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dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

He brings an instant infusion of speed, toughness and aggression every time he hits the floor.

His football background translates into a physical, intriguing and exciting style of play.

His youth and enthusiasm seem to often inspire his veteran HEAT teammates.

And 24-year-old reserve point guard Norris Cole not only understands his role in his second year in the HEAT system -- he relishes it.

"I bring a lot of energy," said Cole when asked to define his role. "I’m the young guy out there. I’m the speed demon out there so I bring a lot of energy."

The energy, speed and youth the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Cole injects into the game when he takes the floor can't be quantified statistically, but many of his other contributions can.

After playing in 17 of the HEAT's first 19 games, Cole currently ranks fourth on the HEAT with 2.3 assists per game and fifth on the club with 0.7 steals per game.

Cole also ranks eighth on the HEAT in scoring, with 5.1 points per game, and seventh in 3-point field goals made, with 6.

But maybe most importantly for the second-year (and HEAT's second-youngest) player, Cole ranks seventh on the HEAT with 19.9 minutes per game over the 17 games he's appeared in this season. That's already half a minute more than the 19.4 minutes he averaged over 65 games as a rookie last season.

HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra seems to be entrusting Cole with more and more playing time and responsibilities in his second season. Cole has logged 20 minutes or more eight times this season, and 23 minutes or more in three of his past four games.

It's easy to see why. Cole has been especially efficient and productive over his past five games, a stretch that has also seen the HEAT go 4-1. He's averaged 7.2 points, 2.0 assists, 1.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals over 22.4 minutes, hitting 16 of 33 shots (48.5%), including 3 of 6 3-pointers.

Cole has scored 8 or more points in three of those five games, including a season-high 12 in a 102-89 win over Brooklyn on Dec. 1 and 10 in a 101-92 win over Atlanta on Dec. 10. Cole also grabbed 2 rebounds and a season-high 3 steals in the win over Brooklyn, and he drilled all four of his field goal attempts, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the Atlanta game. His second 3-pointer came with 4:44 left to play and gave the HEAT their largest lead of the game at 95-82.

There's also the less-easily quantifiable or measurable contributions brought by the smart, tenacious, physical Cole, who was ready to head to Walsh University on a football scholarship before Gary Waters and Cleveland State persuaded him to dedicate his talents and passion to the hardwood. His cousin, Trent Cole, is a decorated NFL veteran defensive end, and Cole himself flexed his muscle on the gridiron as the star quarterback at Dayton, Ohio's Dunbar High when he wasn't starring on the court or in the classroom (Cole was a member of the National Honor Society and served as his class' salutatorian).

Cole became known for his tireless work ethic and willingness to sacrifice statistics for team success at Cleveland State, moving from shooting guard to point guard during his final two college seasons. That same drive and intelligence impressed Spoelstra and the HEAT staff during his first (albeit abbreviated) training camp and preseason, which saw Cole average 9.5 points and 4.5 assists and earn a serious, valuable role with a HEAT team that would go on to win the NBA title.

Cole said he put in a lot of time and hard work during his first full NBA offseason this past summer, and his familiarity with the HEAT system, coaches and teammates increased exponentially as a result.

"A lot of things are different," said Cole. "I’ve had a full training camp, which is more repetition with the coaching staff, more practices. So I’m a little more comfortable out there on the court. My first 11 games last year were actually pretty good for being a rookie. But, I think I’m more comfortable out there. I’m more poised as a point guard."

When asked to pinpoint just what area of his game has improved the most, Cole's answer was as quick as his first step.

"My decision making as a playmaker," said Cole. "I know what I’m looking for out there now. There’s no guessing. I know what the other team is doing. I know what we’re supposed to be doing. I think that’s the biggest key, being comfortable with that."

Cole may not have always known what he was doing or looking for during his rookie season, but as he said, he certainly made a quick impression after joining the HEAT as a late first-round pick from Cleveland State, where he became the first man in Horizon League history to earn both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors -- and was a finalist for the Wooden Award.

In just his second NBA game, Cole exploded for 20 points in 29 minutes against the gritty, veteran Boston Celtics (including 14 in pivotal fourth quarter), helping key a 115-107 win in the HEAT's home opener. That total remains a career high (he matched it in a 105-90 win at Indiana on Feb. 14, 2012), but Cole did manage to score 10 points or more in 20 more games, and finished his rookie season averaging 6.8 points per game. Cole also dished 4 assists or more 14 times, including a career-high 9 (to go along with 16 points) in a 129-90 win over Charlotte in just his fifth NBA game. Cole finished the season averaging an even 2.0 assists per game.

Like any rookie, Cole's scoring, along with his overall play, tended to fluctuate from game to game, opponent to opponent. That hasn't been as much of an issue this season, which has seen veteran Ray Allen take over much of the second-unit scoring load, but Cole still sees room for improvement.

"Being consistent," said Cole when asked where he needs to improve his game the most. "Not just playing one or two or three good games. Putting consecutive games together where you’re playing solid. Where you’re playing productive."

Cole has certainly been playing solid and productive lately. And HEAT fans hope to see more of the same from this exciting, aggressive, athletic and energetic young player.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

He's playing a new position.

He's giving up 20, 30, 40, 50 pounds per game on the defensive end.

He's in just his second season in the HEAT system.

But Shane Battier is getting the job done. And then some.

Battier has accomplished a lot throughout a professional basketball career that has spanned 12 seasons and three NBA teams, so it really should come as no surprise to HEAT fans that the veteran swingman is finding a way to contribute as the HEAT's 6-foot-8, 220-pound starting power forward -- many ways, to be exact.

Through the HEAT's first 11 games of the 2012-13 season, Battier ranks fifth on the HEAT in scoring at 7.5 points per game and is tied with LeBron James for second with 1.0 blocks per game. Not deterred by spending time and energy banging big bodies in the low post, Battier also ranks fifth on the club in 3-point field goal percentage at 47.1% and first in 3-pointers made per game (2.2) through the HEAT's strong 8-3 start.

A sharpshooter on a team stocked with snipers, Battier ranks 13th in the entire NBA in 3-point field goal percentage and is tied for eighth in 3-pointers made per game.

He's drilled a team-high 24 3-pointers in a team-high 51 attempts, and has hit on a sizzling 15-of-24 attempts (62.5%) over the last four games -- all on the road.

Not coincidentally, the HEAT won three of those four games, including the last two without the services of Dwyane Wade, who has been resting a sore foot.

Battier picked up his offense dramatically in those two games, scoring a season-high 18 points in a 98-93 win at Denver on Nov. 15 and 12 in a 97-88 victory at Phoenix two nights later. Battier made 10 of 15 shots in those two wins, all coming from long-range. Talk about efficient.

Battier's superior conditioning and seemingly endless energy make HEAT fans forget that he's a 34-year-old, 12-year NBA veteran, but the smarts, savvy and clutch play of the former Duke University star serve as ample reminders of his vast experience. There's so many things he does well, and many of those things don't show up in your standard box score.

Of course, Battier's value has long transcended standard statistical summation, as evidenced by the New York Times Magazine piece once penned on him by sportswriter Michael Lewis entitled "The No-Stats All-Star."

And this year has been no different -- even as Battier's positional assignment has changed, and he's transitioned from a reserve role into a starting spot.

The win in Denver serves as an ideal example of Battier's multi-faceted and versatile game. Yes, there were the season-high 18 points on the game-high six hits from long range. But there were also the handful of charging calls he drew, most of them coming at key points in the game and helping to spark or extend pivotal HEAT runs. And there were the numerous other times he recklessly yet strategically launched his sinewy, flexible frame into the teeth of the opposing offense.

At times it's almost like Battier is a skilled defensive back in a football game, locking down opponents and relentlessly hunting down the ball every time it's thrown into his airspace. And just like the defensive back often won't get talked about unless he's beaten deep or comes up with a big interception, you often won't hear much mention of Battier unless he hits the deck or drills a timely triple.

But Battier's name has been called more and more by both HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra and game announcers lately. And it's increasingly clear that despite the tough positional assignment that has him battling younger behemoths like the Nuggets' Kenneth Faried and L.A. Clippers star Blake Griffin, Battier is clearly more comfortable in the HEAT system this season than he was last year, when he joined the team as a free-agent signing just before the start of a frantic, lockout-compressed 66-game season.

Of course, Battier emerged as a valuable component of that NBA World Champion HEAT team, averaging 4.8 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.0 steals and nailing 62 3-pointers in 23.1 minutes off the bench in 65 games. He did serve as a starter in 10 games, mostly filling in for Wade at shooting guard, but seeing some time at small forward as well.

The former No. 6 overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft was even more valuable during the HEAT's playoff run to their second NBA title, averaging 7.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.0 steals in 33.4 minutes a game. His value, role and confidence continuing to grow as the season and postseason progressed, Battier ended up starting 16 of 23 postseason games, mostly at the small forward position, and nailing a HEAT-high 42 3-pointers during the title run.

Battier was especially prolific during the HEAT's five-game NBA Finals win over Oklahoma City, scoring 9 or more points in four of the five games, including 17 in each of the first two and 11 in the closeout game. He canned a remarkable 15 of 26 shots from long-range (57.7%) and grabbed 4 or more rebounds three times. As usual, Battier's all-around game was strong in many other areas, and he helped limit the extremely explosive, young Thunder to under 100 points in three of the five games.

Battier has continued to provide sweet shooting from long-range this season, while somehow managing to mix in spirited defense against men often much larger and longer than him down in the paint.

It's been a win-win sort of situation, as the continued evolution of James' own post game, along with Chris Bosh's move to center, allows Battier to sneak and float back outside for good looks at 3-point shots fairly often on the offensive end, and he has continued to drain those shots when they matter most.

