It was a desperation shot that gave Norris Cole his career high for scoring Wednesday night.
Cole chucked it from about 28 feet without thinking after Chris Bosh lost his dribble, and the distance of the reflexive heave even seemed to surprise Cole once it went down. He turned upcourt and for a split second reveled in the moment as he bounded into defensive position. His head and signature flat top nodded up and down like some confident prizefighter who had just floored an opponent with an atomic right hand.
The bomb put the Heat ahead by seven points with 2:40 left in the game, and moved Cole’s scoring total to 23 points.
“He shot the ball with so much confidence,” Dwyane Wade would later say in the locker room.
Cole isn’t going to be spotting up from 28 feet often this season, but that buzzer-beating attempt shouldn’t be confused with a lucky shot. For Cole, nothing has been lucky about his journey from three-year rookie to full-time starter. Hidden away in the shadows of a team cluttered with stars, Cole has developed a reputation among NBA insiders and coaches as one of the hardest-working young players in the league. He credits everything to his work ethic.
“All it is is hard work,” Cole said of becoming a starter. “It’s nothing special for me. It’s hard work.”
Some players shoot late at night to get out of funks. Midnight sessions are just a part of Cole’s routine, and he has employed a shot coach since before his first season.
In a business where bodies are the business, Cole leaves nothing to chance. He’s a workout fiend, and his body is sculpted like something out of Marvel Comics. He has played until the last game of the postseason every year of his career, and this offseason he went straight from losing Game 5 of the NBA Finals to the gym.
What’s more, Cole has played in 149 consecutive games, and he’s gradually becoming something of a real life Iron Man. He has bounced his face off the court under the basket and kept playing. He has collided with opponents at full speed and waved off trainers. He started his athletic career on a football field and it shows.
In other words, his career has been leading up to a moment like Wednesday night. That his breakthrough came in a season opener is just all the better. There was nothing accidental or unexpected about his 23 points against the Wizards in the Heat’s 107-95 victory.
“I was just being aggressive, taking what they give me and being aggressive,” Cole said.
That Cole’s career high in scoring came in the first game of his career as a full-time starter is a good sign for the Heat.
Coach Erik Spoelstra has penciled Cole into the Heat’s first five, but nothing is set as the team begins its first season in four years without LeBron James. James was the Heat’s de facto point guard, and it’s going to take quality seasons from Cole, Mario Chalmers and rookie Shabazz Napier just to soften the loss of James’ skills at that one position.
For one night, everything worked.
Cole, beginning a contract year, outplayed Wizards guard John Wall, Chalmers added eight points, four assists and four rebounds off the bench, and Napier played 15 minutes and had two assists to just one turnover.
Cole provided a steadying hand in addition to his points, and that’s what Spoelstra wants as the team learns how to generate offense.
“I just wanted him to quarterback our team and make decisions and get us organized,” Spoelstra said.
Still, Cole’s natural inclination is to score points, and the Heat certainly needed the offense in the season opener. Wade went out with a calf injury early in the third quarter and Cole recognized the moment. He went 5 of 6 from the field in the period for 10 points.
It’s probably not the most popular notion around AmericanAirlines Arena this season, but a lot of Cole’s instincts on the court come from playing with James for the first three years of his career. James and Cole remain close friends, they train together in the offseason and they share a mutual sports agent, Rich Paul. From James, Cole says he learned “how to handle the moment.”
“It was a media frenzy around here and everything was highly watched and highly scrutinized,” Cole said. “I learned how to handle myself as a pro under the most pressurized circumstances, so I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be anything else in my career as far as the hype and playing in the biggest games that I haven’t already done.”
Cole was the youngest player on his team for three years, so he felt like a rookie in the locker room for three years. On the court, though, he developed steadily and now he says his incubation period as a reserve for a back-to-back championship team accelerated his progress.
Cole has a solid base of experience from which to thrive as a starter.
“So I’ll be able to handle it and I’ll be ready for it,” Cole said. “I think doing it early in my career, I guess it kind of makes me a vet at an early age to go through that. … I use it to my advantage on the court, knowing that I’ve played in the biggest games, in the biggest moments.
“I can relax. I’m not sped up when the moment gets tight and the game gets tight. When it’s a big play that needs to be made, I don’t feel any real, real tight pressure because I’ve done it and that’s all I’ve played in for three years now.”