David J. Neal: Role players hold key to Miami Heat title hopes

04/19/2014 12:00 AM

05/18/2014 10:39 PM

No matter what media blowhards like me say, individuals don’t win championships, even in the NBA. Not Wilt Chamberlain. Not Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or LeBron James. No, not even Michael Jordan.

Teams of individuals win. Teams that go down to the guys in the bench chairs next to the paying customers. That’s where you will find James Jones and Rashard Lewis. The past two championships years, before he became a Heat assistant this year, Juwan Howard sat down there.

None of the players sitting down there are The Key to the title. On the championship key ring, they’re that slight, small key that opens the mailbox or a storage shed. It seems extraneous until you need something inside the mailbox or shed to fix a problem threatening the house.

The NFL’s most successful team since the turn of the millennium, the New England Patriots, famously concern themselves with even the 53rd man on their 53-man roster. The Heat does the same. Plenty of NBA veterans would love a spot in the AmericanAirlines Arena home locker room. The Heat tends to pick well when it comes to finding those who understand how occasional their playing time can be and their role at the most visible time of the year might be invisible to outsiders.

“I’ve been to the Finals, been to the playoffs, been in All-Star Games, a number of different things, I’ve been there,” Lewis said. “I try to help the guys when we’re down. Try to keep the locker room fun, make everybody smile. Guys like myself and James Jones try to keep guys mentally prepared and not let them get down on themselves.”

Contributions aren’t always made behind closed doors. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra remembers Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals against Oklahoma City, The Cramp Game. When James went down with cramps in the fourth quarter, Spoelstra sent out Jones, who averaged eight minutes a game otherwise in those playoffs in the games he wasn’t scratched.

“Tight game with the best offensive team in the league at the time, we had to get a stop,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “We were just at a point where we trusted each other fully. So, let’s go, let’s get a stop and a bucket, hold the fort until our guy comes back, if he can come back.”

The Heat didn’t re-sign Howard late last season so he could play major fill-in minutes or tell Fab Five stories. Nor did they do it out of charity. They did it for the same reason they had Howard in 2012. The same reason you have that little key.

“I’ve always prided myself on doing my job and, for this team, what that job entails is to be that leader, that voice, the voice of reason and also to be ready whenever my name is called upon,” Howard said. “In both those years, if you look at my minutes, it’s probably the same as yours. What’s the next thing I’m supposed to do?

“Well, I’m not going to start to become a cancer because I’m bitter and sour because I haven’t gotten any playing time. What can I do to help this team? Do what I’ve done throughout my career: lead.”

Though players and coaches were still trying to figure out roles and relationships come spring, the Heat still came two wins from the 2010-11 NBA title and won each of the past two years. Yet the NBA’s best roster over the past three years lost one NBA Finals and came a three-pointer from one of the four best three-point shooters in NBA history from losing another. It played three elimination games over two years in the Eastern Conference final.

“I think there were moments where emotionally and mentally we weren’t connected as a team,” Howard said. “That could’ve caused us easy exits where we would not have been able to win that title that we all sacrificed and worked extremely hard for.

“I thought at that moment when we needed it most — you’ve got to pick your spots — you have to be able to give that type of encouragement. If you feel the players aren’t doing their job, hold them accountable, but speak in a way that the message and tone is delivered in the right way, in a respectful manner. That’s all I did. That being said, it’s great that I had teammates down there that respect me, that know what I had to say was coming from a right place and is coming from the heart and being honest.”

Howard didn’t just speak up in the locker room during the 2012 Eastern Conference finals against Boston or the 2013 conference final against Indiana. Guess who got between Dwyane Wade and Spoelstra when they were shooting words and eye fire during Game 3 against Indiana in 2012?

The same guy of whom Spoelstra said after the first title, “He’ll be a GM or a coach, whatever he decides. That’s what he was acting as this year anyway.”

That’s what most championship teams need at some point. If you doubt that, ask the smart stars who have rings. And the other stars who don’t.

About David J. Neal

David J. Neal

@DavidJNeal

David J. Neal joined The Herald in 1989 and South Beach in 1990. He covers FIU after covering the Panthers for over a decade then the Dolphins for half a decade. The only day he won't work is Indianapolis 500 Race Day.

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