So you might say Shane Battier is doing for the HEAT what he's always done during his decorated basketball career -- a little bit of everything.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

It's not often that a 6-foot-11 man overflowing with talent and passion gets overlooked.

Yet somehow, this seems to happen from time to time with Chris Bosh.

Maybe it's because he plays alongside reigning NBA MVP and NBA Finals MVP LeBron James and high-flying franchise face Dwyane Wade. Perhaps it's because the league's all-time 3-point marksman, Ray Allen, has been making headlines and clutch shots since he joined the HEAT after five seasons with the rival Boston Celtics this offseason. Or maybe it's because Bosh is as humble, unassuming and down-to-earth as a towering, uber-athletic seven-time All-Star and former No. 4 overall draft pick is capable of being.

It's probably a bit of all these things. And it's almost certainly no big deal to Bosh, who prefers to let his play do the talking.

And through the first four games of the 2012-13 season, the 28-year-old Bosh has been playing at such a high volume, nobody can ignore the sweet sounds.

Thriving in his new role as the starting center on a title-defending team, the one-time HEAT power forward is leading the club in field-goal percentage (58.3%) and blocks (1.5 blocks per game), and is second to only James in scoring (22.3 points per game), rebounding (8.0 rebounds per game) and field-goal attempts (60). Bosh is also second to only Wade in free-throw attempts with 20, and ranks third in free-throw percentage (hitting 18 of his 20 attempts from the line for an even 90%) as the HEAT have raced out to a 3-1 start.

Bosh opened the season with back-to-back double-doubles in his new role, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a 120-107 win over Boston in the season opener and chipping in 12 points and 11 rebounds in a 104-84 loss at New York three nights later.

Then, the following night, Bosh turned in an absolutely electric performance in a thrilling 119-116 win over Denver with a game-high 40 points and 7 rebounds. The 40 points marked a HEAT high for Bosh, who hit 15 of 22 field goals in his breakout game, including 1 of 3 3-pointers, and was 9 of 10 from the free-throw line. He also had 2 assists and a steal in the win, which saw him score 20 points in each half and reach the 30-point mark with 7:28 remaining in the third quarter.

HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra said later that he called only "two or three plays" for Bosh in that game, if that many. Bosh himself talked about being in the flow during the game...and boy, was he ever.

Two nights later, Bosh scored a HEAT-high 18 points in the first half of a rousing 124-99 win over Phoenix, closing with 18 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks in just 25 minutes on the floor. Bosh drained 7 of 10 field goals and was a perfect 4 for 4 from the free-throw line. He also picked up the 700th block of his highlight-laden career.

The 38 combined points marked the most Bosh had scored in the first half of back-to-back games since he racked up 38 from January 19-20, 2010.

While the abundance of offensive options up and down the HEAT roster means that Bosh doesn't always explode for big scoring games, good things seem to happen with the HEAT whenever Bosh does go on a scoring spree.

Bosh scored 20 or more points 22 times during the truncated 2011-2012 season, in which he made 57 starts, and the HEAT went 19-3 in those games. When Bosh scored 30 or more points, the HEAT were a flawless 5-0.

As HEAT fans know, Bosh was highly instrumental in the club's Championship run last season, averaging 18.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 0.8 blocks in the regular season and 14.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.0 block and 0.6 assists in 14 postseason games (he suffered an abdominal strain in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals series against Indiana that caused him to miss 9 playoff games).

Bosh fought back from the injury and returned just in time to help the HEAT vanquish the rival Boston Celtics in a grueling 7-game Eastern Conference Finals series, capped by a strong 19-point, 8-rebound performance in the HEAT's 101-88 Game 7 victory.

Displaying toughness and talent alike, Bosh shone even brighter in the HEAT's 4-1 NBA Finals win over Oklahoma City, averaging 14.6 points and 9.4 rebounds and grabbing 9 or more rebounds in 3 of the 5 games. Bosh was huge in the closeout game, scoring 24 points, grabbing 7 rebounds and blocking 2 shots as the HEAT clinched their second NBA title with a 121-106 win at AmericanAirlines Arena.

But perhaps the most telling stat was the HEAT's 5-4 record when Bosh was not in uniform last postseason. Without the versatile big man in the mix, the Pacers and Celtics were able to assign extra attention and defenders to James and Wade, and the HEAT had to work much harder on the boards, both offensively and defensively.

All these numbers tell the tale of a player who is incredibly valuable to the HEAT, whether he's jumping center or manning the power forward position. But while the talented Texan's many contributions for the HEAT often jump out of box scores the way he sometimes explodes for a thunderous, screaming dunk in a manner that recalls the days of Alonzo Mourning, numbers don't often tell the full story about this unique player.

Bosh's energy and enthusiasm seem to set the tone for the HEAT at times, and when he's really in the flow of the offense, the team becomes nearly unstoppable. Few players who stand almost seven feet tall can even begin to display the array of skills that Bosh embodies, and watching the 6-foot-11, 235 pound Bosh splash silky smooth jumpers, deliver pinpoint bounce passes into the paint and soar for emphatic two-hand slams is truly a joy for basketball fans -- especially HEAT fans. In addition to his lifetime 49.3% shooting from the floor, Bosh is a superior free-throw shooter, carrying an even 80.0% career average from the charity stripe.

And over the past few seasons, Bosh has added the 3-point shot to his arsenal, draining 10 of 35 long-range daggers (28.6%) last regular season and a sizzling 7 of 13 (53.8%) in the HEAT's championship playoff run. So far this season, he's canned 1 of 6 from long-range, and with so many lethal long-range shooters now in the HEAT rotation, it's not a shot that Bosh will likely launch too often.

It's clear that Bosh is a unique, efficient and energetic asset to the HEAT, and his continued evolution can only mean more good things to come for the club -- and all the HEAT fans.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

He stands a towering, sinewy 6-foot-10.

He can step in and contribute at either forward position.

He has the knowledge, toughness and vision that can only be gained from 14 years of NBA experience.

He ranks eighth in NBA history -- and fifth among active players -- in made 3-point field goals (with 1,690 and counting).

He has averaged over 16 points and 5 rebounds (16.1 and 5.6, to be exact) while playing for three teams in 934 NBA regular-season games.

He has been an NBA All-Star twice, and played in the NBA Finals once (knocking LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers out of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals as the star scorer for the Orlando Magic).

And now, Rashard Lewis is ready for the next chapter of his highly decorated and compelling career -- as a member of the 2012 World Champion Miami HEAT.

The HEAT didn't need to tweak too much following a blistering run to the franchise's second World Championship. After all, LeBron James won Regular Season and NBA Finals MVP honors while franchise face Dwyane Wade and versatile, valuable big man Chris Bosh helped stoke a red-hot run that culminated in a five-game triumph over the talented young Oklahoma City Thunder.

Of course, life in today's NBA requires constant roster evolution, management and flexibility. So a few key pieces were added, with NBA all-time 3-point marksman Ray Allen and fellow silky smooth sharpshooter Lewis leading the way.

Each veteran brings an array of proven skills, experience and insight to the already deep HEAT roster. But only Lewis possesses the rarest of rare blends of size and shooting ability. Not only is Lewis 6-foot-10, but he possesses a massive wingspan, and he's a career 45.4% shooter from the field, including 38.8% from long distance.

It's not too many near-7-footers who can step back and knock down clutch 3-pointers. It's even fewer who can do so with enough accuracy, consistency and variety to rank among the Top 10 long-distance snipers in NBA history.

But that's exactly what the 33-year-old Lewis has done during a remarkable career that saw him enter the NBA as a second-round draft pick of the Seattle SuperSonics (who later became the Thunder) straight out of Houston's Alief Elsik High School in 1998. Lewis went on to play nine seasons as a teammate of Allen's in Seattle, averaging over 20 points a game in each of the final three, including a career-high 22.4 in 2006-07.

The following season, his first as a member of the Magic following a lucrative signing as a free agent, Lewis canned a career-best 226 3-pointers. A year later, Lewis led the NBA with 220 3-point field goal makes, and helped budding center (and new Los Angeles Laker) Dwight Howard lead Orlando to the 2009 NBA Finals, where they fell to the Lakers in five games. It was during that postseason run that Lewis helped the Magic knock off James' Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Lewis went on to star for the Magic for parts of two more years before being traded to the Washington Wizards during the 2010-11 season. Lewis was limited by knee soreness during the lockout-shortened season that saw the HEAT roar to the title, playing in 28 games for Washington in 2012, including 15 starts. Lewis still managed to average 7.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.0 assists in just 26.0 minutes per game. He ended up playing in 60 overall games as a Wizard, starting 42 of them.

Now a proud member of the HEAT following his offseason signing, Lewis has patiently worked his way into the mix during the start of 2012-13 preseason play. Erik Spoelstra and his staff have gradually expanded Lewis' reserve role, and he turned in his finest performance yet in a 104-102 win over San Antonio on Oct. 20. Lewis scored a HEAT-high 15 points and added 4 steals and 3 rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench in the comeback win. He drained 6-of-9 field goal attempts, including 3-of-6 from three-point range, and scored 11 of his 15 points during a game-turning 27-point fourth quarter by the HEAT.

In five games off the bench, Lewis has averaged 7.4 points, shooting 13-of-27 from the field, including 6-of-16 from long range. He's also averaged 2.2 rebounds in 19.6 minutes as he begins to find his rhythm and role while adjusting to a new team in a new city. Including two games in Beijing, China during a hectic preseason. Talk about long range...

Lewis' range, ranginess, versatility, experience and team-first attitude certainly make for an attractive package, and Spoelstra and HEAT fans alike are excited to see what the veteran big man with the sweet stroke and unique skill set will bring to the HEAT as they gear up for what promises to be an electrifying title defense. As a new member of a tight-knit, successful and veteran team, Lewis' ideal role and rhythm will take a little time to crystalize, much as we witnessed with point guard Norris Cole during his fascinating rookie season last year.

