Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Miami Heat’s starting unit flawed but far from a failure

Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic (7) looks to pass to Chris Bosh under pressure from Cleveland Cavaliers' Mo Williams on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, in Cleveland.
Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic (7) looks to pass to Chris Bosh under pressure from Cleveland Cavaliers' Mo Williams on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, in Cleveland. AP

It happened so early in Miami’s 109-89 win Sunday against Houston that no one stopped the contest to mark the significance. In just the fourth minute of the third game of the 2015-16 season, the Heat’s projected starting lineup had already spent more time together on the floor than the projected starting lineup had during the season prior.

Thirty-five minutes.

That should provide some context while evaluating how Miami’s opening five — Hassan Whiteside, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic — has looked thus far. Count your blessings while counting their obstacles, obstacles that include a backcourt overlap, a dearth of feared perimeter shooting and a lack of overall foot speed.

Hey, at least they’re out there.

That gives them time to grow.

That’s why Wade and Bosh, in particular, haven’t expressed much panic yet. After Tuesday’s 98-92 loss to Atlanta, Bosh acknowledged that “nothing’s clicking” with the starting group exactly as they would like, however he’s still seeing enough positives overall.

“Our two losses were to the best two teams in the East last year,” Bosh said. “So we’re playing catch-up a little bit, and we’ll eventually get there. … And that takes time.”

He spoke of all the defensive coverages Atlanta used, including the frequent blitzing of Dragic on pick-and-rolls.

“We’re going to have to see quite a few different situations before we get under our feet,” Bosh said. “Once we start anticipating what we can do, and once we start reading and reacting without talking, I think that’s when we’ll turn the corner.”

Last season, of course, there was a raging rhino ’round every corner, and all the Heat’s plans were pierced from the start. Bosh, Deng and Wade were supposed to be supported by Josh McRoberts and Norris Cole, but McRoberts wasn’t ready for the opener and then tore apart his knee and was gone for good; Cole struggled enough to get traded; Wade missed three significant stretches because of hamstring trouble; and Bosh had a scary season-ending experience. They teased together, at plus-13 in those 34 minutes, but no more.

The current Heat lineup, although perhaps flawed in terms of fit, is undoubtedly more gifted, replacing McRoberts and Cole with Whiteside and Dragic. And, although their collaboration hasn’t always been aesthetically pleasing, it hasn’t been a statistical disaster either. The group was outscored by four in seven minutes against Charlotte, by one in 10 minutes against Houston, by one in 15 minutes against Atlanta — and outscored the Cavaliers by 10 in 24 minutes, even in a loss.

The sum total?

In 58 minutes — five more than the next six Heat lineups combined — the starting lineup is plus-4.

It is shooting a solid 48.9 percent overall from the floor — even if that includes just 6 of 19 from deep — while making 23 of 24 free throws. The assist-to-turnover ratio (22-17) could use improvement, and the defense needs to tighten (103.6 points per 100 possessions). But offensively, which has been the source of much of the public’s stress?

Miami is scoring 107.6 points per 100 possessions.

Entering Wednesday night’s play, that would have ranked third among all NBA teams, behind Golden State (115.2) and Oklahoma City (109.0).

And that plus-4?

Make no mistake, it’s not great.

But it’s exactly what the Grizzlies’ seasoned starting group posted in its first five games, totaling 66 minutes, together. It’s slightly better than the start of the Bulls’ new starting lineup, with Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell joining Pau Gasol, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose; Chicago has been flat with that group in 86 minutes. And, even after losing to the Hawks, it was still better than Atlanta’s five, with Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague combining to go minus-5 in 53 minutes.

Yes, Miami’s starters need to find a way to play with more pace. The starting lineup’s 92.3 projected possessions per 48 minutes is the major reason the Heat (at 96.7) ranks 28th in the NBA in that category, just ahead of the Nets and Jazz. Yes, shooting from range can be a struggle. Yes, they can trip over each other at times; such as the one possession when Wade thought Dragic would be somewhere he wasn’t, and the ball went out of bounds.

Still, it hasn’t been as bad as it has sometimes looked to us.

It hasn’t been as bad as it has sometimes seemed to them.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

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