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  1. Photo Credit: David Dow The Miami HEAT face the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round. Philadelphia leads the series 3-1. Tip-off is set for 8:00 PM. Television coverage on FOX Sports Sun begins at 7:30 PM. You can also listen to the action live on 790 The Ticket. 1: What can we learn from Philadelphia’s late push to a Game 4 victory? Couper Moorhead: This won’t be a comforting statistic for anyone to read, but the 76ers were the first team to win a playoff game with 26 or more turnovers since 1986. For that to come up as the difference between a tied series and going on the road down 3-1 certainly can’t be easy for HEAT, but that’s the reality of the situation. Those turnovers, and 18 Miami steals, were by and large the reason the HEAT were playing with around a 10-point lead for much of the game. They were out attacking passing lanes, getting deflections (with over 20 for the third-straight game) and contesting every Philadelphia three possible (22.6 percent from distance). It was, in so many words, the HEAT playing a very HEAT game in every way you would expect, from the physicality to the discipline on display defensively, where they cut off drives and recovered to shooters. They were in control of both the game and the score. So how did the Sixers come back despite all of that? Six quick points from Ersan İlyasova, including a tough three, at the end of the third made it was four-point game headed into the final period. And then Philadelphia’s defense came alive, holding Miami to just 19 points in the period. And maybe that’s all there is to really learn. You can play some of your best basketball, but in a closely contested series against a talented opponent just one stretch of mistakes can cost you a handful on the scoreboard. Miami has done enough to beat a good number of teams, it just wasn’t quite enough to beat Philadelphia on Saturday. Joe Beguiristain: We just continued to see how tough the 76ers are. Even with some great defense by Miami for most of the contest (the HEAT totaled 18 steals, including seven from Josh Richardson) and a late offensive surge by Dwyane Wade (12 points on 5-of-10 shooting in the fourth), Philadelphia never lost its composure. Much like in Game 3, the 76ers upped their defensive pressure and came through with timely offensive rebounds to escape with the narrow victory despite committing a whopping 27 turnovers. While J.J. Redick and Ben Simmons made some big plays late, the HEAT did a great job against Joel Embiid and made his catches tough throughout. In fact, Hassan Whiteside held Embiid to just 1-of-8 shooting and an unreal five turnovers. Bam Adebayo, meanwhile, fared just as well and limited the Cameroonian to 0-of-3 shooting and three turnovers. It would be unreasonable to expect that once again, but it will take that kind of effort from both bigs if Miami wants to come out ahead this time around. 2: Are there any adjustments Miami can make to try and force a Game 6? Couper: Erik Spoelstra will likely take a look at everything, from making lineup changes to changing defensive coverages to shifting offensive responsibilities. He’s not one to leave things on the table. But for everything he’ll likely look at, it’s very possible that there aren’t actually many major changes that need to be made. You go down 3-1 in a series and it’s easy to think drastic adjustments are in line, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, and we’ve said this here before, the best adjustment is just doing what you’ve been doing and doing it better. The HEAT have already been doing things very, very well, but if being even better than that is what it takes, then so be it. As Spoelstra has said a number of times in this series, that’s the challenge. Joe: At this point, I don’t think there is much to change or adjust for either team. Although Miami is down 3-1, this has been a highly competitive series between two teams that really get after it. Sure, Erik Spoelstra might make a few minor tweaks to his rotation based on player performance, but that’s been the case all year long. And as Coup mentioned in his first response, the HEAT have executed well enough to win most of these games, so it’s really just a matter of sustaining that high level of play for longer periods of time. At the end of the day, Miami just needs to keep up its defensive activity to make up for the size disparity and continue to attack in the pick-and-roll to create more openings on the other end. We’ll see how it all plays out. 3: The HEAT have led at halftime of each game this series. What can they do better to hold leads in the second half? Couper: Something Dwyane Wade emphasized a number of times following Game 4 was that the Sixers make you pay for every single mistake you make. If you take your foot off the gas for just a couple of minutes, those minutes are going to cost you. Now, it’s probably not fair to say the HEAT have ever really taken their foot off the gas given how consistently hard they have been playing on the defensive