One thing is for sure -- it will be hard to miss Lewis when he takes the floor for the HEAT.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

“This is very overwhelming to me as an individual award, but this is not the award I want, ultimately. I want that championship. That’s all that matters to me. --LeBron James, upon being named NBA MVP on May 12, 2012

He is closer now. And he appears hungrier than ever before.

LeBron James claimed his third NBA MVP trophy in the past four years by averaging 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.8 blocks in his second season in a HEAT uniform. He shot a career-best 53.1 percent from the floor and led the HEAT to a 46-20 mark and a second consecutive Southeast Division title during a grueling, lockout-compressed campaign. In receiving 85 of 121 first-place votes, James became only the eighth player in NBA history to win MVP honors at least three times, joining Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Moses Malone and the player he has often drawn comparisons to, Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

But as great as James was during the regular season, he's been even greater during the 2012 NBA Playoffs. And as the challenges and pressure have mounted with each subsequent round, James has elevated his game to new levels each time.

From a purely statistical level, the progression looks like this, with both James' scoring and rebounding averages rising in stride with the stakes:

--Averages of 27.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.2 steals in 5 games against the New York Knicks. James scored 30 or more points twice in that series and did not register a 10-rebound game. He handed out 5 or more assists 3 times.

--Averages of 30.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.7 steals and 0.7 blocks in 6 games against the Indiana Pacers. James scored 30 or more points three times (including 40 points in Game 4) and grabbed 10 or more rebounds three times. James grabbed 15 or more boards twice in that series, including a playoff-high 18 in that same Game 4. James also handed out at least 5 assists in 5 of the 6 games.

--Averages of 33.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks in 7 games against the Boston Celtics. James scored 30 or more points in 6 of the 7 games (including playoff-high 45 in Game 6) and grabbed 10 rebounds or more five times. In the one game James failed to reach the 30-point mark, he scored 29. He also grabbed 12 boards or more four times, including in each of the last three games. And perhaps most impressively, James racked up at least 30 points and 10 rebounds together in the same game five times.

So if you're scoring at home, that's 11 games of 30 or more points in 18 total playoff games. Eight games with at least 10 rebounds. Eleven games with at least 5 assists. And postseason averages of 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.8 blocks. In other words, even James' average is about as far above average as you can get.

Of course, elite athletic competition is about more than just statistics. James' eye-popping numbers throughout the HEAT's postseason run don't completely illustrate just how dominant, active, versatile and valuable he has been, particularly on defense. And James' awesome averages in this last series -- he became the first player since Shaquille O'Neal in the 2000 NBA Finals to have six 30-point games in a playoff series -- are even more impressive when you consider they came against a veteran, battle-tested Celtics team in the Eastern Conference Finals, with a trip to the NBA Finals hanging in the balance.

When the Celtics won the middle three games to take a commanding 3-2 lead and push the HEAT to the brink of elimination, James donned a serious game face and stormed out the gates to lead his team to back-to-back wins by averaging 38.0 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

James' overpowering 45-point, 15-rebound, 5-assist performance in Game 6 was only the second time such a stat line had been recorded in NBA playoff history. The other player to reach such staggering heights? Wilt Chamberlain.

James doesn't possess the same towering presence as the 7-foot-1 Chamberlin did, but his game can be every bit as huge. And in that pivotal Game 6 road win on June 7, it was absolutely gigantic.

Playing in front of a rowdy Boston crowd and facing playoff elimination, James made 12 of his first 13 shots en route to an incredible 19-of-26 shooting performance in that game. He scored 14 first-quarter points and added 16 more in the second quarter, setting a HEAT playoff scoring record for a first half. James and the HEAT would wear down the Celtics and roll to a 98-79 victory and another shot at a Finals appearance -- which James helped deliver with 31 points, 12 rebounds and 2 assists in a 101-88 Game 7 win at AmericanAirlines Arena.

"He was absolutely brilliant this series, and we all know it," said HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra. "He's playing at an historic level during the playoffs, driving us with his will...He is pushing himself beyond his limits, and he's pushing the rest of the team as well."

Of course, the final chapter of this sizzling story remains to be written. James and his hungry HEAT teammates will begin to author an ending starting Tuesday, June 12 in Oklahoma City. Awaiting them will be the deep, fast, athletic and energetic Thunder and Kevin Durant, who led the NBA in scoring at 28.0 points a game and finished second in MVP voting to James. And Durant has been penning his own personal passion play in these playoffs, scoring 30 or more points and grabbing at least 10 rebounds six times in 15 games.

The stakes have been raised once again. And James looks ready to continue elevating his own game.

He wants that championship. And it is now only four wins away.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

The Eastern Conference Finals are upon us again.

This time around, that means a HEAT-Boston Celtics matchup.

And when it comes to the Celtics, the name that seems to come up most these days is Rajon Rondo.

Even a casual look at the 2012 NBA Playoffs makes it quite difficult to ignore the impact of Boston's 6-foot-1, 186-pound point guard. A closer look makes it hard not to say something like "wow".

Rondo has averaged 15.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and an eye-popping 12.3 assists in 12 playoff games so far. He's recorded a points-assists double-double in all but two of those games, and notched 3 triple-doubles, including an 18-point, 10-rebound and 10-assist effort in the Celtics' 85-75 closeout win in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series against Philadelphia. Rondo also registered a triple-double in the first game of that series, scoring 13 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and handing out 17 assists.

Amazing numbers from a dynamic player, to be sure.

But as HEAT fans can quickly attest to, his opponent at the point guard position is also in the midst of his own strong playoff run.

And Mario Chalmers seems to be playing at a higher and higher level as the postseason moves on.

In 11 playoff games, the HEAT's fourth-year point guard is averaging 11.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.0 steals. He's shooting 43.3 percent from the field, including 40.0 percent from 3-point range, and 77.4 percent from the free-throw line.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Chalmers' scoring average is fourth-best on the HEAT during the playoffs, his rebounding average is tied with Dwyane Wade for fourth-best, his assist average is third-best (just behind Wade's 3.6 average), his steals average is tied with Shane Battier for third-best and his 3-point percentage is third-best, just behind Mike Miller's 40.5%.

Chalmers' playoff scoring, assist, rebounding and 3-point shooting numbers are all equal to or better than his regular-season statistics, and he's had a couple huge individual performances of his own this postseason.

Chalmers scored 19 points and grabbed 7 rebounds and 3 steals in an 87-70 win at Madison Square Garden in Game 3 of the opening-round series against the Knicks. He netted a game-high 25 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and handed out 5 assists in a 94-75 loss in Indianapolis in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pacers. Two games later, he scored 8 points, handed out 3 assists and grabbed a HEAT- and career-high 11 rebounds in a 115-83 Game 5 win. And in the closeout Game 6, Chalmers scored 15 points as the HEAT rolled to a 105-93 victory and advanced to meet the Celtics.

Over the last four games, Chalmers has averaged 14.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He's also hit 20 of 37 shots from the field, including 6 of 11 from behind the 3-point arc. The HEAT have won three of those four games, and in the one defeat, Chalmers scored a playoff career-high 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting.

For the HEAT to continue to advance and reach their second consecutive NBA Finals, Chalmers will need to continue to play and score at a high level. He'll also be asked to step up his defense against the cat-quick, multi-dimensional, frequently-brilliant Rondo, who averaged 18.6 points, 13.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds in three regular-season games against the HEAT.

The Celtics won two of those three games, but Chalmers did account for six steals, including a season-high five in the HEAT's 115-107 win in Miami on Dec. 27. In order for the HEAT to knock off the seasoned and savvy Celtics, the HEAT will need that kind of disruptive defensive effort from Chalmers throughout, although Dwyane Wade and NBA MVP LeBron James will possibly also be handed some sort of defensive assignment against the wiry and fiery Rondo.

Chalmers is not the prototypical point guard, nor a prolific assist machine in the mold of Rondo, but he does have impressive skills as a facilitator in his own right, and his versatility, confidence and shot-making ability are assets that continue to make him a highly valuable cog in the HEAT machine.

As these two Eastern Conference powers prepare for an intense showdown with a ticket to the NBA Finals on the line, the HEAT's point guard appears ready to rumble with Rondo.

It should be a very good show, indeed.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

The HEAT are on to the next round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, having defeated the New York Knicks in five games to advance to a showdown with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

But while the first round was all about overcoming a superstar scorer and vanquishing a long-loathed rival, this particular matchup figures to be decided in the trenches a little bit more.

And when you take a close look at the Pacers' power rotation, it's easy to see why HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra declared, "The team we'll be facing is a physical team."

The Pacers are anchored by massive 7-foot-2, 260-pound center Roy Hibbert, who achieved All-Star status this season while averaging 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. They also feature rugged 6-foot-9, 260-pound veteran David West and blossoming, blitzing backup Tyler Hansbrough (6-foot-9, 250) at the power forward position, with 6-foot-9, 225-pound journeyman Lou Amundson another big sparkplug option off their bench.

Much more a collective unit than the Carmelo Anthony-led Knicks, the Pacers went 42-24 in the lockout shortened regular season, then breezed by the Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic in five games in their opening playoff series. Hibbert (11.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.8 blocks) and West (15.8 points, 9.6 rebounds) absolutely dominated inside against the Magic, and to emerge victorious and reach the Eastern Conference Finals for a second consecutive season, the HEAT will have to receive efficient, energetic and passionate play from their own power rotation.

HEAT center Chris Bosh more than held his own against Knicks center and NBA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, averaging 15.0 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 51.0% from the field. And power forward Udonis Haslem averaged 3.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, grabbing 7 or more boards in three of the five games -- despite averaging just 19 minutes per game.

