Miami Heat’s reserves take on role as closers

The Heat’s second unit is providing a decisive spark off the bench for the defending champions.

04/30/2013 12:00 AM

09/23/2013 6:52 PM

This is not the same postseason team that won the NBA championship in 2012 — not even close. It’s better. Even with Dwyane Wade coping with soreness and injuries, this team is better.

In the final three games of the Heat’s first-round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Heat’s second unit, paired with LeBron James, linked together unstoppable runs at either the end of the third quarter or the beginning of the fourth. By the time the Heat’s “closers” stepped on the floor to — you know — close out the game, the contests were already decided.

The additions of Ray Allen and Chris Andersen, and the further development of backup point guard Norris Cole, have bolstered the Heat’s depth to a degree not even the architects of the roster could have anticipated. In the 2012 playoffs, reserve Shane Battier turned out to be the key player who made the Heat’s offense click. Battier shot 29.4 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from three-point range in the first round, and it hardly mattered.

“They’ve given us a great spark,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

“Each game, we’ve been able to break the game open to double digits with that second unit, or some version of those guys in there, and what you hope is that our style of play is wearing on the opponent to the point where when those guys come in, that frenetic energy can take you to another level.”

And by “frenetic energy,” Spoelstra means Andersen, the “Birdman.”

Chaos in motion

Andersen’s plus-minus rating — the scoring margin of a team when a player is in a game — was plus-12 points per game against the Bucks. That’s not frenetic. That’s absolute chaos wielded unfairly against an opponent.

In Game 3, Andersen was on the floor for a little less than 14 minutes. When he was in the game, the Heat outscored the Bucks by 15 points.

“I told Bird on the bench that we shouldn’t be in the game without each other,” James said. “We just work well off one another. I think our motors, the way we play the game, we’re always at a high pace and he reads me and I try to read him, and we’ve been able to connect on a lot.

“It’s a high rate for us as a team when we go to the pick and roll with me and Bird.”

How high? Consider this advanced statistic: The two-man combination of James and Andersen netted a points advantage per 100 possessions of plus-59.3 in the first round. In other words, when James and Andersen were on the court together, the Heat was unstoppable.

“We definitely try to utilize that pick and roll as much as possible,” Andersen said. “He’s the best player in the league and one of the best players of all-time and if guys want to pick him up full court, then I’m going to come back and set a screen and initiate contact and try to get him the space he needs so he can get to the basket and make those decisions that he makes.”

Bird’s-eye view

Then the Birdman added, naturally: “LeBron has a bird’s-eye view of the court.”

For James, playing with Andersen in controlled spurts reminds him of his Cleveland days when he combined with center Anderson Varejao for a potent pick-and-roll combination. But the Heat’s second unit has something those old Cleveland teams desperately lacked: a gaggle of reliable three-point shooters.

With his hawkish court vision, James has three distinct options when he blows past a defender. He can either (a) drive to the basket, (b) toss it to Andersen, who is rolling toward the hoop or (c) kick it out to Allen, Battier, Cole or Mario Chalmers. Someone is always open and, more often than not, James finds his man.

The Heat led by only two points early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 before James and the second unit ended the series with a 19-3 run. James had a hand in all 19 points, scoring seven and assisting on four three-pointers.

“We just space the floor and see if they can stop him,” Allen said. “He knows where we are. We just try to give him that room to operate.”

Rest and recovery

With the Heat in a holding pattern until at least Saturday, rest and recovery is important, but staying in shape will be a priority.

The team took the day off Monday but will practice Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.

“D-Wade is a little banged up and everybody else has some bumps and bruises, so we’ll get some rest,” Udonis Haslem said. “The key is to stay active every day. We’re going to do something every day, whether it’s ride the bike, shoot, hit the weight room, treadmill.”

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