After receiving their championship rings before Tuesday's season opener, the Miami Heat proceeded to spend the next two and a half hours making the case that nobody else will get to hold such a ceremony for years to come.
First, the caveats about Miami's 120-107 victory over the Boston Celtics in a rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals. It's just one game, and the Heat was much more dominant during last year's opener, a 21-point road takedown of the Dallas Mavericks. After overhauling their bench during the offseason, the Celtics clearly need more time to jell. Other than a fourth-quarter spark from Leandro Barbosa, Boston got little from its bench, and still hung around much of the evening.
Now, the upside: Miami hung 130.1 points per 100 possessions on one of the league's best defenses. Here's how that compares to the Heat's best performances all last season, regular season or playoffs:
Date Opp ORtg
3/30 @TOR 139.2
1/17 SAS 138.3
5/22 IND 135.0
1/21 PHI 131.9
2/21 SAC 131.4
10/30 BOS 130.1
Including their seven-game playoff series, Miami and Boston squared off 11 times last season. The best Offensive Rating the Heat managed in those matchups was 122.5 in the deciding Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Miami more than picked up where it left off last season, making 55.5 percent of two-point attempts, eight of 16 threes and committing just eight turnovers all evening.
The scary part of the Heat's performance is nothing about it felt particularly fluky. No, newcomer Ray Allen isn't going to make five of his seven shot attempts every night, but he's capable of such performances on a regular basis in the comfortable role he fills in the Miami offense. While his replacement Jason Terry struggled to fit in with the Celtics' reserves, Allen looked like he's been playing with the Heat for years. Already, Miami's pindown screens for Allen are in midseason form, leading to an open shot either immediately or via an Allen bounce pass.
When I saw the Heat during the preseason, I got the same sense as I did watching the USA team play under FIBA rules this summer--that the three-point line is just too close for their shooters. With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh drawing attention, Allen and Rashard Lewis are getting wide-open shots on a regular basis. No wonder Lewis and Shane Battier lamented early in preseason that they were almost too open.
As Steve Kerr noted during the broadcast, the three-pointer wasn't a huge weapon for Miami during the 2011-12 regular season. With Erik Spoelstra asking James and Wade to curb their long-distance attempts, the Heat had only one consistent three-point threat in the starting five last year (Mario Chalmers). Now Miami has added Battier to that group, with a whole fleet of shooters (Allen, Lewis and Mike Miller) coming off the bench. Allen and Lewis, the newcomers, combined to score 29 points on 17 shooting possessions. They made nine of their 12 shot attempts.
The relationship between the stars and the shooters runs both directions. With the floor better spaced, the Heat's big three has more room to operate. Courtney Lee did do a solid job of battling with Wade, who struggled outside the paint and needed 27 shooting possessions to score 29 points. However, the Celtics had no answer for LeBron James, who was slowed only by the cramps that limited his minutes during the second half. James scored 26 points in 29 minutes, needing just 18 shooting possessions, and added 10 boards. James also joined in the perimeter attack by making two of his four three-point attempts.
After ranking third in the NBA in Offensive Rating in 2010-11, Miami dropped to sixth last season. The Heat ranked better at the defensive end of the floor. That seems unlikely to repeat this season. Miami improved its Offensive Rating from 108.7 points per 100 possessions during the regular season to 111.4 in the playoffs, which trailed only Oklahoma City. Last week, Grantland's Zach Lowe boldly predicted that the Heat would lead the league in points per possession. I think that's certainly in play. Following the James Harden trade, SCHOENE has Miami projected for third, and that's with reasonably conservative projections for Allen and especially Lewis.
The Heat won't stay this potent--or this small--when Joel Anthony, who missed the opener with a strained hamstring, returns to action. Anthony will also address the trade-off for Miami playing so many mid-sized shooters, a lack of size in the paint that allowed a similarly small Boston rotation to put up plenty of points itself (the Celtics scored 115.7 points per 100 possessions, better than any of the last four games of the Eastern Conference Finals). Still, smallball--and the three-ball--is here to stay for the Heat. That should frighten the rest of the NBA.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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