With the Knicks relying on most of their offense from Anthony and fellow wing player J.R. Smith, Spoelstra didn't dip too deep into his power rotation, electing instead to play veteran wings Shane Battier and Mike Miller for long stretches of time. But when he was called upon, HEAT center Joel Anthony displayed his customary energy and athletic ability, averaging 1.6 points and 3.4 blocks in just 17 minutes per game. Anthony was especially impressive in the final two games against the Knicks, scoring 4 points and grabbing 6 rebounds in 19 minutes in Game 4 and chipping in 4 points and 5 rebounds during 19 minutes of action in the closeout Game 5.

The perimeter-oriented series meant that veteran forward-center Ronny Turiaf saw even less action, appearing in just 7 minutes of Game 1. But the 6-foot-10, 246-pound Turiaf did manage 3 rebounds and 1 block in that time on the floor, and he figures to play more of a role against the inside-out attack of the Pacers. Turiaf was rock-solid for the HEAT in the 13 games since his signing, averaging 3.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.1 block in just 17 minutes a game. He even started five games at center for the HEAT, averaging 4.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in those five games.

The HEAT went 3-1 in four regular-season games against the Pacers, and it was telling that they won the rebounding battle decisively in all three victories. In the one HEAT loss, a 105-90 defeat in Indianapolis on March 26, the Pacers won the battle of the boards 49-33. But overall, in the four games, the HEAT held a 171-157 edge.

Turiaf appeared in just one of those four games, scoring 6 points, grabbing 5 boards and blocking a shot in 17 minutes off the bench in the one HEAT loss. Anthony played heavily in all four games, starting at center and averaging 5.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 22.3 minutes. If both players can repeat that production during this postseason series, the HEAT should be in excellent position to advance confidently into the Eastern Conference Finals.

Haslem also put up big numbers against the Pacers in the regular season, averaging 5.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in 24 minutes. The hard-nosed veteran came off the bench in all four of those games, and hauled in 9 or more rebounds in three of the four. Now in a starting power forward role, Haslem will have his hands full with the bruising duo of West and Hansbrough. His game is somewhat similar to West's, however, and he should be up for the challenge of neutralizing Indiana's second-leading playoff scorer. Both Anthony and Turiaf can lend a hand off the bench, with their shot-blocking acumen being of particular value.

Bosh played all four regular season games against Indiana, but started at the power forward position, alongside then-starting center Anthony. Bosh averaged 15.5 points and 5.3 rebounds, and posted a 22-point, 6-rebound outing in a 118-83 home win on Jan. 4. It will be interesting to see how the veteran Bosh matches up against the towering Hibbert in the middle this time around, and he should have a decided edge when it comes to quickness, being nearly 30 pounds lighter than the still-developing and more methodical former Georgetown star.

It all adds up to an interesting series of matchups in the trenches, and when you factor in the added intensity and physicality of playoff basketball, it should get even more interesting.

Come Sunday, we'll get a better idea just how physical this series will be.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

HEAT. Knicks. NBA Playoffs.

Need we say more?

In case you do want or need more, we'll dive into it all deeper now. And we'll take a closer look at what promises to be a heavily exciting, competitive and talked-about playoff series starting Saturday.

The two teams collided in the playoffs four consecutive times from 1997 to 2000, but the hotly contested and ultra-physical postseason rivalry has laid dormant since then. Until now.

And if this lockout-compressed regular season is any indication of what's to come starting Saturday, we should have yet another riveting HEAT-Knicks playoff battle on our hands.

This season, the 46-20 HEAT went 3-0 against the 36-30 Knicks, with each game playing out as great theater. Here's a closer look at those games:

Jan. 27: HEAT 99, Knicks 89

Boosted by the return of Dwyane Wade from a 6-game layoff due to an ankle sprain, the HEAT built a 52-48 halftime lead and rolled to a 10-point win at AmericanAirlines Arena. Wade scored 28 points, including 18 in the first half, and added a season-high 5 steals and 4 assists. LeBron James racked up a game-high 31 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, to go along with a game-high 7 assists and 8 rebounds. The HEAT survived 18 3-point field goals from the Knicks, including 7 from reserve Bill Walker. Neither forward Carmelo Anthony nor guard Jeremy Lin played for New York. Knicks center Tyson Chandler scored 9 points and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds. The Knicks fell to 7-12 after the loss, while the HEAT moved to 14-5.

Feb. 23: HEAT 102, Knicks 88

The HEAT rolled into the NBA All-Star Game break riding an 8-game winning streak after rolling the Knicks once again at home -- and putting a dramatic damper on the "Linsanity" that was swirling around new point guard Lin. Chris Bosh scored a game-high 25 points and grabbed 8 rebounds, Wade added 22 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists and James racked up 20 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists and a season-high 5 steals. The HEAT were everywhere early and often in this game, shooting a sizzling 49.4% from the floor, grabbing 12 steals and blocking 10 shots. Anthony scored 19 points for New York, but Lin, in his lone appearance against the HEAT, struggled to just 8 points on 1-of-11 shooting. Lin also turned the ball over 8 times with just 3 assists. The HEAT sizzled into the All-Star break at an NBA-best 27-7 following the win, while the resurgent Knicks entered the break at 17-18.

April 15: HEAT 93, Knicks 85

In their lone trip to Madison Square Garden this season, the HEAT ended a 9-game home win streak for the Knicks, closing out the game on an 18-6 run to survive a 42-point outburst from Anthony. James scored 29 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, Wade added 29 points and 9 boards and Bosh chipped in 16 points and 14 rebounds. The loss was just the fifth in the previous 18 games for the Knicks, who fell to 31-29 afterward. The HEAT concluded their regular season sweep of the Knicks and improved to 42-17 overall. Anthony was sensational, scoring his 42 points on 14-of-27 shooting from the floor and adding 9 rebounds. J.R. Smith added 16 points and 7 rebounds off the bench, but the rest of the Knicks struggled all game long.

Of course, that's all in the past now. And as the two teams gear up to face off again now, a few things come to mind.

--The HEAT's stars should be well rested. Wade played in just 2 of HEAT's final 7 games, James saw action just once in the final 4 and Bosh was held out of each of the last 6. Wade averaged 26.3 points in 3 games against Knicks this season, while James averaged 26.7 points and 8.7 boards. Bosh will be looked upon to help neutralize the aggressive and long-limbed Chandler, who often gave the HEAT fits as a member of the Dallas Mavericks during last year's NBA Finals. Bosh cleaned up on the glass with 14 rebounds in the teams' last meetings, and the HEAT would love to see that kind of production throughout this series. In fact, it would likely prove pivotal.

--Anthony is in the zone right now. The HEAT need to do everything in their power to nudge the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Anthony out of his rapidly expanding comfort zone. Anthony averaged 22.6 points on 43-percent shooting in 55 games this season, but over his final 14 games, he scored 30 or more points 8 times, including 39 or more 4 times. Whereas Lin became a focal point under since-departed head coach Mike D'Antoni's pick-and-roll offense, the loss of Lin to a knee injury and the ascension of former assistant Mike Woodson to the head coaching job has put Anthony back where he always longs to be -- front and center. Anthony averaged 30.5 points in 2 games against the HEAT this season, including that 42-point explosion in their last meeting.

--Amar'e Stoudemire can't be forgotten. The veteran big man struggled a bit for the Knicks this season, averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds in just 47 games. In 2 games against the HEAT this season, Stoudemire managed just 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, hitting just 9 of 21 field goal attempts. But Stoudemire looked strong in the season's final 4 games, scoring 15 points or more 3 times and hitting 56.3% of his shots from the field as the Knicks went 3-1 during a crucial late-season sprint. The 29-year-old Stoudemire is not near the ultra-athletic leaper he once was, but he can still erupt and score points in bunches. He can also team with Chandler down low to disrupt teams' offenses, as he showed by blocking 8 shots during that final, pressure-packed 4-game stretch.

--The HEAT can break the Knicks on the fast break. With Wade and James bounding into this series on fresh legs, the HEAT will look to revive the dazzling, daring and devastating fast break attack that made them so hard to beat this season. The HEAT are at their best when their dynamic duo is playing pitch-and-catch at a high level and on a high wire, and these kinds of plays tend to not only suck the winds out of an opponent's sails, but also send the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd into a raucous frenzy. When the HEAT beat the Knicks the first time this season, Wade came back at home after 6 games off and was flying all around AmericanAirlines Arena. Several early dunks and blocks by Wade and James staked the HEAT to a big early lead, got the crowd energized and led to a 10-point home win. More of the same Saturday would be huge.

Those are just some of the many things to keep an eye on as the newest chapter in HEAT-Knicks unfolds starting Saturday, with Game 2 set for Monday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

No matter what you do, don't take either eye off the court for too long. Because this seems destined to be more great HEAT-Knicks theater.

Stay tuned...

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

The NBA Draft is not the NFL Draft.

It doesn't eat up an entire long weekend. It doesn't stretch seven longer rounds. It doesn't regularly see future Hall Of Famers fall far below where they were expected to be selected.

The NBA Draft has two rounds. One. Two. That's it. And if you're a second-round pick, especially a late second-round pick, the chances of you ascending to stardom are quite slim.

And if you're not drafted at all...well, then you're really looking at an uphill battle for anything like a meaningful role. In fact, even sticking on a roster is quite the long shot.

Which makes the story of Joel Anthony all the more compelling.

The 6-foot-9, 245-pound Anthony is one of just three HEAT players who were not selected in the NBA Draft. And much like Udonis Haslem, Anthony plays an incredibly valuable and significant role.

