Shooting guard Dwyane Wade returned to the starting lineup on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, but the Heat is still a ways off from competing at full strength.
Wade scored 27 points against the New York Knicks in his first game back from a hamstring injury after missing seven games as a precaution. He strained his hamstring on Nov.12 against the Indiana Pacers, and the Heat went 3-4 without Wade in the lineup. With Wade back, the Heat can once again begin the long process of developing its team chemistry.
"We have to play five-man basketball," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We can make a lot of excuses for when he was out, but we didn’t get the job done the way we were capable of. But now that he’s back, we can work on that continuity."
Wade said the immediate focus is improving the team’s defense. The Heat allowed opponents to shoot 50 percent from the field during games without Wade.
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"The biggest thing for us is what kind of defensive disposition we have when we come out," Wade said. "Offensively, we’ve been fine. Even when I was out, the guys were still in the top 10 in scoring as whole, so it’s about how we come out defensively and how we take care of that side."
Wade’s scoring will always be an indicator of the Heat’s offensive success, but center Chris Bosh pointed to "timing" and "just playing within the offense with him in it" as harder-to-recognize benefits of having Wade on the court, especially now that LeBron James is in Cleveland. The Heat averaged 18.3 assists per game in the seven games without Wade. Through the first seven games of the season, the Heat averaged 23.9 assists per game and won five games, including a convincing victory in Dallas on the second night of a home-away back-to-back.
"We’ve only been talking about it in theory over the past two weeks and even when we did have him, we didn’t have other guys," Bosh said Sunday morning. "So now we can start seeing what the beginning is at full strength."
Bosh then hesitated before adding "without Bird."
Chris "Birdman" Andersen missed his second game with a sprained ankle Sunday, and it’s unclear when he will return. In addition to Andersen’s absence, forward Josh McRoberts is coming off the bench and apparently needs more time for competing at full strength. The Heat began the season with the long-term plan of working McRoberts into the starting lineup, but Spoelstra indicated before Sunday’s game that starting McRoberts at power forward might no longer be a priority.
"We’ll see," Spoelstra said when asked if McRoberts would be starting soon. "I’m open to whatever the season may bring. I’m not going into anything predetermined. The season will tell us. That’s the way it has to be with this group."
For his part, McRoberts played well against the Knicks, scoring seven points in 25 minutes.
"His body will let us know, so right now I’m going to keep him at those minutes," Spoelstra said. "He was able to play a few more the other night. His conditioning is getting much better. It’s getting acclimated to all the pounding, and the hitting and all of that."