Solution for Miami Heat is as simple as hitting free throws

WEB VOTE Of the four teams left in the NBA playoffs, which has the most passionate fans?

All the athletic health buzzwords — “evaluations,” “significant progress” and “premature” — departed Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s mouth regarding the possible Game 5 return of Chris Bosh and settled into a loop of attempted vague.

Meanwhile, I sat there wondering: Can Chris Bosh teach his teammates to hit free throws? Will his presence prompt them to actually run a play on the final possession of a close game?

Because that’s why the Heat sits tied 2-2 with Boston going into Tuesday’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Not the absence of Bosh, but the absence of basic actions you expect from an NBA team, especially one in the conference final a year after being in the NBA Finals.

Gripe about the wacky officiating all you want. I saw the no-call as a Celtic tugged on LeBron James shorts to slow a fast break as if the former high school tight end were playing fraternity flag football. I saw Shane Battier set a pick with the best legal hip check since Eddie Shore and get called. Live with it. That’s road life in the NBA and other sports, if you believe Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won by L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz.

Wertheim and Moskowitz used data to back up the theory that officials unconsciously get influenced by home crowds to favor the home team. And after two games at the AmericanAirlines Arena, Heat fans were snarling, “Be a man!” while Boston fans harrumphed over Rajon Rondo getting slapped like Johnny Fontaine on a Game 2 overtime drive to the hole.

Before Game 3, Boston fans slung around the name of disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who accused officials of manipulating Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals so the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers could get to Game 7 against the entertaining (but unglamorous market) Sacramento Kings. When I think of that series, I remember Game 7. Sacramento, at home, lost in overtime partially because of laughable 16-of-30 shooting from the free-throw line in regulation.

Hit your free throws, I thought, and nobody remembers Game 6. Hit your free throws or get laryngitis when it comes to the referees.

That’s why the Heat needs to hush. It failed at free-throw shooting, the one skill in sports that doesn’t change from elementary school to the NBA: 15 feet away, 10-foot high basket, nobody defending you.

So shooting 10 of 20 from the line in Game 3 — that’s still 50 percent, even under the new math — is inexcusable. The Heat whittled a 24-point deficit down to eight in the fourth quarter despite that. Shooting even 70 percent would have had that lead down to four. At 75 percent, 2.5 percent below the Heat’s regular-season average, the game’s down to a single possession with the pressure all on Boston.

The Heat was better in Game 4, 70.8 percent. Still, James was 4 of 8, not exactly MVP free-throw shooting. Also, 70.8 percent exceeds the regular-season free-throw shooting percentage of exactly two teams. Translation: The Heat still left points on the floor in an overtime loss.

I’ll never forget Wyoming coach Benny Dees saying back in 1987, “My Daddy says there are two things that don’t last long — dogs that chase cars and teams that don’t hit their free throws.”

Yet, the Heat almost got away with it. Except for a freeze, brain and physical, at the end of regulation.

“The last possession of regulation, we tried to get a little bit of movement to get LeBron on the run,” Spoelstra said. “From there, it broke down. He had to make a play off the dribble and they collapsed. Our spacing wasn’t terrific, but … it always looks better when the ball goes in.”

No, it looked pretty awful right from the start.

As James held the ball, the Heat virtually held position. I saw more movement from the septuagenarian relatives on the dance floor at my wedding. This looked like so many other Heat end-of-game situations and played out that way, too. By the time it got anything going, James had to hurriedly drive, dish out of multiple coverage and threw one of the worst passes a great passer will make. Haslem couldn’t perform the necessary alchemy on the garbage.

Facing a good, veteran defensive team, why not use all the time you have to create something, try to work multiple people open, give yourself time for a putback or a draw a foul on the rebound? The Heat couldn’t be more predictable.

I understand wanting to run a little clock and give Boston no chance of its own buzzer-beater. But if the Celtics get a shot at the end, so be it. Stop them. The Heat’s franchise identity, the basis for the best of what it does, is tenacious defense.

Why not play offense as if you have confidence in your core trait, especially in the playoffs?

It’s what champions do. Ask the guys in green down the hall.

Read more David J. Neal stories from the Miami Herald

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