end, but they have certainly had some offensive droughts that have allowed the Sixers to make up some ground. That’s not always to say they stop getting good shots or don’t run their offense, but even going cold on wide open shots for a minute or two is enough to turn a game – such as at the end of the third quarter on Saturday, which snowballed into an extended Philadelphia run – in a series where both teams are in overdrive. That’s also been a bit of a trend at times for Miami this season, where they’ll have one down six-minute stretch even in games where they’re otherwise topping 26-28 in a quarter, and trends like that can carry over to the postseason even if you can minimize them. Spoelstra has said he’s been looking for a complete game from his team at times this season. He’s been getting complete effort, but the HEAT might just need complete offense to start a comeback. And they’ll have to do it against a team that’s proved to be capable of truly elite level defense. Joe: Although the HEAT have done a great job of building early leads, the 76ers have responded well time and time again down the stretch. Thanks to Philadelphia’s fusion of length and discipline, the team has made things quite difficult on Miami in the halfcourt more often than not. As such, it’ll behoove the HEAT to push the pace as much as possible and get some easy buckets in transition. But if the opportunity doesn’t present itself, Miami should still be able to find some success in the pick-and-roll with Dragić and Wade attacking and Whiteside and Adebayo diving to the rim with force. In addition to defending Embiid really well in Game 4, both HEAT centers threw down some ferocious alley-oops on the break, so perhaps they can continue that and also translate it to set offense on Tuesday. Highlights: Game 4 – 76ers at HEAT Game 3 – 76ers at HEAT Game Notes: Goran Dragić leads Miami with 19.5 points per game during the postseason. Ben Simmons leads Philadelphia in points (19.3), rebounds (10.8), assists (9.8) and steals (2.5) per contest in the playoffs. The HEAT are 8-2 in their last 10 elimination games. Josh Richardson (left shoulder sprain) is listed as questionable.
  2. Photo Credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant The Miami HEAT fell to the Philadelphia 76ers 104-91 Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round. Kelly Olynyk led the way for the HEAT with 18 points. Philadelphia wins the series 4-1. Click here for the full recap on HEAT.com
  3. Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon The Miami HEAT host the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday afternoon at AmericanAirlines Arena in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference First Round. Philadelphia leads the series 2-1. Get your tickets now! Tip-off is set for 2:30 PM. Television coverage on FOX Sports Sun begins at 2:00 PM. You can also listen to the action live on 790 The Ticket. 1: What happened in the fourth quarter of Game 3 that allowed the 76ers to suddenly pull away after a close game? Couper Moorhead: For three quarters it was a rough and tumble, gritty, chippy game that for some reason also featured a ton of scoring from both sides. And then, Miami stopped scoring for about two minutes and that was all it took for the 76ers to gain a double-digit lead. The HEAT climbed back to within a couple possessions but Philadelphia answered back with a mammoth run of their own to seal the game. The strange thing about the game was that Miami really was never playing badly. Even early in the fourth quarter, they had a few turnovers but they were still playing with physicality and force that was at least an approximation of how they want to consistently play. The HEAT simply made a few small mistakes, missed a few shots, and that was all it took with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons playing very well. That’s sort of the playoffs in a nutshell, especially against a high-level opponent. You can play a great game, you can make a ton of shots, but string just a few poor or even average possessions together and that can be all it takes for things to go against you. Sure, the 76ers made a ton of threes and got to the free-throw line, but so did Miami. It wasn’t a game about those things in the end. It was a game about how well you have to play when the margin for error shrinks in the postseason. Joe Beguiristain: After both teams essentially scored at will through three quarters, the 76ers ramped up their defense and made things difficult for the HEAT in the fourth. Thanks in large part to Philadelphia’s length and Joel Embiid’s presence at the rim, Miami scored just 14 points on 5-of-19 shooting in the period. Sure, Josh Richardson hit some big threes at the beginning of the quarter, but the 76ers responded very well. While the HEAT ultimately fell short, they matched Philadelphia's physicality and intensity for most of the night. In particular, Justise Winslow really impressed with 19 points on 4-of-6 shooting from deep and two remarkable blocks on Embiid and Robert Covington in the fourth. Ever since the playoffs began, Winslow’s whole demeanor has changed and he’s been locked in even more than he usually is. The playoffs can certainly bring out the best in a player. 