The starting center for the HEAT for much of the past two seasons, the 29-year-old Anthony is a brilliant screen-setter, superior shot-blocker and excellent all-around athlete. Whether starting or coming off the bench during his five-season stint with the HEAT, Anthony has always provided maximum effort and energy, and frequently disrupts the other team's offense with his aggressive and timely shot-blocking.

Despite averaging just 21.0 minutes a game, Anthony is tied with Dwyane Wade for the HEAT lead with 1.3 blocks per game. Anthony has swatted away 2 shots or more in 23 of his 58 games this season, and the HEAT have a 17-6 record in those 23 games. He's had 4 games where he's blocked at least 4 shots, and the HEAT are 4-0 in those games. And in a thrilling 101-98 win at New Jersey on April 16, Anthony registered his 400th career block, already good enough for fourth-best in HEAT history.

Anthony's offensive game is still a work in progress, but his average of 3.3 points per game is the second-highest of his five-year career, and his 54.6% field goal percentage is a career-high and leads all HEAT players. During the HEAT's current 3-game win streak, Anthony has averaged 7.3 points, hitting 8 of 11 shots from the field — while pulling down 12 rebounds and swatting 6 shots. Anthony is also a solid free-throw shooter for a power player, averaging 67.0% during his career and 70.1% this season. His average of 3.9 rebounds per game is also sixth best on the HEAT, and represents a career-high.

All rock-solid statistics for an undrafted player. But even more impressive when you consider that Anthony didn't even grow up in the United States. And that the native Canadian once dreamed of hearing his name called in that longer, deeper, trickier NFL Draft (that dream was modified a bit when he grew 6 inches one summer to stand 6-foot-6 at age 16).

Anthony's path to the NBA has certainly been a long and unusual one. After prepping at Selwyn House School and Dawson College in his native Montreal, Anthony was recruited by Pensacola Junior College. Following two years of relentless work on and off the court, he transferred to former powerhouse program UNLV, where he led the Runnin' Rebels in blocked shots as a junior.

During his senior season, Anthony helped lead UNLV to a 30-7 record and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16, and was named the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year. His average of 6.77 blocks per 40 minutes was second in all of NCAA Division I basketball. He even had a monster 13-block game against TCU that season — one of just 17 times a player has blocked 13 shots or more since the NCAA began compiling block stats in 1985. Anthony also averaged 5.0 points per game in his final college season, shooting 60.0% from the floor.

Then-UNLV coach Lon Kruger called Anthony "the hardest worker we've had in 30 years." But that work ethic wasn't enough to earn Anthony an NBA contract via the Draft. So Anthony did what he's always done. He kept working. Hard.

Anthony showed up at his first HEAT training camp undrafted but also undaunted, and the HEAT liked what they saw enough to sign him to a one-year deal in July 2007. Anthony made 24 appearances as a HEAT rookie in the 2007-08 season, averaging 3.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 20.8 minutes per game. He continued to log extensive hours on and off the court, making his sculpted body even stronger through the HEAT's renowned conditioning program.

Anthony appeared in 145 games over the next two seasons, starting 44 of them. He averaged a career-best 1.4 blocks in each of those seasons, and in July 2010, the HEAT signed Anthony to a new 5-year contract. He appeared in 75 games last season, starting 11 of them, and averaged 2.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 19.5 minutes. He also shot a sizzling 53.5% from the field.

Now a staple of the HEAT roster, Anthony has come a long way from Canada and Florida junior colleges. And he figures to play a vital role once again as the HEAT begin to gear up for a strong playoff run.

"All the things that he does, we value," said HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra. "He's not an offensive juggernaut but he helps our offense. He's our best screener, he plays with energy, he gets up the court. In terms of our team defense, I don't know if there's five better centers in this league — in terms of speed and quickness, ability to cover ground, his intelligence — that fits into what we do."

Anthony is definitely a great fit for the HEAT.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

Preparation pays off.

And in the NBA, you never know when your number might be called.

Veteran reserve sharpshooter James Jones reminded HEAT fans of the value of staying ready recently, scoring 18 vital points by draining 6 clutch 3-pointers off the bench in a 98-75 win over Detroit on April 8.

Fellow veteran swingman Shane Battier has done the same all season, providing a little bit of everything off the bench and stepping in to start 8 games at various spots on the schedule during this grueling, compressed season.

And so has Ronny Turiaf. He just hasn't been with the HEAT quite as long. Not even close, actually.

Jones has had four years to learn the HEAT system, and adjust to his various roles within it. Battier joined the HEAT during the offseason, and has appeared in all 56 games this season.

In stark contrast, the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Turiaf has only been with the HEAT since March 21. And before jumping right into the fire down in the low post, the rugged power forward/center had barely played all season.

Turiaf was sent from Washington to Denver at the NBA trading deadline on March 15. The Nuggets immediately bought out Turiaf's contract, he cleared waivers, and the HEAT eagerly signed the 7-year veteran.

Turiaf played in just the first 4 games for the Wizards, missing the next 2-plus months with a broken hand. In those 4 games, Turiaf averaged 1.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in just 11.8 minutes, shooting a perfect 3-for-3 from the floor.

But when Turiaf signed with the HEAT, he was ready to mix it up again down low, and coach Erik Spoelstra wasted no time inserting him in the mix. Turiaf played 11:28 off the bench in an 88-73 win at Detroit, scoring 4 points and grabbing 4 rebounds. Turiaf also added an assist and a steal in his high-energy debut, and hit both of his shot attempts from the field.

The 29-year-old Turiaf has continued to play a valuable role for the HEAT, even starting the past 5 games at center. In 11 games in a HEAT uniform, he's averaged 3.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 15.7 minutes. He's shot 53.6% from the field, and drained 6 of his first 7 shots. And every time he's on the floor, it's nearly impossible not to notice his powerful blend of energy, athleticism, aggressiveness and leaping ability.

Turiaf scored 8 points, pulled down 9 rebounds and blocked 2 shots in 21:57 of the same game Jones dominated recently, and in his first start for the HEAT, he scored 6 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and swatted 2 shots in a 99-93 win over Philadelphia.

Turiaf's sky-high shooting percentage leads the HEAT, who are shooting 47.3% overall as a team. The 1.1 blocks per game is second-best on the club, just behind Dwyane Wade and Joel Anthony's 1.3 average. And the 4.1 rebounds per game are good for fifth-best, just above Anthony's 4.0 average. In fact, Turiaf has pulled down 5 rebounds or more in 5 of his 11 games with the HEAT.

The fast success shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to anyone who's followed Turiaf over the course of his career.

In 7 seasons with 5 different teams, Turiaf has proved durable, productive and valuable, averaging 5.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.4 blocks while shooting 53.0% from the field in 17.5 minutes per game. His most productive season came in 2008-09, when he averaged 6.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.1 blocks in 21.3 minutes for Golden State. All those numbers except scoring average were career highs, and Turiaf also appeared in a career-high 79 games for the Warriors that season, starting a career-high 26.

That standout season came one year after he helped the Los Angeles Lakers reach the 2008 NBA Finals, where they eventually fell to the Boston Celtics in 6 games. The Lakers went 57-25 that season, and Turiaf averaged a career-high 6.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.4 blocks in 18.4 minutes. He played in 78 of those 82 games, starting 21 of them. During the Lakers' 19-game playoff run, Turiaf averaged 2.0 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.0 blocks while shooting 58.8% from the field in 9.8 minutes per game.

Turiaf has had a rock-solid career in the NBA's trenches, certainly not the most common course for a player who learned the game on the tiny Caribbean island of Martinique before playing his high school ball in Paris. After his eye-opening time at Paris' National Institute of Physical Education, Turiaf decided to trek out to the American West, accepting a scholarship to play for upstart Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

Turiaf was a standout for four years for the Zags, earning All-West Coast Conference accolades during his final three seasons and WCC Player Of The Year honors after leading the conference in scoring as a senior. Turiaf averaged 13.6 points and 6.9 rebounds during his four-year college career, including 15.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game as a senior.

After his decorated career at Gonzaga, Turiaf was selected in the second round of the 2005 NBA Draft, with the 37th overall pick, by the Lakers. He was a valuable and versatile member of the Lakers roster for three seasons, and a favorite of the notoriously demanding Kobe Bryant during his stay in L.A.

Now, he's a key component in the HEAT's march toward the postseason.

dbarmmer

Battier Battles On

By Dylan Barmmer

Imagine you are playing for your third NBA team in two seasons.

Imagine you are in your 12th season overall, and 5 months away from your 34th birthday.

Imagine you had hardly any time to familiarize yourself with your new coaches, teammates, city or surroundings before being thrust into a prominent, multi-dimensional role as the bench leader of a deep, talented team.

Imagine much of this was happening while you battled lingering quadriceps and calf injuries.

Imagine you are Shane Battier.

The prize acquisition of the HEAT's offseason, the versatile, veteran Battier is averaging a respectable 4.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks in 22.5 minutes per game. He's played in all 52 of the HEAT's games, starting 7 of them. And he's compiled those numbers while battling the aforementioned litany of obstacles to smooth, sudden sailing in new waters.

In the 12 games that fellow veteran swingman Mike Miller has missed due to an ankle sprain over the past three weeks, Battier has picked up his production, scoring 5 points or more in 6 of those 12 games, including 11 points twice. And he's pulled down 4 rebounds or more 6 times. He's also drained 11 of 40 3-point attempts during that stretch.

Battier has also had a few monster games during this tough, truncated season. During a nailbiting 99-98 loss at Utah on March 2, he scored a season-high 18 points, grabbed 4 rebounds, handed out 3 assists and blocked a season-high 4 shots in 32 high-energy minutes. Battier drained 6 of 7 shots in that game, all from behind the 3-point arc.

