If there is such thing as a defensive closer, then Norris Cole has played that role well for the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Cole was on the court for every second of the fourth quarters in the past two games, and his work on the perimeter against the Pacers’ ball handlers helped the Heat dominant those final periods. The third-year guard with the famous high-top fade has reduced the offensive impact of Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson to nothing.
Of course, all that means nothing for Game 4. Cole could be out of the lineup completely in the fourth quarter Monday night, and through no fault of his own.
While Cole has been a constant, the crunch time lineups for the Heat haven’t been the same in the past two games of this best-of-7 series, but the results have been identical — victories and defensive domination by the defending back-to-back champions. Fourth quarter lineups for the Heat are fluid things, says Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who sets his chess pieces for the most important 12 minutes of each game — the final 12 minutes — not by some preconceived plan or well-intentioned set of metrics, but by feel and rhythm.
“It’s how the game is going,” Spoelstra said. “Whatever it takes.”
During Sunday’s practice session, trying to pull insight from Spoelstra about his fourth quarter decisions proved more difficult than trying to squeeze water from a stone. There are egos at play when it comes to fourth quarter minutes, and Spoelstra has to carefully navigate that game, too.
“Whatever it takes,” Spoelstra repeated.
Said Dwyane Wade: “It’s just a read of who’s playing well, who fits at that moment and also depending on the lineups the [Pacers] have in as well.”
Point guard Mario Chalmers is the Heat’s entrenched starter, but Cole and his on-ball defense against the Pacers’ pick-and-roll offense have won him action in the fourth quarters of the Heat’s two consecutive victories. Stephenson, the Pacers’ talented shooting guard, was excellent in the third quarter of Game 2, but then Cole limited Stephenson to two points in the final period.
Cole again squared off against Stephenson in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and the Pacers guard was 0 of 1 from the field and didn’t score despite playing the full 12 minutes of the period. More than anything, Cole’s fresh legs have made it difficult for the Pacers to settle into their offense, and chaos in the fourth quarters of games usually favors the Heat.
“It’s critical to our game to play with a great sense of urgency,” Spoelstra said. “Particularly on the defensive end to be able to dictate the tempo of the game.”
With so many options, the Heat oftentimes has the advantage in fourth quarters when energy and confidence can trump talent. In Game 3, Spoelstra went with Cole and Chris Andersen alongside the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Andersen alone matched the Pacers in rebounds (six).
In Game 4, the Heat went small and Ray Allen delivered the killing strokes from three-point range. He was 4 of 4.
“I think it’s just kind of how the game is flowing and kind of how guys are playing,” Wade said. “Obviously most of the time you have LeBron, myself, Chris and Ray and then that other guy is whoever has it going.
“Sometimes it might be [Udonis Haslem] late. Sometimes it might be Norris. It might be Mario. We just never know. That fifth guy is a guy who probably changes a lot and then sometimes Ray’s not in there. But we love to have Ray in there to be able to have a shot-making ability.”
When it comes to Allen, the old adage that defense wins championships doesn’t apply, says James. In the fourth quarters of playoff games, James likes to say that Allen wins championships. But it takes defensive stops to get Allen, or anyone, those three-point attempts in transition that Heat’s prizes.
“Knowing when fourth quarter starts that this is … going to be our best defensive quarter, it’s a pretty good feeling — to know that you can get stops,” James said. “Two or three stops in a row, we kind of hang our hat on that and if we’re able to get that and not turn the ball over on the other side, we know we can kind of make a run.”