2: Now that we’ve seen Joel Embiid in this series, how might the HEAT adjust to his presence? Couper: We noted going into that game that Embiid had been one of the most impactful players in the league this season and, despite some rust after a long injury layoff in the fist half, he was every bit that impactful player in Game 3. He stretched the floor, he stabilized Philadelphia’s offense with scoring and playmaking out of the post and, most importantly, his defense was at an All-World level. Defensively the HEAT have no choice but to rise to the challenge of making Embiid’s catches tough, contesting his jumpers and, perhaps most importantly given the physical nature of this series, not putting him on the foul line. It’s much more difficult to defend the 76ers when you can play 18 seconds of great, forceful defense and they can just throw the ball to Embiid to create a decent look. It’s on the other end of the floor where Miami might have to get particularly creative. With Embiid on the court, the HEAT shot just 1-of-8 at the rim, a number concerning both for the percentage and the volume. On so many pick-and-rolls and handoffs, Embiid would just sit back about 10-12 feet from the ball and wait to be challenged in the paint where his size makes shots exceedingly difficult. Miami combated this for a time pulling up and hitting mid-range shots, which helped them keep pace with the aforementioned three and free-throws they were earning, but eventually the number of jumpers began to take its toll. As for how they can best get to the rim against Embiid, it might come down to the old Roy Hibbert playbook. Make sure Embiid has to defend on the move so he isn’t able to stand waiting in the paint, make him guard out on the perimeter whenever possible and, on the other end, get stops so Miami can run out in transition. Joe: Let’s get this out of the way first: neutralizing a dominant force like Embiid is no easy task. With his combination of height, length and mobility, he’s pretty much a nightmare to deal with on both ends of the floor. All that said, Miami never backs down from a challenge, especially in the postseason. On the offensive end, the HEAT would be wise to either attack the basket and spray it out to open shooters on the perimeter or get Embiid involved in the pick-and-roll so he gets a little further away from the basket. Luckily enough, both Goran Dragić and Dwyane Wade are deadly when attacking downhill, so perhaps they can find some openings for themselves and their teammates in that scenario. Defensively, Miami has to try and force Embiid to catch the ball out of his comfort zones around the block. While making the 24-year-old get the ball further out doesn’t guarantee anything since he can still knock down mid-range jumpers and in-rhythm treys, it at least gives the HEAT a better chance at stopping him. 3: The HEAT have, by the percentages, defended Philadelphia’s threes well in Game 2 and poorly in Games 1 and 3. Are you seeing any trends in that area of the game? Couper: The 76ers were never going to shoot as well as they did in Game 1, hitting over 60 percent from deep, nor were they going to miss as many as in Game 2, shooting less than 20 percent. But then they came out and hit 18-of-34 again, many of them shots much better contested than the ones Miami gave up in Game 1 when Brett Brown went to his super-stretchy lineups. Some shots, like Marco Bellineli puling up from 30 feet on the move or Embiid shooting a contested look on the wing, you can only do so much about, but there are always things you can do better before leaving things up to chance. That means making Philadelphia miss more moments with deflections and by breaking up those fluid off-ball actions. You might not always make them miss, but you can make them just a little bit more uncomfortable and, in a best case scenario, make them not shoot the three in the first place. Joe: It’s no secret that Philadelphia is one of the best passing and screening teams in the league, which often causes the opposition to scramble a bit more than it would like. And outside of Game 2, the 76ers have shown just that thus far in this series. To combat a well-oiled machine like Philadelphia, the HEAT have to find a balance between being ultra aggressive in one-on-one defense and knowing the correct defensive rotation once the 76ers get into their second and third actions. Guys like Winslow, James Johnson and Josh Richardson have really answered the call defensively, but the trio has to somehow find another level on Saturday afternoon. Highlights: Game 3 – 76ers at HEAT Game 2 – HEAT at 76ers Game Notes: Goran Dragić leads the HEAT in points (19.3) and assists (5.0) per game during the postseason. Ben Simmons leads the 76ers in rebounds (10.0), assists (9.7) and steals (2.0) per contest during the playoffs. After this game, the series will shift back to Philadelphia for Game 5.
