This isn’t new. Not here. Nor is it even that long ago since sacrifice became the most essential attribute of a Heat team constructed to chase championships.
So, prior to the season, Erik Spoelstra sat down his five starters to explain what each was expected to give, and how much less — in terms of touches, shots, style — each was likely to get.
“How these things were gonna work,” Goran Dragic said Tuesday.
They haven’t worked perfectly yet. Still, aided by a stacked home schedule, they have worked well enough for a 9-4 start, well enough for even Dragic — whose struggles have been the most pronounced — to smile more lately.
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“I mean, that’s the good thing,” Dragic said. “We still didn’t figure out all the pieces and we are still winning.”
Even better, they’ve made progress toward a positive collective attitude.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been through this before, this trial of selflessness.
“Yeah,” Bosh said, laughing. “Just a little bit.”
You remember it well: Wade getting off the ball to accommodate LeBron James, Bosh taking a back seat to both, the trio ultimately taking two NBA titles.
This team has no James in his prime. Bosh is the only Heat player to post a 30-point game, and he and Wade led the Heat with a measly 16 apiece in Monday’s win against the Knicks. It does, however, have a point guard in Dragic, two seasons removed from third team All-NBA status, a small forward in Luol Deng who made two All-Star teams, and a massive center in Hassan Whiteside who has begun to realize his enormous potential.
Miami also has three veteran big men, in Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Amar’e Stoudemire, hardly playing at all, yet all have remained engaged and encouraging.
“We all are enjoying each other’s success,” Wade said. “We have no one on the sideline talking to another teammate, like, ‘I can do that.’ Everyone is really into it.”
Wade cautioned that the chemistry will be tested amid the inevitable adversity. But he sees widespread signs of less concern about “the statistical part of the game,” not an easy mind-set to master when some (Wade, Deng, Whiteside, etc.) are playing for a new contract, and others (Bosh and Dragic specifically) are playing on lucrative ones. Those are circumstances that lead players to try to “prove something.”
“But once you understand, as long as we have team success, you’re going to get what you want from the game and you’ll be fine,” Wade said. “I think guys are starting to understand we’re better as a unit than we are individually.”
Wade is playing the fewest minutes of his career while scoring the fewest points since his rookie season. Bosh’s shots are up from two of the four Big 3 seasons, but way down from last season. Deng is averaging barely over single-digit points (10.3) for the first time, but is sitting many fourth quarters after thanklessly guarding much bigger players, such as 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis on Monday.
After opening on Carmelo Anthony.
Deng’s mission is to make the opponent make the adjustment rather than Miami feeling forced to do so. He’s doing this even as he’s made his own adjustment to his expectations, knowing his shot attempts would sink again, now at a career low. He believes he can score more, but he’s prioritizing something else. He doesn’t want his teammates ever feeling at a disadvantage with his defensive matchup, even if the other player is deemed a star.
Whiteside? Well, he won’t be challenging for the team’s assist lead, even as he had his fourth of the season, and 10th of his career, on a nice feed to a cutting Deng on Monday. But he did impress Wade in another way. “I watched him a couple times turn down a couple of those elbow jump shots,” Wade said, smiling. “And I was proud of him.”
And Dragic, who is averaging 10.3 points after 16.3 last season and 20.3 the season prior?
On Tuesday, he spoke at length about how this still isn’t anything like the free-flowing style he played in Phoenix, but how now — even after talk of a transformation this summer — he’s no longer expecting that. He also now knows he won’t be shooting 18 times per night, nor serving as the primary ball-handler for half the game, with Wade taking over.
“I need to do what’s best for my team, for my teammates,” Dragic said. “Everyone needs to adapt, including me. I cannot be a one-dimensional player.”
So he is trying to find tweaks to — rather than faults with — Miami’s plan, aiming largely to get himself more space. He’s showing Whiteside where best to set a screen, working with Wade on the ideal cutting angles, advising shooters to spray out to the corners.
“Everybody is starting to understand their responsibilities,” Wade said.
And what everybody must relinquish.
Wednesday: Heat at Pistons
When/where: 7:30 p.m., The Palace of Auburn Hills, Detroit.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 51-46.
Scouting report: Hassan Whiteside (illness) and Luol Deng (left hamstring) both missed practice Tuesday but made the trip with the Heat. Deng said after Monday’s win over the Knicks that the hamstring tightened up again and he might need a day or two of rest to get over it.