoelstra had inserted 10 players by the 4:23 mark of the first quarter. All 10 played at least 10 minutes, and none played more than Bosh's 32:19.

The result was a team that did a little of everything quite well, assisting on 23 of 36 field goals, hitting 12 of 20 3-pointers despite it not being a strength, shooting 49.3 percent from the field, scoring 15 points in transition and keeping the Hornets to 34.4 percent shooting over the final three quarters.

"It does make the game a lot easier," said Wade, who finished with 20 points and five assists in 29 minutes. "The minutes you go in, you play your minutes hard, and don't be selfish. When you're tired, come out. You've got another guy that's waiting.

"I enjoy having Gerald to come in for me. I haven't had a guy with that firepower come in for me in a long time. That helps my game. That helps me stay on attack."

Green actually spent more time on the court than Wade, hitting five 3s on his way to 19 points.

But the reserve who might've had the biggest impact was Winslow. The rookie had his highlight moments, with a 3-pointer and an energizing baseline dunk being his only two field goals.

After his dunk, Winslow faced the Heat's bench and screamed -- a rare display of emotion from the 19-year-old. While Wade was so excited for him, he walked up the sideline and gave hip-hop artist DJ Khaled a high-five.

"If you're not happy for him, you shouldn't be playing a team sport," Wade said. "He made all of us scream."

Wade actually poured more praise on Winslow, who had two assists and seven rebounds to go with his eye-catching plus-minus of plus-26 in 25 minutes.

"I didn't know he was a playmaker like he is," Wade said. "I actually look at this team and I say that me and him are the best playmakers on this team, from the standpoint of putting the pressure on the defense and make plays for other guys. So his job when he's on the floor is to do that, to be a playmaker for guys out there.

"I was impressed."

But as much as the Green 3s and the Winslow dunk and the Josh McRoberts behind-the-back pass and the open court play were fun (Dragic said he thought the Hornets "couldn't breathe" in the second quarter), the most critical test for this team came in the final minutes.

It was then that the Hornets had taken advantage of being in the penalty to trim a 20-point lead to five. And it's in moments like those that the idea of sharing the ball is truly tested -- especially when you have a player like Wade, who has made a career of creating shots for himself in those situations.

On Wednesday, the game-clinching play started with the ball in Wade's hands. But after finding a cutting Bosh, the ball found its way to the right corner for Dragic, who drew two defenders and found a wide open Deng for a wing 3.

It was the kind of wide-open, rhythm 3-pointer that even a hesitant launcher like Deng could feel comfortable taking. The splash secured the Heat's first win, and created some confidence that the idea of ball movement isn't restricted the first three quarters.

"Those are the toughest times to do it, is when you trust your talent and your own self will to make a play, but still make the right basketball play," Spoelstra said. "Those are habits that you build."

While his players build habits, Spoelstra is finding a balance within a talent-rich roster. In the opening night test, you saw a coach who seems quite prepared for this latest challenge.