The regular season is rounding the corner and with the finish line in sight, it's time to lean through the tape. Even more so for the teams in the NBA's Eastern Conference, where leaning through the tape might mean finishing with the No. 3 seed rather than No. 7 seed.
So it the case for the Heat. This is customarily the point in the season where coaches opt to rest their more potent players. But in Miami's case, coach Erik Spoelstra and the team are buckling down, trying to sprint through the finish line. As of the Heat’s loss to the Orlando Magic on April 8, the Heat (No. 5 seed) are a full game behind the Boston Celtics (No. 4 seed); whether coach Spo will now concede seeding position to rest his players has yet to be seen.
With three games to go, and the Heat having a cup of coffee with the No. 5 seed, Miami would need to snare the No. 4 seed to secure home court advantage in the post-season, a prize that seems pertinent to their success (19-20 on the road; 27-13 at home). For the middle class of the Eastern Conference, the playoffs started several weeks ago; jockeying for playoff position in the East has far proceeded these last half-dozen games.
Taking What They Give You and Home Court
Through March 1 on, the Heat have drilled 48.7 percent of their “open shots” (characterized by a shooter’s opponent being 4-6 feet away from the shooter, per NBA.com/Stats), and have an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 55.2 percent -- both marks lead the Eastern Conference, according to NBA.com/Stats.
Like Omar from The Wire accosted, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
With the veterans like Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, etc, a first-round playoff exit would be sacrilegious. There are a handful of players on the Heat who can hear the ticks on Father Time’s grandfather clock -- and they’re getting louder. So if and when these guys get a shot at the reigning King of the Eastern Conference -- LeBron James -- they better not miss. And, as of now, they’re not and the numbers prove it.
But those numbers aren’t as reassuring when the Heat aren’t in the comfort of their own court, their own homes, understably. On the road, through March 1 on, the Heatles drop out of the top-6 in the Eastern Conference in both open shot field goal percentage and eFG%, per NBA.com/Stats. What does that mean for the South Beach’s finest? Home court advantage is probably more essential to their success than their contrasting road and home records convey.
All an amateur fighter knows is attack -- not how to feign a punch or play the rope-a-dope; all they feel is the pressure of the situation coalescing in their chest; to them, there is no slowing down. To slow down means much more than to alter your rate of speed. To slow down, especially in the NBA, means for a player to recognize their current predicament and relax, allowing them to make intelligent decisions -- something easier said than done. Not ever competing in an NBA playoff series -- nonetheless a full NBA season -- Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson (Hassan Whiteside included) do not know how “relax.”
Miami had to win-out in their last four games of the regular season to guarantee the No. 4 seed, and they’ve already dropped the first of their final quartet. So, if the Heat’s counterparts drop a game or few and coach Spo decides to grind his guys to the end for a higher seed, this final stretch should prove as a good, competitive appetizer for Miami’s playoff turducken. But only their inaugural playoff game will tell us how the Heat’s inexperience will hold up to diamond-like pressure.
In their last two victories, versus the Pistons and Bull, the Heat have captured decisive wins, ones that have allowed viewers to lean back in their arm chairs during the penultimate minutes. For now, the Heat are still a pleasant surprise, the bench is still jovial and coach Spo still has time to pull Whiteside off the court for a teaching lesson (pass!). But the playoffs are approaching, and the Heat are hoping their abundance of basketball wisdom in Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire can mask its uninitiated underlings.
Canning a 3-pointer is when your team is up double-digits and the bench is hyped up, while the home crowd feverously cheers – in NBA standards – is easy. In contrast, missing the first of two free throws, when your team is down by three points, and there’s two minutes left in the fourth quarter, and you can hear and feel your heart beating, on the road, is hard. Especially for the uninitiated. Whether the Heat’s youngins can rise above their experience levels could very well decide this team’s postseason. Johnson, a veteran wing, is old and can no longer guard quick swingmen. Richardson can, and coupled with the rookies’ shooting touch, he’ll have to serve as a key cog in the playoffs, often guarding the quickest swingmen. The old adage: "Defense wins championships" is still semi-true in the NBA, and defensive specialist (and sometimes ball-handler) Justise Winslow brings that to the table. Still, Winslow’s offense, especially lately, has left Heat fans wanting more. Winslow still has trouble shooting the ball, which is not uncommon for a rookie. But the playoffs, like army wives in bad drama flicks and Father Time, wait for no one, not even a wide-eyed rookie who can’t take a legal drink.
Smart coaches will exploit Winslow by hiding their weakest defender on him, maximizing their talent everywhere else. Winslow will have to step up in a big way, if we wants to stay on the court in the postseason. Chief Justise can still hurt opponents with his timely cuts and forceful, tearaway steals, but his limitations are clear.
And what is a house without its tall, sturdy support beam? Though he has shown vast improvement, even today, there are questions with whether Hassan Whiteside can reign himself in on a playoff stage (Whiteside received his most recent technical foul on April 8 in a loss to the Magic). Of course, he’s no DeMarcus Cousins, but an ill-advised technical foul in game 78 is much different than one in the postseason. With that said, we know Whiteside’s talents is there; the blocks, his optical illusion-like length, his increased and underrated shooting/finishing touch. Boundless length with equal talent, it seems his biggest challenge might be himself.
The Heat have a shot to make some noise in the postseason; they might even have opportunity to face-off against an old friend.
They best not miss.