Miami Heat needs time, practice and patience

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:13 PM

BOSTON - Three practices and three minutes of game time together won't allow for greatness, no matter how talented you are. The only conclusion to draw about the stacked Miami Heat one game into their presumed march to multiple championships and basketball domination is that the boys need work. Lots of it. Practice time, game minutes, experimenting with various lineups. And they probably need, already, to make one major adjustment.

LeBron James will have to be this group's primary playmaker, Magic Johnson-like if you will. You can call James whatever you want, the point guard or point forward. You can waste time putting a position label on him, call him a 1 or a 3, whatever your heart desires. But Carlos Arroyo handling the ball while James and Dwyane Wade scurry around the court without it didn't work Tuesday in the Heat's 88-80 loss to Boston and almost certainly won't work in the long run.

Yes, there were stretches of the NBA's most anticipated opening game ever where the possibilities were apparent. And they were all with either James or Wade handling the ball. Neither looked particularly threatening without it; at times they even looked a little lost on the court, waiting for a competent but certainly lesser player like Arroyo to set and coordinate the action.

By contrast, the Boston Celtics, who hardly played what could be called a great game, turned the quarterbacking over to an all-star playmaker they entirely trust, Rajon Rondo, who handed out 17 assists. The Celtics, not surprisingly, played like a team. Even the new guy, Shaquille O'Neal, fit in seamlessly. After Shaq missed a couple of "chippies" to use his word, Rondo knew exactly how to get the big man going, throwing him a lob for a dunk. Shaq would say later, "He knows where all his guys are and how to use them." The Celtics, not surprisingly, don't appear to be missing much. They've got skill, know-how, depth, size, strength, and certainly experience. Their mission is already laid out before them: don't get old and infirm before the end of June. Their Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen look as if they've played together for a dozen years.

Miami's Big 3 of LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh made only 17 of 48 shots and scored a total of 52 points. They didn't run many plays for Bosh, who took only 11 shots. Wade missed 12 of 16 shots. And while the Celtics' signature defense had something to do with that, Miami simply demonstrated none of the precision that a great team has to have. Arroyo can surely be a contributor off the bench or in some meaningful way, but not running this team. Arroyo played only 12 minutes, but his total of zero assists is telling.

James said afterward, "It almost felt like we were being too unselfish to get each other into the flow of the game, and the reason we're here and the reason we've been successful is because we've put ourselves in a position to be aggressive at all times." But its James who put himself and his teammates in such a position in Cleveland, and Wade (after his first couple of seasons) who put himself and his teammates in Miami in such a position in Miami.

The notion held by many that Miami will win 70 games this season is a flawed one not because they don't have the talent - they do - but because they're going to need at least a month to simply learn how to play together. Remember, the 1995-96 Bulls that won 72 games began the season with the two primary ballhandlers, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, having already played together for six seasons. LeBron and Wade have had about the same amount of time together in these roles as a pair of conference rivals during All-Star Weekend.

It's going to take more time than a fascinated nation of fans, sponsors, television networks and perhaps even team executives will calmly allow. Coach Erik Spoelstra will have to resist the urge to do everything on an accelerated schedule to justify the enormous expectations Miami players suggested were reasonable when they celebrated before the ink had dried on the signatures on their contracts.

The glamorous signing of new deals and the presumptuous celebrations that ensued won't help Miami as much as some basic time running practice drills in the gym and early season games figuring out something as fundamental as how all these pieces are going to be assembled.

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