By Dylan Barmmer
Few people expected this from Norris Cole.
When the HEAT capped their franchise record-setting and NBA-leading 2012-13 regular season by winning 37 of their final 39 games, including 27 straight at one point, Cole's professionalism, passion and play backing up Mario Chalmers at the point turned heads and opened eyes among HEAT fans while earning accolades from his coaches.
And with Chalmers slowed by an ankle injury during the season's final month, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Cole did produce a few strong stat lines in spot starter duty. The highlight came in a 96-95 HEAT win at Cleveland on April 15, when the former Cleveland State star and Dayton, Ohio native nearly notched a triple-double with season-highs of 16 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists to lead his injury-depleted team to their 65th win. In 4 total starts on the season, Cole averaged a solid 13.0 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
Still, it was his seemingly endless energy, determined defense and infectious passion that served as the 24-year-old Cole's calling cards in his second NBA season, not his offensive acumen.
Given a full training camp to work with for the first time, and often sharing a backcourt with the epitome of a professional and pure scorer in reserve shooting guard Ray Allen, Cole improved his statistics in nearly every offensive category. But Cole's 5.6 points a game, 42.1-percent shooting from the field and 35.7 percent from 3-point range over 80 games suggested more of a player still rounding out his offensive form than it did a dead-eyed and deadly offensive assassin.
Even in that signature game at Cleveland, Cole's biggest play came on defense, when he shadowed, suffocated and then stuffed lightning-quick guard Kyrie Irving on the Cavaliers' final possession. The brilliant block-and-steal play sealed that narrow 96-95 win and humbled a fellow second-year standout who earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors by averaging 18.5 points and 5.4 assists per game in the 2011-12 season.
But as their brilliant regular season gave way to the 2013 NBA Playoffs, and the HEAT kicked off their NBA Championship title defense run in the postseason, Cole has shot out of the gate guns blazing, averaging 8.8 points while shooting a sizzling 60.4 percent from the field and a remarkable 68.8 percent from behind the 3-point line (drilling 11 of 16 attempts from long-range) over the HEAT's first 9 playoff games. Cole is the fifth-leading scorer for the HEAT so far in the playoffs, and his postseason point production has come coupled with averages of 2.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.8 steals – while averaging 22.1 minutes off the HEAT bench.
In short, Cole's all-around play is a big reason for the HEAT's 8-1 record in 9 postseason games. And his scoring has been especially impactful.
Cole's offensive improvement and ultra-efficiency was especially notable and valuable in the HEAT's Eastern Conference Semifinals series win over the gritty, grinding Chicago Bulls. Cole scored 7 or more points in 4 of the 5 games in that series, including a playoff-career-high 18 points in back-to-back HEAT wins in Games 2 and 3. Cole hit 20 of 29 shots from the field in that series, including a near-perfect 9 of 11 from long-range (he was a flawless 8-for-8 through the first 3 games), and his offensive output helped neutralize the production of Bulls point guard Nate Robinson, who exploded for a game-high 27 points in the Bulls' 93-86 Game 1 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena and scored at least 17 points in 3 of the series' 5 games.
The big showings in Games 2 and 3 were also pivotal in shaping the series' outcome, as the Bulls surprisingly grabbed control of the narrative with that Game 1 win, and Dwyane Wade was battling right knee soreness that hampered his overall explosiveness and usual offensive output. Cole led the HEAT with 9 3-point hits in the series, outpacing primary long-range snipers Shane Battier (8) and Ray Allen (4). The fact that he managed to do that on just 11 attempts from behind the arc is even more noteworthy.
Of course, Cole also played his customary lock-down defense for much of the series, and helped hold the previously hot Robinson scoreless on 0-for-12 shooting in an 88-65 win in Game 4. But when the dust cleared on the HEAT's 5-game series win, it was Cole's fearless attacking and dead-eye shooting that stood out – and got NBA observers everywhere talking about the tough-minded guard's evolving overall game. It's hard to be much more efficient than the 69 percent from the field and eye-popping 81.8 percent from long-range that Cole shot in that series, particularly against a physical, defense-minded opponent. And especially while coming off the bench.
In other words, in a "second season" that traditionally translates to more defense and less offense, the HEAT's second-year spark plug of a point guard has defied convention, morphing from defensive-minded stopper to explosive and sweet-shooting scorer seemingly overnight.
Of course, the reality is that nothing happens overnight. Especially when it comes to the demanding, grinding, heavy-lifting life of a professional athlete.
No, the truth is Norris Cole has worked hard to improve all areas of his game in his second NBA season. Very, very, very hard. And the results are starting to make the HEAT even harder and harder to beat.
The HEAT are now 45-3 over their last 48 games, including a sparkling 8-1 in the 2013 NBA Playoffs. That mind-boggling record is the result of contributions, sacrifice and dedication from every player on the hard-working HEAT's roster – from repeat NBA MVP LeBron James all the way down to reserve sharpshooter Mike Miller.
But it's also no coincidence that Cole has been at his best during this sizzling stretch, especially on the offensive end. And especially from long-range. Cole averaged 5.2 points and hit 50.0 percent of his 3-point field goal attempts in 18 games in March, and the HEAT went 17-1 – setting not only a club record for wins in a single month, but establishing a new NBA benchmark as well. In their lone loss in March, a 101-97 defeat to the Bulls in Chicago that snapped that historic 27-game win streak, Cole was held scoreless on 2 field goal attempts and played just 11 minutes off the bench.
In 9 games in April, Cole averaged 10.3 points and shot 47.6 percent from long-range, and the HEAT went 8-1, closing out their unforgettable season with an 8-game winning streak. Cole scored 11 points or more in 5 of those 9 games, and at least 8 points in all but 1 of them – a 2-point outing in a 105-93 win over those same Bulls.
Cole more than atoned for his meager offensive output against the Bulls in the regular season with his explosive showing in the HEAT's recently completed playoff series, and his 11.5-point average on that absurd 69 percent overall shooting and 81.8 percent from long-distance revealed a rapidly improving and always hard-working young professional to a much wider audience. ABC analyst and former NBA coach Jeff VanGundy mentioned that HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra has repeatedly praised the toughness, work ethic and consistent demeanor of Cole, who he called "Udonis Haslem in a guard's body." Other broadcasters spoke of Cole's near-obsessive dedication to improving, including his penchant for solo shootarounds at AmericanAirlinesArena's Bayfront practice court during HEAT off days and nights, and TNT's outspoken panel of former NBA greats routinely praised Cole for his aggressiveness, efficiency and stellar two-way play.
Not bad for a second-year player who ranks as the youngest member of a veteran-laden roster. Cole doesn't even turn 25 until Oct. 13, yet his outstanding playoff performances are helping the HEAT move closer and closer toward their goal of securing a second straight NBA Championship in June. If the HEAT accomplish that goal, then Cole will have played extensively in 2 NBA seasons – and have 2 Championship rings to show for it.
Now that's what you call a hot start. Much like the way Cole has come blazing out of the gates here in the 2013 NBA Playoffs. And caught observers, analysts and defenders alike a good bit off guard along the way.