Battier was also brilliant in a 106-89 win at Washington on Feb. 10, scoring 15 points (on 6-of-9 shooting) and grabbing 5 rebounds in just 23 minutes. He also had a steal, block and assist in that game, showcasing his impressive all-around talent.

For the season, Battier is shooting 38.3 percent from the floor, below his career average of 44.1 percent. But he's drained 34.9 percent of his shots from behind the 3-point arc, not far off his career average of 38.3 percent. And his 53 3-pointers made ranks second on the HEAT, behind only Mario Chalmers' 90.

“I want to play well," said Battier in early February. "I grade myself harder than anybody else. At this point, I’m not worried about the numbers. Even if I go on a tear, I’m pretty far below my averages. I’m not going to be playing to those."

But offense has always been a bit of a bonus for the 6-foot-8, 225-pound Battier, who carries a career average of 9.3 points per game over those 12 NBA seasons. Of course, the high-octane HEAT haven't needed Battier to score too much, allowing him to do the many other things he does so well -- many of which don't show up in box scores. In fact, of the 7 games Battier has scored 10 or more points in this season, only 4 have been HEAT wins.

The quintessential "glue guy", the rugged, rangy and resilient veteran has always been more revered for his myriad defensive abilities. And it's on that side of the ball that Battier's skill set, savvy and energy really jump out at even the most casual observer.

Battier willingly and creatively defends a number of players and positions, and does so with an energy and aggression that appears almost maniacal at times. When you consider that Battier is in his 12th NBA season and closing in on 34 years old, his defensive play is even more impressive.

And while hustle plays, dives and jump balls don't show up in the box scores, things like blocks and steals do. Battier's 32 blocks are fifth-best on the team, just behind Chris Bosh's 36. And his 45 steals are fourth-best on the HEAT, one ahead of Bosh. Not bad for a reserve player who also happens to be the HEAT's second-oldest player.

According to The Sporting News, Battier may also be the HEAT's smartest player. The esteemed publication recently tabbed him as the seventh-smartest athlete in all of professional sports. Graduating from Duke with honors while leading his team to two Final Fours and winning a National Title might have something to do with that. As might the effusive praise that seemingly every NBA analyst, especially former coaches like Hubie Brown and Jeff Van Gundy, regularly direct his way during telecasts.

Van Gundy, who coached Battier in Houston and doesn't exactly hand out compliments like candy, has called Battier "the finest competitor I ever coached."

"I have so much admiration for how Battier approaches his job, and his commitment to winning," Van Gundy said a few years back. "He comes ready to play every single day. He plays for the team, he plays for his teammates. If there is any NBA player that is egoless, it is Shane Battier. Battier is winning-driven."

Add all of it up, and you're left with the portrait of a player whose value transcends mere numbers. And you see why Battier was the sixth player selected in the 2001 NBA Draft after a decorated career at Duke, where he won a National Championship and swept the major National Player of the Year awards as a senior. And why he was later selected as part of the U.S. National Team, helping them to a bronze medal in the 2006 FIBA World Championship.

And you see why the HEAT coveted Battier long before signing him as a free agent this offseason.

Because, as Van Gundy said, Shane Battier is "winning-driven." And the HEAT are winning with him.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

He's not in the starting lineup.

He's been DNP-CD for 12 of the HEATs' 48 games.

When he has played, he's logged 15 minutes or more just 10 times.

But there's no denying James Jones' value to the HEAT.

Despite playing in only 36 games this season -- and averaging just 10.2 minutes in those games -- the nine-year veteran has managed to average 3.1 points a game. A superior sharpshooter from long range, Jones ranks fifth on the HEAT in 3-pointers made (27), and second in 3-point field goal percentage (a sizzling 42.2%).

The 6-foot-8, 215-pound swingman is also third in free-throw shooting percentage, having drained 17 of 21, or 81.0%, from the line.

Jones got a chance to start at shooting guard when Dwyane Wade was out with a foot injury early in the season, and scored 14 points -- all in the first half -- in a 118-83 win over the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 4. Jones hit 4 of 8 3-pointers in that game, and drilled 12 of his first 22 shots from long-range this season. HEAT fans who watched him take the 3-point shootout title at the 2011 All-Star Weekend weren't surprised, and University of Miami fans who remember Jones starring for the Hurricanes were even more familiar with that sweet stroke.

But Jones, who is a career 40.3-percent shooter from behind the arc, began to see his minutes give way to fellow veteran Mike Miller, who missed the start of the season while recovering from hernia surgery.

Even so, the heady and steady veteran has remained ready for any time his number might be called. And with Miller missing the past eight games with a sprained left ankle, Jones has once again gotten his shot to take his shots.

"I have a different role on this team," Jones said recently. "My role is to make sure that things run seamlessly if someone's out for a game, or out for a stint. Just to be ready at all times."

Jones hasn't disappointed, hitting 7 of 16 shots from the field since Miller's absence, including 6 of 13 from 3-point range. While filling in capably at both the shooting guard and small forward positions. All after having seen action in just 12 minutes over the previous 7 games. With all of those 12 minutes having come in one game.

Jones was especially brilliant in the HEAT's thrilling 106-102 loss at NBA-leading Chicago on March 15. He drilled a tough 3-pointer with 10 seconds left to pull the HEAT within 3 points, and then nailed another 3-ball with 6.8 seconds remaining, drawing the HEAT to within 104-102. He finished the game with 6 points, 2 assists and 1 rebound in just 14 minutes, and nearly led the HEAT back to a win.

Jones' role on the HEAT at times seems akin to a baseball closer. And if that's the case, then the Miami native would have to rank among the NBA's saves leaders.

It's not easy to just jump into the action cold in any game, at any level, in any league. But to do so in the game of basketball, at its highest level on earth, can be especially daunting.

It doesn't seem to phase the steely Jones, however. He's done nothing but deliver when called upon, especially when Erik Spoelstra dials his number for a long ball.

"I'm the guy that, at a moment's notice, when I haven't played for five games, I'm expected to go in there and make a shot," said Jones. "That's a role that I embrace, and it's something that's necessary for this team to be able to function the way that we're built."

It's that kind of tenacity, focus, perseverance and will that has allowed Jones to play a key role for four NBA teams since being drafted by the Indiana Pacers in 2003. A bench player and spot starter for most of his career, Jones has still managed to average 5 or more points four times, and exceed 40% shooting from behind the arc on three occasions.

The 31-year-old Jones has spent the past four seasons with his hometown HEAT, and has become a vital and valuable member of the club. His best statistical season in Miami came last year, when he averaged 5.9 points and 2.0 rebounds in 19 minutes a game. He even saw action in a career-high 81 games, missing just one game all season and making 8 starts. His 42.9% shooting from long range was the second highest of his career, and third-best on the HEAT.

Jones continued to stand out in the postseason last year, averaging 6.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in 22.7 minutes per game. He shot 47.1% from the floor, including a sizzling 45.9% from long distance.

This season, Jones' statistical output -- and time on the floor -- has lessened a bit. But Jones' value to the HEAT remains as strong and clear as ever. Especially to him.

"I know that the last couple of years here, my role has evolved to the point where now, I think I can do whatever this team needs me to do," said Jones. "Whenever they need me to do it.

"I want to be remembered as a champion here in my hometown."

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

Most Valuable Player?

Likely.

Most Versatile Player?

Undeniably.

The HEAT are 42 games into a tightly compressed 66-game season. Their record is 31-11. They're second in the NBA -- and first in the Eastern Conference -- in scoring (102.5 points per game), first in field goal percentage (48.3%), second in 3-point field goal percentage (39.4%) and fourth in steals (8.9 steals per game).

And atop nearly every major team statistical breakdown stands one man:

LeBron James.

James leads the deep, talented HEAT in scoring (27.7 points per game), rebounding (8.4 rebounds per game), assists (6.6 assists per game), steals (1.9 steals per game) and field goal percentage (54.7%). He's third in blocks (0.8 blocks per game) and 3-pointers made (36), and fourth in 3-point field goal percentage (41.4%).

James' scoring average is third in the NBA, behind only Kobe Bryant (29.0 ppg) and Kevin Durant (27.9). His field goal percentage is seventh-best, and would represent a career high if the season ended today. James is also 14th in the entire NBA in assists, and is one of just two non-point guards in that group.

Or is James a point guard? No, of course not. He's a small forward. Wait. He's a power forward. No, that's not right. He's playing center now. And he's defending the other team's shooting guard...

If that's not value, then what is? If that's not versatility, then nothing is.

Then there's the athletic ability.

HEAT fans have become so accustomed to the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James' breathtaking blend of size, speed, power, balance, finesse and skill, that watching him do the seemingly magical might even be somewhat mundane by now.

James' dunks can be so vicious, his passes so pinpoint, his shot so silky, that even the casual NBA fan can't watch him play and be reminded of Magic Johnson. Or Michael Jordan. Or both.

And after spending this past extended offseason working closely with NBA Hall Of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon on refining his post moves, James has at times this season resembled a vintage Karl Malone down on the low block.

Of course, this overwhelming package of talent, passion and work ethic is the reason why James has been starring on ESPN since his high school days at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio. It's the reason he's already won 2 NBA MVP awards at the still tender age of 27. And it's the reason why he's well in line to claim his third MVP trophy as the HEAT head into the final third of this shortened season.

But James wants more. He craves his first-ever NBA Championship, so he continues to do and be more.

Need him to score 30 points? Well, James has done that 18 times now, including 4 times since the All-Star Break (after nearly rallying the Eastern Conference for a comeback victory in the All-Star Game).

Need him to pull down 10 or more rebounds? James has done that 14 times, including 5 times in the past 8 games.

Want to see him play the facilitator, and set up his teammates for scores? James leads the HEAT in assists, averaging nearly 7 a game, and has dished out 8 or more dimes 13 times.