  4. Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon The Miami HEAT fell to the Philadelphia 76ers 106-102 Saturday afternoon in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference First Round. Dwyane Wade led the way for the HEAT with 25 points. Philadelphia now leads the series 3-1. Click here for the full recap on HEAT.com.
  5. Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon The Miami HEAT host the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round. The series is tied 1-1. Get your tickets now! Tip-off is set for 7:00 PM. Television coverage on FOX Sports Sun begins at 6:30 PM. You can also listen to the action live on 790 The Ticket. 1: How did Miami push themselves to a double-digit lead in the first half of Game 2? Couper Moorhead: They got back to being who they are defensively – tough, gritty and relentless. Those might sound like fairly generic descriptors, but can all adjectives when used for sporting purposes. That’s what the HEAT want to be on defense, they want their opponent to feel them every step of the way. So after falling behind 0-1 in the series Erik Spoelstra made sure his team played to its identity as guards fought their way through Philadelphia’s labyrinthine screens to contest or stop shooters altogether. What really changed the tone of the game, however, was Justise Winslow’s full-court pressure on Ben Simmons in the second quarter. In the grand scheme of things it was only a few possessions but it got Simmons, a remarkably patient and steady player, to speed up his own offense and make some mistakes – which led to the 76ers making mistakes and losing their way on offense for a quarter because they rely on Simmons to do so much for them. Philadelphia eventually got back to doing what they do, fortunately missing some open looks for three along the way, but playoff games often swing on a five or six minute stretch and that’s exactly what happened in Game 2. Miami isn’t likely to catch Simmons off guard in the same way again, but they can have a similar impact nonetheless with disciplined and forceful pressure. Joe Beguiristain: They brought the tenacity and intensity needed to win on the road in the playoffs. Thanks to a collective effort from James Johnson, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson (and Dwyane Wade late), Miami made things tougher on Ben Simmons than in Game 1. Sure, Simmons nearly recorded a triple-double, but the HEAT’s varied coverages on the rookie paid dividends more often than not. And as Erik Spoelstra said after practice on Wednesday, “[Simmons] is a dominant talent. He’s going to require a dominant mindset.” In addition to bringing that mindset towards Simmons, Miami as a whole brought that to the table in Game 2. After getting outworked in the series opener, the HEAT answered back with a whopping 27 deflections, 13 recovered loose balls and 65 contested shots. Naturally, Johnson and Kelly Olynyk led the team in each of those metrics. Despite all the success on Monday, the team understands that nothing is guaranteed and each game in a series is different. That said, the HEAT will always put themselves in a position to win as long as they stay true to their defensive principles and perform like the top 10 defense they were throughout the regular season. In other words, it’s all about playing Miami HEAT basketball. 2: While the 76ers’ late run eventually came up short, did anything come of it we might need to watch for in Game 3? Couper: Some of Philadelphia’s late push came from transition offense and the HEAT gambling a little bit defensively, which they paid for, but what Brett Brown might take from it might be the success which came from really dialing up the pressure in pick-and-roll coverage. The 76ers were always going to blitz Goran Dragić and Dwyane Wade a little bit, based on their defense during the regular season, but their usage of that coverage in the second half of Game 2 was hardly occasional or sporadic. The changes seemed to come somewhat out of Wade being able to punish some switches by hitting pull-up jumpers, so the Sixers wanted to get the ball out of the hands of Miami’s primary creators. That aggressive coverage did cause some disruption of Miami’s offense, also playing a part in that run by the 76ers, but Wade especially started finding the roll man – often James Johnson – before any defender could swing over to help. Just as the 76ers won’t be caught off guard by full-court