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October 25, 2010
In July, the Heat pulled off the biggest coup in basketball history, persuading LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade. Now comes the hard part: creating an offensive system that works for the benefit of them all
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October 25, 2010

O.k., So What Now?

In July, the Heat pulled off the biggest coup in basketball history, persuading LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade. Now comes the hard part: creating an offensive system that works for the benefit of them all

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But Spoelstra is also asking Wade to accept a new role by playing off the ball more than any time since his rookie year. It's impossible to divorce the X's and O's from the personalities of the players: The most ingenious strategy won't work if they aren't committed to their assignments. The Celtics insist that they won in '08 because their elder stars had fulfilled their individual goals and were willing to meet the larger needs of the team. "I look back on my years in Milwaukee—would we have been willing to do it?" says Allen, who was unable to reach the Finals while sharing the ball for four seasons with fellow stars Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson. "Would we have listened to each other as much as we do now [in Boston]?"

So what will Miami run? For starters, look for it to simply run; rival scouts, coaches and executives expect to see James and Wade creating turnovers that lead to easy baskets, though one advance scout wonders if their defensive aggression may backfire against disciplined opponents like the Celtics and the Lakers. "Coming off their time together with the [2008] Olympic team, you've seen LeBron and D-Wade play defense from behind a lot more—they'll come from behind a guy to block the shot or steal the ball," the scout says. "That turns into steals and monster dunks for them at the other end, but the good teams will be able to take advantage of that gambling defense."

Goal No. 1 for opponents will be to prevent turnovers and keep the Heat out of the open floor, though an emphasis on getting back in transition will cede defensive rebounds to Miami's big men. The Heat players will push the ball relentlessly, and if they can't finish with an intimidating dunk, then they'll flow into their "continuity" offense, which is based on pick-and-rolls and the playmaking abilities of James and Wade to read the defense and create on the fly. To maximize their talents, they must learn to create less off the dribble and more with the pass.

"Stopping both Wade and LeBron is going to be very difficult," says one scout. "One of the hardest things to do is come from the help position and close out on a guy who's a driver. If you're closing out on either LeBron or Wade, you don't have much of a chance. So what you have to do defensively is to keep the ball from changing sides, to try to force them to stay on one side of the floor so you don't have to recover so far. You don't want to have your defense overloading on one side, and now you're having to close out on the other side. Because let's say you do get over there to close out—all they have to do is make another pass, and now they've got you. There's no way you're going to be able to recover yet again."

James was known to be frustrated by the stodgy offensive style in Cleveland—to which he contributed by pounding the ball as the shot clock dwindled—but there should be few such complaints in Miami. Spoelstra updated Riley's playbook two years ago by installing what is known as "Sacramento" action around the elbow (made famous more than a decade ago by former Kings coach Rick Adelman with big men Chris Webber and Vlade Divac), which should make use of James's and Bosh's talents as passers from the high post. One set from Miami's "Punch" series—tipped off by Spoelstra's punching his palm—calls for the ball to switch from the left side of the floor to James in the right frontcourt, where he runs a give-and-go with Bosh while circling around him to receive a pass on the right block. Spoelstra hasn't changed terminology because neither he nor Riley has worried about keeping secrets from opposing defenses, in the belief that the Heat's execution will outflank the defense.

Miami's free-flowing offense will create nightmares early in the shot clock as unsettled defenses struggle to match up with the three stars alongside the array of shooters—including Mike Miller, James Jones, Eddie House and 7'3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas—who have been ordered by Spoelstra to fire when open. And they will be open, with all of the attention that James and Wade will draw. "They have two of the most dynamic pick-and-roll players to ever play together," says former NBA coach and current ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy. "The untold story is that they've put together a team that's going to get fouled as much as any team ever. Wade, James and Bosh live at the free throw line, and that's an asset defensively because it cuts down on the opportunities the other team has to run, which enables Miami to play in the half-court defensively."

Look for the 6'8" James to serve as a quasi--point guard, with the 6'4" Wade on the wing as the main finisher and the 6'11" Bosh emerging as Miami's version of Robert Parish as the No. 3 option—though Bosh figures to attack primarily from the elbow, and Parish scored inside for the Celtics' championship teams of the 1980s. Bosh hopes to establish his niche as a defensive anchor. "That's really all I care about going into the games," he says. "I have to adapt, and it's really testing my will as a basketball player, because you're going to make a lot of mistakes in new situations."

The Magic, Celtics and Lakers all figure to try to pound the ball inside to slow down Miami while hoping that James, Wade and Bosh never develop a flow—that instead they take turns offensively in order to keep their scoring numbers up. "All three of us know whenever we get the ball there are going to be multiple eyes looking at us, and we have to make the right play at that moment," says James. "We're not going to see many one-on-one coverages because they'll double the basketball. But we know we're going to get more easy looks because we all can create for each other."

Who is going to take the last shot? "It's about who is going to make the right play," responds James. "I've always been a guy, even when I was in Cleveland, who has made the right play. Sometimes we lost the game, and sometimes we won the game, but I always tried to make the right play. It's not always about scoring or making the game-winner. It's about putting your teammates in position to succeed."

The Heat stars are approaching their peak years—Wade is the oldest, at 28; Bosh is 26; and James is 25—and the early returns on their partnership are promising, even though their preseason ailments (James has a tight hamstring) have prevented them from building on-court chemistry. "It's still a work in progress, because sometimes we bump into each other and go to the wrong place," says Ilgauskas, who followed James from Cleveland to Miami. "But as we figure it all out, it will work beautifully. When it clicks it looks very good."

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