Of course, we could break down James' statistical superiority for hours and paragraphs at a time, but it still can't fully quantify the value he brings to the HEAT. Even if he doesn't get credit for a steal, his lightning-quick hands might alter or disrupt a pass or a shot. He might not come down with a rebound, but his excellent footwork and raw physicality could have allowed a teammate to get in better position for the board. And his ability to not only play, but defend, all five positions at a high level is of immeasurable value to HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff.

Simply put, there is nobody like LeBron James in the NBA right now. And it's not too much of a stretch to say there has never been a player quite like him.

For all of those reasons and more, it's hard to argue that James is not only the HEAT's MVP -- but the leading candidate for NBA MVP honors as well.

Until that announcement is made, James will continue to focus on doing what he does best.

A whole lot of everything.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

On a team saturated in super stardom, it can be easy to go unappreciated.

And when it's your nature to be humble, team-oriented and private, the odds are even higher that you might get overlooked from time to time -- even if you're 6-foot-11, possess a silky smooth jumper, can jump out of the building and tend to play with raw, primal passion.

But those who watch the Miami HEAT on a regular basis understand full well just how valuable Chris Bosh is.

And, after a recent 3-game stretch without the HEAT's All-Star forward/center, national observers have a better idea too.

The HEAT dropped the final two games of a post-All-Star Game road trip while Bosh attended the funeral of his beloved grandmother last week, and his absence was obvious in both losses.

Then, in his return to the court Monday night against the Nets, Bosh immediately reasserted his value with his unique presence, scoring 20 points in just 24 minutes of the HEAT's 108-78 rout of the Nets, including 16 in the pivotal first half. The versatile Bosh scored at will both inside and outside, finishing a sizzling 8 of 11 from the floor and igniting the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd with his play and passion.

Of course, this was nothing new for Bosh. The 6-foot-11, 235-pound Texas native did a little bit of everything during his debut season with the HEAT last year, averaging 18.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 77 regular-season games, and 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 21 playoff games. Those numbers weren't far off from his career averages of 19.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists, compiled mostly with the Toronto Raptors, who tabbed Bosh with the fourth pick of the 2003 NBA Draft -- the same draft that saw Dwyane Wade go fifth to the HEAT and LeBron James No. 1 overall to the Cavaliers.

The steady and heady Bosh has posted almost identical numbers so far this season, averaging 18.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 36 games. He's also among the top free-throw shooters for the HEAT at 81.7 percent, in line with his career average of 79.9 percent from the line -- a remarkably strong percentage for a big man. He's logged 9 double-doubles, scored 20 or more points 15 times, and dropped 30 or more four times, including a season-high 35 in a 92-85 win over Cleveland on Jan. 24.

But the most notable stat around Bosh this season may be that 1-2 record without him. Or maybe the 8-1 mark when Wade has been forced to sit out due to injury.

In those 9 games, Bosh has upped his offensive game, averaging 25.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists, and shooting a sizzling 59.1 percent from the floor. Bosh scored 22 or more points in 7 of those 9 games, and 30 or more in 4 games. The highlight was a virtuoso 33-point, 14-rebound, 5-assist game in 47 minutes of a 116-109 triple-overtime win in Atlanta on Jan. 5. Bosh even hit a 3-pointer to force the first overtime in that game, which saw the HEAT win without not only Wade, but James as well.

In fact, Bosh has hit 7 3-pointers this season, one more than he hit in 77 regular-season games for the HEAT last year. How many 6-foot-11 players can claim to not only knock down 3s, but do so in crucial, game-changing situations?

Not many. But then again, there really aren't many players like Chris Bosh.

A fact that the HEAT and their fans won't soon forget.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

He's not part of the HEAT's starting five.

He's not one of the six HEAT players showcased in the upcoming NBA All-Star Weekend.

But when you look at the HEAT's record-breaking 26-7 start to the 2011-2012 season, it would be impossible not to focus on the role that Udonis Haslem has played.

TV pundits today love to talk about "glue guys" and "role players", and the 31-year-old Haslem is pretty much the epitome of both.

There's the tough, quiet leadership. The willingness to sacrifice not just playing time, but seemingly every inch of his chiseled, 6-foot-8, 235-pound body. The abundant energy on both ends of the floor. The blistering, unwavering drive that took him from University of Florida star to undrafted NBA standout (with a stint in Europe in between).

But in the case of Haslem, there's also numbers. And very impressive ones at that.

An ultra-reliable jump shooter and powerful force around the rim throughout his career, Haslem currently ranks seventh on the HEAT in scoring, averaging 6.3 points per game. His 82.4% free-throw shooting is fourth-best on the HEAT, and his 8.1 rebounds-per-game average ties him with LeBron James for second, just behind Chris Bosh. When you consider that Haslem plays 26:04 minutes a game to James' 36:35 minutes and Bosh's 35:16 minutes, that number is even more impressive.

Then again, all-out, all-around effort and hard-nosed rebounding have always been Haslem's calling card. His career rebounding average is 8.1 per game (in 30:30 minutes a game), and he's grabbed 10 or more boards off the bench 11 times this season -- including an early-season stretch of five straight games that had him among NBA leaders at one point.

And, now in his ninth season in his hometown team's uniform, Haslem is also on the verge of becoming something much, much more prestigious -- the HEAT's all-time leading rebounder.

After pulling down 7 rebounds (and scoring 10 points) in the HEAT's 120-108 win over the Kings last night, Haslem moved past HEAT icon Rony Seikaly for second place on Miami's all-time rebounding list, with 4,549. And if Haslem keeps up his current pace, there's a strong chance he'll surpass HEAT legend Alonzo Mourning, who hauled in 4,807 rebounds in a HEAT uniform.

Haslem also did something else quite impressive in the win over the Kings. In the midst of a game-breaking, 15-5 fourth-quarter run, he corralled a wayward 3-point attempt by Mike Miller, ruthlessly attacked the rim with one hand, and slammed down a vicious dunk.

And he made Dwyane Wade not only jump up out of his sideline seat, but run out toward the court in wild celebration. Yes, the same Dwyane Wade who had supplied another sizzling reel of highlights en route to a 30-point, 10-assist game.

Then again, how can you not root and cheer for Haslem? The player known affectionately as "UD" has become an absolute fixture in a HEAT uniform, and he's done so through good, old-fashioned hard work. There was the incredible transformation of his body, as he grew leaner, harder and meaner seemingly every year. There was the evolution of his mid-range jumper, gradually honed into a lethal and reliable weapon. There was his increasingly polished play in the post, not only at his more natural power forward position, but also at the center spot in some lineups.

Haslem has become such a mainstay and all-around asset, it's also easy to forget that last year, the HEAT and their fans barely got to experience Haslem's many gifts. Sidelined with ligament damage to his left foot, Haslem played in just 13 regular-season games, and didn't ever quite look like himself during the HEAT's run to the NBA Finals.

Now, it looks like he never missed a beat. Now, it looks like he's closing in on HEAT legend status. Now, it looks like the HEAT can only keep on winning.

Now, it looks like Udonis Haslem is back. And as reliable as ever.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

It looked bad. Possibly very, very bad.

And later, after the dust had settled on the Denver Nuggets' 117-104 win over the HEAT, Dwyane Wade said his right ankle sprain suffered in the fourth quarter felt about as bad as it looked.

"It never hurt that bad before," Wade told the media. "I've sprained my ankle plenty of times but I've never sprained it like that before."

This was back on Jan. 13, when the HEAT were closing out a tough road trip and sported an 8-4 record. This was when Wade was already dealing with a sore left foot that had caused him to miss three games and play at less-than-his-usual-blinding speed in at least three others.

So Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and Wade decided to do something that has never, ever come naturally to the nine-year veteran guard.

Slow down. And sit out.

Wade eased into a sharply-dressed spectator's role for the HEAT's next six games, and even took the time to celebrate his 30th birthday in style during that two-week stretch. While not taking the floor was painful for the aggressive, athletic, ultra-competitive Wade, watching his teammates rack up a 5-1 record felt great.

And when Wade was ready to return, it was immediately clear to everyone who was watching:

Things were about to start hurting a lot more for HEAT opponents.

Wade made his triumphant return to the court at AmericanAirlines Arena, exactly two weeks after his ankle injury in Denver, and inflicted all sorts of pain on the visiting New York Knicks. The 28 points in 32 minutes were brilliant enough on their own, as were the wide variety of ways in which they came -- including a few monster dunks, twisting jumpers and a perfect 6 for 6 from the free-throw line. But so were the 4 assists, 2 blocks and, especially, the game- and season-high 5 steals. They all played a huge role in a 99-89 win over the HEAT's longtime nemesis. And they all helped create an especially electric atmosphere at the Arena.

With so much talent flowing up and down the HEAT roster this season, it's easy to forget just how valuable, explosive and rare a player the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Wade is. Then, you watch him pick off a pass and race down the floor for an effortless dunk. Or crossover a helpless defender before dishing a perfect no-look pass to a teammate. Or close suddenly on a much larger opponent, and rise up to violently reject his shot attempt. And you remember.

Dwyane Wade is special. Very, very special.

Of course, a look at Wade's statistics always bears out his immense value too. While his 22.2-point average in 19 games this season is his lowest since his rookie season, he's averaged 24.5 in the 10 games since his return from that ugly ankle injury. And with fellow All-Star LeBron James carrying the scoring load with a 27.9-point average, Wade is doing a lot of other things besides scoring.

Like dishing out 5.0 assists a game, second only to James' 6.9 average. Or leading the HEAT with 1.8 steals and a career-high 1.4 blocks per game -- the latter being especially remarkable when you consider he's a full 8 inches shy of 7 feet.