pressure again, neither will the HEAT by the blitz. Joe: Two things that really stood out about the 76ers’ late run were their opportunities in transition and second-chance points. In terms of the former, five of Simmons’ seven field goals in the second half came in transition either off Miami turnovers, missed shots or just sheer determination on the Australian’s part. For the HEAT to truly lessen Simmons’ impact, they have to clean up their mistakes, get back on defense quickly and prohibit him from gaining momentum off easy buckets on the break. As for the latter, Philadelphia has definitely made its presence felt on the offensive boards thus far in this series. Coach Spo even went so far as to say that the 76ers are “burying” Miami on the glass. In Game 2 alone, Philadelphia scored 27 second-chance points thanks to 17 offensive rebounds (10 of those rebounds came in the second half). Hopefully the HEAT can improve in that area as the series continues. 3: It seems as though Joel Embiid is nearing a return to this series. When he does, how is his impact going to be felt? Couper: The 76ers officially upgraded Embiid’s status to doubtful for Game 3 after having previously announced in the days before Games 1 and 2 that he was out. And it won’t be a shocker to anyone that doubtful becomes he’s actually in the starting lineup in a hurry, so the HEAT will have to prepare with that in mind. Strictly by the numbers, Embiid is one of the most impactful players in the league. The only players with a high net efficiency rating when on the court (with starters minutes) are Steph Curry, Eric Gordon and Chris Paul. When he’s on the court, the 76ers are both an elite offense – with Embiid capable of stretching out to three and being one of the most efficient post-up players in the league – and effectively the best defense in the league. He’s the complete package, and the numbers reflect that. Hassan Whiteside is clearly a valuable weapon in defending Embiid, but it takes a team to counter what he can do. Embiid’s gravity is such that him simply rolling to the rim or popping out in pick-and-roll or running a dribble hand-off creates significantly better looks for all of the Sixers’ shooters, so it falls on the entire team to be all the more precise when it comes to helping and recovering to shooters. Even in the post, where it often appears to be a one-on-one affair, the HEAT can help Whiteside, and Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo, by pressuring the player making the inbounds pass so Embiid has to come out a little further for the catch. There’s no question Embiid can be a major, major part of this series once he returns, and Miami will have to adjust much of what they’ve been doing so far in order to compensate. Joe: Joel Embiid’s potential return would really shake up this series. As Coup discussed at length above, Embiid is such an important player on both ends of the floor for the 76ers. And while he garners a lot of attention for what he can do offensively, the 24-year-old held the opposition to nearly eight percentage points less than their usual field goal percentage during the regular season. That’s crazy. Whenever Embiid does come back, it’ll be up to Hassan Whiteside to hinder him as much as possible. You should know by now that the two have had some fun battles in the past, with Whiteside gaining the upper hand in their last regular season meeting on March 8. Simply put, Whiteside was just on another level that night in terms of his focus and it led to a team-high 26 points on 9-of-12 shooting and two blocks on Embiid. With the playoffs being a whole different ball game, it will take that kind of effort and more. As Coach Spo likes to say, whatever it takes. Highlights: Game 2: HEAT at 76ers Game 1: HEAT at 76ers Game Notes: Erik Spoelstra is 46-13 at home in the playoffs. The HEAT have the second-highest postseason home winning percentage in NBA history at .722 (83-32). Dwyane Wade’s 28 points in Game 2 was the most off the bench in postseason franchise history.
  6. Photo Credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant The Miami HEAT defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 113-103 Monday night at Wells Fargo Center in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round to snap Philadelphia's 17-game winning streak. Dwyane Wade led the way for the HEAT with 28 points. The series is now tied 1-1. Click here for the full recap on HEAT.com.
