All Shaq and Wade Needed Was A Little Help From Their Friends
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. In precious little time, Miami's playoff forecast has changed from, "Can the Heat get past the seventh-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round?" to "Is it possible Miami can beat the presumptive champion Detroit Pistons?"
Count me as one of the people who were giving Miami a standing eight count less than two weeks ago. The Heat looked old, slow, lethargic and defensively challenged. Fouls were being called on Shaquille O'Neal that have never been called. The Miami players looked mismatched and confused about their roles. Heck, Pat Riley's Armani suits didn't look as splendiferous as they used to. If the Heat couldn't guard quick Young Turks like Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni, how in the world could they guard Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson?
Well, they couldn't, or at least didn't in the Nets' Game 1 victory, adding to the notion (fully embraced here) that Miami was a playoff pretender, that Riley had screwed up the Heat by making too many offseason personnel moves, including installing himself as coach only a few months after Stan Van Gundy had gotten the team within a whisper of the NBA Finals last June.
All that seems silly now, of course, what with Miami having won three straight games, including Sunday's 102-92 victory here in the Meadowlands, to take a 3-1 series lead over the New Jersey Nets. After losing twice at home over the weekend, it wasn't particularly convincing when the Nets' Vince Carter said, "We're not going to hang our heads and say, 'It's over,' because it's not."
If Miami can play as it has in five of the last six games, this second-round series will indeed be over Tuesday night when Game 5 is played down in south Florida. The Heat has settled into an all-business, no bravado approach punctuated by substantially improved defense and reliance on players other than Shaq and Dwyane Wade. It took them awhile to figure it out, so long that they probably scared themselves a little bit.
"Everybody knows we've got two of the best players in the league," Antoine Walker said, "but we've got to have everybody else fulfilling roles. We didn't have it at first, with all those [new] faces in there. We'd love for it to have happened earlier, but it's happening now, at just the right time."
Walker, the former Celtics all-star, hit 7 of 11 shots, including 5 of 8 three-pointers, and scored 20 points. Udonis Haslem, the mouth guard throwing forward who was suspended for a game in the first round, hit 8 of 11 shots and also scored 20. Graybeards Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton chipped in with more subtle but still important contributions, and suddenly Miami looked like the kind of contending outfit Shaq envisioned when he forced his way out of Los Angeles and Riley envisioned when he took back the sideline from Van Gundy.
Miami, led by Wade's 31 points on 11-for-19 shooting, made 53 percent while holding the Nets to 43 percent. Riley has even come up with a defensive unit to close the game in which Wade, his best offensive player, is guarding Carter, the Nets' most explosive offensive player. "You don't really want to put Dwyane on Vince Carter [early]," Riley said, "but at the end of the game . . . he's probably our best perimeter defender."
Carter missed 16 of 28 shots. Kidd missed 11 of 16. The Nets' bench shot 1 for 8. New Jersey missed 16 of 20 three-pointers including open ones that could have swung the game. The Nets hung in there because Jefferson (17 points on 7-for-13 shooting) and Nenad Kristic (20 points on 9-for-16 shooting) carried everybody else. Oh, and Kidd had 12 assists and 13 rebounds. A couple of weeks ago, two hot Nets would have been enough to beat Miami, especially if Shaq scored just 16 points, as he did Sunday. Riley still winces when he mentions the series opener, a game the Nets led by 28 points in Miami at one point. "First game debacle," is what Riley called it.
But he was also quick to point out his players "responded tremendously," making a commitment to play better defense. "Chicago," Riley said, "was a test." It's very unlikely two hot opposing players are going to beat Miami now.
New Jersey, down by only one point in the fourth quarter, had six opportunities to take the lead and couldn't score as Miami clamped down defensively. The Nets' coach, Lawrence Frank, was quite aware after Game 4 that Jefferson and Carter shot a tiny number of free throws (two and four, respectively) for players who are so aggressive and therefore fouled so frequently.
But the time to notice that Jefferson and Carter weren't getting to the line much, and make a huge public deal of it, was after Game 3 when Miami essentially doubled-up on New Jersey at the foul line. Riley, who has raised moaning about the officiating in the playoffs to an art form over the last 25 years, has been dropping comments everywhere about the zebras making too many calls against Shaq. The Nets' Frank, who looks like a Cub Scout leader, has been trying to play it straight and be a good sport, and you have to wonder whether he did all he could for his team in the lobbying department since Miami shot 31 free throws Sunday to New Jersey's 24. Tweaking the officials, unsavory as that is, seems to have become a coaching prerequisite, and we have Riley and Phil Jackson to thank (blame) more than anybody.
Probably, Riley is to be credited more than anybody else for Miami's steady improvement in these playoffs, after it looked as if the Heat might be a total disappointment. Miami, after all, is the only team left in the East that can play with Detroit. But Miami can only do it if Wade and Shaq have the kind of help they had in Game 4. Asked if he was worried that his team might not find this winning formula in time for a playoff run, Wade said, "We'd see it every now and then -- so we kind of knew what it looked like. But we also knew what it looked like when" the team didn't play this way. He admitted to thinking, "I hope it comes and comes fast."
After being down by five points at home to the Bulls in Game 5 with the series tied, 2-2, Miami crushed the Bulls and played a brand of ball over the next six quarters more reflective of Riley's toughness and determination. The Heat had a relapse in Game 1 of this series, but has thoroughly outplayed New Jersey since.
"We needed them to get over the hump," Wade said of the Heat's support players. "It makes it easy when those guys step up and play the way they can. We're looking forward to more of that . . . the rest of this run."