The versatile Wade has been especially across-the-board brilliant since his return from that ankle injury, getting his 24.5 points on 52.3% shooting from the field and a blistering 87.5% from the line while also averaging 4.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks a game. The HEAT are 8-2 in that 10-game stretch, and in one of those losses, Wade scored a game-high 33 points (on 15 of 24 shooting) and blocked 3 shots.

Wade's return has greatly impacted both the HEAT's team offense and defense too. HEAT opponents have scored more than 95 points just twice in those games (both HEAT losses), while the HEAT have scored 95 or more in all but one of them -- including 106 or more in four games. Wade's penetrating, slashing, probing offensive game opens up the floor for other HEAT shooters, and his relentless energy on defense disrupts opponents' offensive flow, often resulting in turnovers and easy transition points for the HEAT.

Last night, Wade brutally dissected the Southeast Division rival Hawks in Atlanta, scoring all 21 of his points by halftime as the HEAT built a comfortable 63-41 lead. If he hadn't sat after playing just 24 minutes -- literally half a game -- Wade very likely could have finished with his first 40-point game this season.

This year's deep, versatile roster assures that Wade won't have to score 30 or 40 every night for the HEAT to win, as was the case when he averaged a NBA-high 30.2 points in 2008-09. In fact, he doesn't even have to think about hitting the 3-point shot -- he's attempted only 9 all season, and has yet to sink one.

The overall stat-stuffing brilliance and sheer athletic majesty of Wade's game are big reasons why he will play in his eighth All-Star Game in nine seasons as a professional a few weekends from now.

Wade hit the game-winning basket in the 2006 All-Star Game, and his eight appearances and seven starts are both franchise highs.

"Thinking about eight years out of nine being looked at as an All-Star, it's an honor," Wade told the media recently. "You never want to look at it and take it for granted."

HEAT fans would say the same thing about Wade.

dbarmmer

By Dylan Barmmer

As debuts go, it was just about perfect.

Mike Miller had waited and waited and waited, under doctors' and coaches' orders to sit out the HEAT's first 12 games while he healed up from offseason sports hernia surgery.

Then, in a Jan. 17 home game against the dangerous San Antonio Spurs, Miller jumped back in the saddle. And unleashed his six-shooter. Or more like three-shooter.

The rangy 6-foot-8 swingman drilled his first shot, a beautiful 3-point dagger that emphatically announced his return. Then, he hit another. And another. And...

When the smoke had cleared, Miller had blasted his way to a perfect 6 of 6 from the field -- with all 6 coming from long-range -- to score 18 points in just 15 minutes off the bench. The performance tied a HEAT record for 3-pointers made without a miss in one game, and with the drop of each bomb, you could feel and hear added electricity in the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd.

Miller's sweet-shooting heroics got a bit lost in a game that saw LeBron James key a 39-12 third quarter en route to a 120-98 comeback win. But while James (33 points) and Chris Bosh (30) got the headlines the next day, it was Miller's clutch shooting that won and wowed the crowd.

Of course, with Miller, it's never about just the shooting. A self-proclaimed "gym rat", the former University of Florida star was all over the court in his debut, pulling down 4 rebounds, diving for loose balls and doing whatever it takes to make a difference for his team.

HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra had said he was planning on playing Miller "five or six" minutes, but the 13-year veteran made a go of it for 15. And with that kind of shooting, production and overall hustle, who could blame Spoelstra for letting Miller run wild?

“Every once in a while you get going when you’re a shooter,” Miller said after his red-hot debut. “I just happened to do that.”

Given everything Miller had endured since signing with the HEAT prior to the 2010-2011 season, it's no wonder he fought his way back so fast this season. Fighting off an array of injuries last season, including damage to both thumbs, Miller averaged just 5.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in only 41 games. Then came offseason hand, shoulder and hernia surgeries.

The HEAT gave Miller plenty of time to heal up and prepare in practice at the right pace. And then the 31-year-old sharpshooter made his explosive debut.

In 9 games since, Miller has yet to put together such a statistically spectacular performance. But he's become a vital part of the HEAT rotation, averaging 7.1 points and 3.0 rebounds in 18.1 minutes off the bench. He's shooting a sizzling 60.4 percent from the field, including a remarkable 54.6 percent (12 of 22) from behind the arc.

Even more impressive, the HEAT are 8-2 with Miller in the lineup. Both losses have come to the relentless Milwaukee Bucks, and Miller scored a grand total of just 3 points (on 1-of-4 shooting) in those two defeats.

Seeing a connection yet?

Miller made his debut when Dwyane Wade was still sidelined with foot injuries, and since D-Wade's return, he has seen his minutes reduced a bit. But he's still averaged 6.8 points and 2.3 rebounds over those 4 games. He's also drained 12 of 17 shots from the field, including a sizzling 6-of-8 showing for 14 points in just 17 minutes in a 109-95 win over New Orleans Monday night.

With Miller still finding his footing and a tightly compressed season unfolding in curious ways, the HEAT know their hard-charging, sweet-shooting veteran can only get better the more he plays.

After all, the man who was the fifth overall pick of the 2000 NBA Draft by Orlando -- and promptly won the NBA Rookie Of The Year Award -- is a career 46.3-percent shooter (40.5% from long-range) and has averaged at least 15.0 points a game four times, for two different teams.

Now, he's a valuable part of the HEAT rotation. And increasingly determined to bring HEAT fans to their feet with his brilliant brand of play.

dbarmmer

Point. Counter-Point.

blog-0920212001327702054.jpgBy Dylan Barmmer

The Big Three.

Enough has been said, written, shouted and Tweeted about LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over the past year to make even ESPN feel overwhelmed.

But what about the Miami HEAT's newest set of Super Heroes? You know, the Terrific Twosome?

The HEAT are off to a strong 13-5 start that includes a dazzling 8-1 mark without Wade, who has battled an array of foot and leg ailments that have forced him to cool his heels and heal.

And while James and Bosh have balled big in the absence of Flash, the point guard tandem of Mario Chalmers and rookie Norris Cole has flashed its own brand of brilliance early and often.

Through 18 games, starter Chalmers and his eager understudy have combined to average 20.7 points, 7.0 assists and 2.6 steals per game, while draining a collective 42 3-point field goals – or nearly 2.5 per game.

When the HEAT fell just short of its second NBA title last season, it closed with the since-departed Mike Bibby starting and Chalmers stepping in in relief. In 92 collective regular-season games between them, Bibby and Chalmers combined to average 13.7 points, 5.0 assists and 1.6 steals per game. And beyond the so-so numbers, the pairing just never seemed to fully jell, and the overall pace and athleticism appeared nothing like it is today.

Today, things are indeed looking on point at the point. And that's not just because of the combined efforts of Chalmers and Cole, but also because of the two players' very different skill sets and styles.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Chalmers is more of a classical, jump-shooting point guard, and with 243 NBA games now under his belt, the 25-year-old seems to be blossoming into more of a solid starter at a very difficult position. A good passer who can also drain a variety of jump shots, Chalmers is currently averaging a career-high 11.9 points and shooting a sizzling 51.7% from the floor, including 44.9% from long-range. Chalmers' 35 3-pointers lead the HEAT by a long shot, and many of them have come at critical points in games.

The HEAT's revamped offense still empowers James to play primarily as a point-forward (he leads the HEAT, and all NBA forwards, with 7.1 assists a game), and puts the ball in Wade's skilled hands an awful lot too. But Chalmers' 4.3 assist-per-game average is third on the team behind James and Wade, and ranks as the fourth-year guard's highest average since his 4.9 as a rookie in 2008-09. He's handed out 5 assists or more in 7 games this season, including 8 (with 0 turnovers) in a 113-92 win over Philadelphia on Jan. 21. Chalmers' quick hands have also nabbed 3 or more steals 4 times this season, and his 1.5 per-game average is third on the team behind James and Wade.

When Chalmers goes to the bench for a breather, the HEAT tend to leave opponents gasping even more. That's because the fiery Cole, a 23-year-old rookie from Cleveland State, prefers to play at a fast and furious pace. And while Cole is averaging a respectable 2.7 assists in 21:06 minutes off the bench, it's his ability to race to open spaces and find his own shot that most stands out.

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Cole is more of a scoring, slashing, "combo" point guard than Chalmers, and the former Horizon League Player Of The Year wasted no time showing HEAT fans how fast he can fill it up. In just his second NBA game, Cole exploded for 20 points in 29 minutes, helping lead the HEAT to a 115-107 win over Boston in its home opener. Cole drained 8-of-16 field goals and 4-of-6 from the line, and 14 of his 20 came in the fourth quarter.

Cole has reached double figures in scoring 6 more times since then, and his 8.8 point-per-game average is fifth on the team, behind Chalmers. The HEAT are 5-2 when Cole scores in double figures, and 7-0 in games where he hands out 4 or more assists. Because of his incredible speed with the ball, many of Cole's assists come on drops and dishes in the paint, where his teammates can take high-percentage shots.

The HEAT nabbed Cole with the 28th pick of the 2011 draft, and in so doing secured a player with not only scoring acumen, but four years of college basketball under his belt. That's becoming increasingly rare in today's NBA, as evidenced by a quick glance at the HEAT roster. James went straight from high school to the pros, Bosh played one year at Georgia Tech, Wade played two years at Marquette and Chalmers starred for three seasons at Kansas – winning the National Championship on a clutch 3-pointer his final season. Cole also has strong football bloodlines (he starred in high school, and his cousin, Trent Cole, is a premier NFL pass rusher), and watching him play basketball at times recalls another great gridiron-inspired guard, Allen Iverson.

So in the case of Chalmers and Cole, 2 really is better than 1 for the HEAT so far this season – and not as far off from The Big 3 as the casual observer may believe.