  7. Photo Credit: Vaughn Ridley The Miami HEAT face the Toronto Raptors Sunday afternoon at Air Canada Centre in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The HEAT defeated the Raptors 103-91 in Game 6 to even the series at three games apiece. Tip-off is set for 3:30 PM and television coverage is on ABC, although you can log on to HEAT.com for an exclusive one-hour pre-game show. You can also listen to the action live on 790 The Ticket. 1: How did the move to start Justise Winslow at center change the complexion of the series? Couper Moorhead: The HEAT had already started playing much smaller, other than with Josh McRoberts, in the past couple games since Hassan Whiteside went down with a knee injury so the change to the starting lineup felt like a natural progression of that. But with Toronto seemingly sticking with their starting frontcourt of Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo, we now have two very distinct styles going to battle with one another – with Miami very clearly trying to take advantage of its speed, as we saw Goran Dragic able to do in Game 6. The move worked to Miami’s advantage, but Dwane Casey didn’t seem to think his team’s struggles were due to the lineup so much as Toronto’s difficulty containing the ball in one-on-one situations – even though those situations were made a little more stressful with more spacing on the floor for the HEAT. While the small lineup was effective, we can’t expect it to be a silver bullet in the way that Golden State starting Andre Iguodala during last year’s NBA Finals seemed to be. Miami still has to do a lot of dirty work on the boards, where they are outsized, and they’ll have to work around Biyombo laying off Justise Winslow’s shooting on the perimeter. It’s all about who can get to who at this point. Joe Beguiristain: The smaller lineup did a lot of things on both ends. First off, Miami was able to get out in transition a bit more with the faster unit on the floor. Of course, that all started with the team’s improved defense in Game 6. Being able to switch on every defensive assignment didn’t give Toronto that many chances at a mismatch. Additionally, the HEAT did a nice job of gang-rebounding against a bigger Raptors squad. Case in point: Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson combined for 18 of Miami’s 41 rebounds on the night. Still, none of this would have been possible had it not been for the stellar play of Justise Winslow. Winslow fought hard on both ends and boxed-out Bismack Biyombo quite well for a majority of the contest. The rookie also mixed things up offensively with a few outside jumpers and finishes inside for 12 points in all on 4-of-9 shooting. 2: With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan playing their best ball of the series at the same time, what can Miami do to slow them down in Game 7? Couper: They have to be able to contain the ball one-on-one. Not just because there is a distinct lack of rim protection on the floor for Miami these days, but because with all the switching they are doing on the perimeter the HEAT are trusting their individual defenders to keep the ball in front. There’s only so much you can do if DeRozan is going to hit his pull-up mid-range jumpers or if Lowry is going to hit step-back threes, but you have to affect them on their forays into the paint. It’s one thing to get beat by exceedingly tough shots. It’s another thing entirely to get beat by layups. Joe: It sounds simple, but you have to keep them out of the paint as much as possible. While DeMar DeRozan hit some in-rhythm mid-range jumpers on Friday night, he was held scoreless in the fourth quarter. Again, being able to switch defensively should make the 26-year-old a bit more uncomfortable. With Lowry, you have to watch out for the three-ball. Although he’s shooting just 33.3 percent from deep in this series, he still is a threat. That said, Richardson defended the veteran point guard very well in Game 6 and swatted his shot twice in the fourth quarter. Hopefully the young man out of Tennessee can keep it up. 3: How do you win a Game 7 on the road? Couper: You weather the storm. Yes, Miami needs to fight for all the details on the floor while executing their schemes to the fullest, but when you’re on the road in a game like this you know the home team is going to make a run. So, you have to absorb it and hang around long enough to make your own run. Miami was able to do this, in a sense, in Game 5 – they just took too big of a punch at the beginning of the game. Home teams generally win these games for a reason and road teams never win in a blowout, but as long as Miami can keep things close enough for long enough by making winning plays, they’ll give themselves a chance to compete at the end. Joe: You win a Game 7 on the road by sticking to your principles. You already know that Toronto will feed off the energy from its home crowd in the early going, so a quick start from Miami will be important. As I’ve stated numerous times before, it all begins on the defensive end. When the HEAT are defending at the level they are capable of, there aren't many teams that can defeat them. With it being a do-or-die situation, I expect Miami to come out with a laser-sharp focus on Sunday afternoon. Luckily, the team was in this same predicament in the last round, down 3-2 to the Charlotte Hornets. Even though the HEAT don’t have home court this time and thus no Game 7 at home, they still understand what it takes to come away victorious when their backs are against the wall. Highlights: Game 6 Game Notes: The HEAT are aiming to become the first team in NBA history to surmount a 3-2 series deficit twice in the same postseason. Erik Spoelstra is 10-4 in elimination games as a head coach. Dwyane Wade leads Miami in points (25.2) and assists (3.7) per game in the ECSF. Kyle Lowry leads Toronto in points (21.5), assists (5.3) and steals (2.3) per contest in the series against the HEAT.
