Perspective and wisdom come through experience, and so Dwyane Wade drew upon that Friday — for himself, for sure, but also for his precocious protégé. He watched what everyone else did, watched Justise Winslow work as hard as he could against LeBron James, work to meet him on the touch, work to push him out of the post, only for it to not work out so well at the end. Not when James kept flicking tough turnaround fadeaways with the ideal arc, piling up points on his way to 29.
“I told him we’ve all been there,” Wade said, after leading Miami with 25 points in a 102-92 loss to the Cavaliers. “I just let him know, I came in early in the season [in 2003], I played against the Lakers, and Gary Payton tore me up. All they kept saying was, ‘Go at the rook.’ I had two fouls, he had 14 points, first quarter. You know, it happens. So what? That’s LeBron James, the best player in the game.”
That matchup of an established elite against an up-and-comer, while not the only one of consequence in Miami’s first defeat of the season, was a microcosm of the Heat’s challenge Friday and might be one throughout the course of the season, as they try to overcome a lack of individual (in the case of Winslow) and collective experience to gel into a serious conference threat to the Cavaliers. The euphoria of the opener, partly the product of facing an offensively limited Charlotte team, evaporated Friday in front of a national TV audience, as the Heat encountered the best player in the league, fronting what still appears to be the best team in the East, even with both members of its starting backcourt sidelined.
The Cavaliers, as it turned out, didn’t need Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert on Friday, didn’t need accurate shooting from the fill-in guards (J.R. Smith and Mo Williams combined to make just 3 of 18) and didn’t even need James for a lengthy, critical stretch of the second half, outscoring the Heat 15-7 when he was on the bench, with Cleveland’s full second unit running roughshod over Miami’s subs.
“They came out and they played great ball,” James said of his reserves, with Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, Tristan Thompson, Jared Cunningham and Anderson Varejao all making contributions.
In the Heat’s eyes, what the Cavaliers needed most to do what they did Friday was time, the time many of them had last season to learn each other, as they rallied from a 19-20 record to the conference crown. And Wade even pointed to a difference from the team he’d watched, as a media member, in the last NBA Finals, the last time he was in Quicken Loans Arena.
“I liked the changes they made from last year, with their offensive package,” Wade said. “They did some things we haven’t seen. We’ll be more prepared next time. A lot less [isolation]. To us, that’s a credit to our team. I watched their first two games, and I didn’t see the crisp movement they had tonight. They know if they do iso, that’s when we’re real good. So they moved us around. They got us in situations we weren’t used to yet. We haven’t played together enough to be used to them.”
So that’s what Heat players were requesting now.
To improve on both ends.
“We got a long way to go,” Heat forward Chis Bosh said. “They know their rhythm, they know their rotations, they know their plays, they know where the ball is going. That’s one huge advantage they have on us. It’s going to take us some time to get there. It’s going to take a full season to get to that sort of confidence and continuity. But it’s something we can learn from.”
It will be easy to find shortcomings to address.
They can watch tape of Kevin Love ripping away rebounds from them — he finished with six offensive and 14 overall — or Tristan Thompson soaring in to steal them.
They can see the way the ball stuck at times, especially with the second unit, which was a combined 6 of 23 from the floor.
They, as in the coaching staff, can see how it might not be wise to use all five subs together, especially not when Amar’e Stoudemire is one of those subs, offering little resistance at the defensive end.
“It’s early in the season,” Wade said. “We have to go through these moments of learning, so we can learn what we need to do. And what better teacher than the Eastern Conference champions. That’s the team that we and the rest of the guys are trying to get to. They gave us a lesson [Friday night]. We’re gonna learn from it.”