  8. 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.
  9. By Dylan Barmmer When talk turns to the HEAT, it is often LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh – or the talented trio of NBA All-Stars as a collective unit – who serve as the conversation starters and focal points of discussion. But if the HEAT had a heartbeat – if you had to pick one player who truly, deeply and naturally personifies not just the fabric and culture of the HEAT organization and its hard-working, gritty core ethos, but also the city of Miami itself – another man's name would rise fast to the forefront: Udonis Haslem. The HEAT's rugged and reliable rebounding record-holder was born in Miami, bred in Miami and made in Miami. And for the entire duration of his quietly excellent, 10-year NBA career, Haslem has sweat, bled, fought, scraped, scored, rebounded, won in and worn out just one uniform bearing one city's name: Miami. This season, the 6-foot-8, 235-pound Haslem reminded HEAT fans and everyone throughout the NBA universe just how durable, dependable and long-lasting his presence in the HEAT lineup has been over the past decade, averaging 3.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks and shooting 51.4% from the field in 18.9 minutes per game over 75 games. The veteran forward also led all HEAT players in charges taken, and ranked third on the team in rebounding despite clocking in at eighth in playing time. There aren’t official statistics kept for menacing glares and overall intensity, but if there were, Haslem would have been near or at the top of the HEAT’s chart in those categories too. More importantly, Haslem quietly and selflessly shuttled between starting and reserve roles, taking the floor for the opening tip in 59 games and coming off the HEAT bench in 16 others. Haslem's overall excellence, intelligence, toughness and dogged determination were once again vital to a stellar season for the HEAT – this one a record-setting campaign that saw them win a NBA-best and club-record 66 games, including a remarkable 27 straight, and secure the No. 1 overall seed in the postseason for the first time in HEAT history. And one regular-season game in particular etched Haslem's name not only in the public consciousness, but into the HEAT record books as well. In a 113-106 win over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 21, 2012, Haslem scored 2 points, snared 2 steals and pulled down 8 rebounds in 18 hard-charging minutes off the HEAT bench. Haslem's second rebound in that game was the 4,808th of his career, moving him past venerated former NBA All-Star and current HEAT executive Alonzo Mourning and into sole possession of the top spot on the HEAT's all-time rebounding list. Not bad for a player who wasn't even drafted by an NBA team following stellar careers at Miami High and the University of Florida, where he paired with current HEAT teammate Mike Miller to help the Gators reach the Final Four of the 2000 NCAA Tournament. In fact, the accomplishment made Haslem the first undrafted player to lead an NBA franchise in total rebounds. And among the ranks of undrafted players in NBA history, only Ben Wallace and Brad Miller have hauled in more rebounds than Haslem's 5,157. But while Haslem is best-known for his board work, hard work and dirty work, his scoring ability has long been an asset to the HEAT as well. Haslem has averaged 8.9 points per game to go along with his 7.7 rebounds in his 669-game NBA career, averaging at least 10.6 points per game in four of his 10 seasons with the HEAT. He’s also hit 49.5% of his field goal attempts, including 50% or better in 5 seasons, and 76.5% from the free throw line. In further proof of just how much Haslem has meant to the HEAT over the past decade, the 669 games played is also a franchise record, just ahead of Wade's 665 games in a HEAT uniform. Haslem has always possessed intimidating strength and ferocious dunking ability, but over the years, he has worked hard to hone his jump shot, developing an often-lethal mid-range jumper, particularly from the baseline. And while his 3.9 points-per-game average this season ranks as the lowest of his career (as does his 18.9 minutes-per-game average), Haslem has certainly shown he can still be counted on to put the ball in the basket – especially in situations when the HEAT need to replace the more naturally prolific and pure scoring abilities of James, Wade and Chris Bosh. Haslem scored 10 or more points in 6 games during the regular season, doing so in 24 minutes or less of playing time on each occasion. His 51.4% field-goal percentage also ranked as his best over the past four seasons, and the third-best mark of his entire career. But it has been the postseason where Haslem has really reminded HEAT fans of his ability to produce points when needed. In the recently completed 4-game sweep of the Bucks in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs, Haslem started at power forward and averaged 7.5 points in just 17.0 minutes, scoring 25 points in 36 minutes of action in Games 3 and 4. Haslem, who also averaged 4.8 rebounds, 0.5 blocks and 0.3 steals in that series, shot a sizzling 61.9% from the floor against the Bucks, including 73.3% (11 of 15) in those final 2 games. That 61.9% mark is third behind only fellow forward Chris Andersen (81.3%) and the incomparable James (62.7%), and the scoring and rebounding averages are sixth and fifth, respectively. In Game 3, with the HEAT heading into a hostile and charged environment in Milwaukee after winning the first 2 games at AmericanAirlines Arena, Haslem scored 12 points, grabbed 3 rebounds and snared 1 steal in 16 productive minutes. He hit 5 of 6 shots from the field and 2 of 2 free throws, helping the HEAT post a convincing 104-91 win and take a commanding 3-0 lead in the series. Haslem was even more impressive and influential in Game 4, a gritty 88-77 HEAT win that ended the Bucks' season in Milwaukee and put the HEAT through to the Eastern Conference Semifinals with time to prepare for their next opponent. With Wade held out of action to rest his bruised right knee, Haslem upped his offensive attack in support of James and Bosh, taking 9 shots and connecting on 6 – along with 1 of 2 free-throw attempts – to finish with a playoff-high 13 points in just 19 minutes of action. Haslem scored 9 of those 13 points in the pivotal third quarter, netting 9 of 11 for the HEAT during a late stretch before James closed out the quarter by scoring the HEAT's final 9 points. James (11 points) and Haslem combined to score 20 of the HEAT's 22 points in the third, and they took a 67-62 lead into the fourth quarter, where they soon broke the game open with a 19-5 run that grew their lead to 88-72 with 2:41 left to play. Haslem finished third in scoring for the HEAT behind James (game-high 30 points) and the red-hot Ray Allen (16 points off bench) in that closeout game, adding 5 rebounds and 2 blocks in his 19 live-wire minutes. It all added up to a gutty victory on a night when Wade sat out and Bosh took only 7 shots and scored 10 points. Of course, Haslem is no stranger to clutch playoff performances. He served as a vital cog in the HEAT's NBA Championship runs of 2006 and 2012, averaging 8.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 0.6 steals and shooting 49.3% from the field in 22 games (all starts) in the franchise's first title-winning postseason and 4.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 0.6 assists and 0.3 blocks in 22 games (including 11 starts) as the HEAT secured their second NBA title last summer. Overall, Haslem has appeared in 104 postseason games, making 63 starts. In those 104 playoff games, he’s averaged 6.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.3 blocks in 25.5 minutes per game, shooting 46.9% from the field and 72.6% from the line. If any one playoff game personified everything that the proud, passionate, professional Haslem has always meant to and done for the HEAT, it was probably Game 4 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers. Playing in front of a loud Indianapolis crowd with the HEAT trailing 2-1 in the series and missing an injured Bosh, Haslem stepped up big-time, stepping into that patented mid-range jumper and draining it 4 times over the game's final 6 minutes. Haslem hit 4 of the HEAT's final 5 field goals in a gutsy 101-93 road win that knotted the series at 2-2, finishing with 14 impactful points and 4 rebounds in 25 minutes. With the HEAT's postseason run in a precarious position against the hungry Pacers and their home crowd, Haslem nailed 5 of 6 shots from the field and all 4 attempts from the line. And he hit all of those clutch jumpers down the stretch with a massive bandage taped above his right eye, after a stray elbow from Pacers forward Lou Amundson had opened a large and bloody gash that required stitches after the game. Haslem will turn 33 on June 9, and he hopes to be celebrating NBA Championship number 3 with the only team he has ever fought, bled, scored, rebounded, sweated and sacrificed for soon after. No matter where and how this incredible, electric, historic season ends for the HEAT, one thing is for sure – the heartbeat of the HEAT still wears number 40 across his chiseled chest, and the name "Haslem" across his broad back.