It seems like a lifetime ago when the Heat's offense operated with the efficiency of a pickup game, relying on the skills (albeit unique ones) of one or two players to score. They would need LeBron James to flex his all-world talent or Dwyane Wade to single-handedly carry the load.
The Heat still lean on their stars -- witness James' 41 points (on 15-of-23 shooting), 13 rebounds and eight assists in their 117-112 win over Indiana on Monday -- but lately, Miami can credit its success on the offensive end to something else: balance.
"We've changed," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "I think the biggest change we have made in the last two weeks is the detail of our execution and the trust we are showing in getting to the second or third options. Trust involves moving the ball and we are getting to the defense when it isn't set. Guys are buying into it. With time, the confidence is growing."
That trust has not come easy. As recently as late January, Heat players were looking at each other with an uncertain eye. Over the last two minutes and overtime of a four-point loss to Atlanta, James took nine of Miami's final 12 shots, many of which were contested.
"The ball would just stop," point guard Carlos Arroyo said. "And when it did, we were in trouble."
From the sideline, Spoelstra could only watch. In practices, he preached the importance of believing in each other, of making the extra pass and being diverse in the half court. But deep down, Spoelstra knew there was only so much talking he could do.
"We are built differently than some teams," Spoelstra said. "We have home-run hitters. The process has been learning how to make the game easier for each other. We don't want to take the ball away from our best players. We want to get to the second or third options. We want to go for the home runs after you explore different things."
Over the last few weeks, the Heat have started to see results. Health has been a factor. Mike Miller returned to the lineup in late December and worked his way back into the rotation in mid-January. Miller's presence has bolstered a bench that has outscored opponents by 6.3 points per game over the last five games. The notoriously streaky Eddie House has caught fire, too, scoring double digits in nine of the last 12 games.
Spoelstra, however, sees more. He points to Miami's 104-100 win over Orlando as an example of the offensive growth. In that game, James went off for 51 points. But it was the way LeBron picked up those points that got Spoelstra's attention.
"It was as quiet and efficient a 51 as you can have," Spoelstra said. "The most important thing was that it came within our offense. There was hardly any isolation. It didn't seem like the ball was stopping. The ball was moving. He often would finish the play and that's what we want."
Indeed, while James, Wade and Chris Bosh have continued to put up impressive numbers, much of their production recently has come off second or third passes or kick-outs off double teams.
"Early in the season, we would get most of our points off of fast breaks and not being able to execute in the half court," James said. "We're doing a little bit of everything now. Catch-and-shoot, posting up -- everything that a team needs to do to keep other teams off balance, we have been able to do."
Miami's recent string of success -- it's won seven straight heading into Friday's game against Detroit -- hasn't convinced Spoelstra that his team is anywhere close to a finished project. Statistically, the Heat are one of the league's worst passing teams -- they are 28th in the NBA in assists (19.7 per game), joined in the basement by bottom-feeders Sacramento and Milwaukee -- and are still prone to stretches where the ball doesn't move.
"All facets of our game have to continue to get better," James said. "We can't stop what we do best, which is run. But at the same time, when we don't have anything early in transition, we have to be able to set up and execute in the half court."
Spoelstra agrees and thinks being able to play together over the final two months of the regular season will be invaluable for improving the team chemistry even more going into the playoffs.
"A lot of it is continuity and that takes time on the court," Spoelstra said. "You can't bypass that, even if you have high-IQ players with a lot of experience. You still need time to play together and get to know what works, what makes the other player better. There has been a learning curve for our guys, what with LeBron and Dwyane used to having the ball up top playing the high pick-and-roll. I told them we couldn't run them both on a high pick-and-roll at the same time. We have to develop other aspects of our game. The variety of our offense now is much different than at the beginning of the year. And it will get better by the end."
Mavericks center Brendan Haywood has fond memories of the six-plus seasons he spent in Washington with Gilbert Arenas. What Haywood remembers most is Arenas' supreme confidence. He recently recalled one game under former coach Eddie Jordan in which Arenas blew off a play call late in the game in favor of a deep, contested three-pointer.
"He didn't think anyone could stop him," Haywood said.
Orlando has not seen that Arenas yet. In 27 games with the Magic, Arenas is averaging 8.1 points in 21.3 minutes. It's the first time in Arenas' career he has averaged single digits.
Part of the problem has been his inability to get into a rhythm in his role as a reserve. Arenas went scoreless (0-for-7 from the field in 15 minutes) for the first time in nearly seven years in the Magic's loss to Boston on Sunday and has not shot better than 43 percent the last nine games.
"When you have the ball so much and you are making plays and in attack mode all the time, your rhythm is always there," Arenas said. "Coming off the bench, trying to get warm, by the time you get warm, you are coming out of the game. So you never get a true feeling for the game. I respect guys who can come in the game and just catch fire. There are so many scorers on this team, my mindset is I don't need to come in and be aggressive because we have Ryan Anderson, we have J.J. Redick."
Arenas thinks a change in mindset will help him get more comfortable coming off the bench.
"I think for us to be successful, I need to have to start trying to dominate the second unit," Arenas said. "I think that's how we had success early. When I look back at our games, when we were on the nine-game winning streak, I was dominating that second unit. I need to get back to that."
Credit Paul Silas for helping turn around the resurgent Bobcats, who are 13-11 since he replaced Larry Brown in December. But credit Silas' son, Stephen, too. One of Paul Silas' first moves was to recruit his son off Keith Smart's staff in Golden State to be his top assistant.
"I called him the day I agreed to take the job," Paul said. "He told me, 'Dad, I'm here and I don't want to be looked upon as someone who quit.' I told him I needed him. He's very smart. He knows the X's and O's and works unbelievably with the players."
A Brown University graduate, Stephen Silas got his start in the NBA as an advanced scout when Paul was coaching the Charlotte Hornets and later served as an assistant under his father in Charlotte and Cleveland. He joined the Warriors' staff in 2006, where he coached under Smart and Don Nelson.
"He didn't want to be just known as my son," Paul said. "I told him, 'First it's your work ethic and knowing what you're doing.' That's what propelled him. Around the league, he is really well thought of. People don't look at him as just being my son anymore."
In the four days of practices before the team's first game under Silas, Paul empowered Stephen to run the team through the hardcore conditioning drills he learned under Nelson. He also assigned Stephen to work with the guards and swingmen, including D.J. Augustin and Gerald Henderson, who have shown considerable improvement since the coaching change. Augustin has started working on a Tony Parker-type floater, which both Silases believe will be a weapon for him later in his career.
"His relationship with the players is something I've really admired and enjoyed," Paul said. "He worked with Baron Davis when he was here before. Now he is working with D.J. They really admire his work."
• Stephen Jackson's erratic behavior has become a concern in Charlotte. Monday's ejection for arguing with officials left Jackson with 13 technicals for the season, three short of an automatic one-game suspension. Silas says he has spoken to Jackson on several occasions about his temper, but those conversations haven't cooled down the Bobcats' leading scorer.
• While trade talks surrounding Jackson and Gerald Wallace have cooled recently, an NBA source says the Bobcats have made Boris Diaw available. Diaw will make $9 million next season on the last year of his contract.
• Coach Frank Vogel has led the Pacers to a 5-1 record since replacing Jim O'Brien. "He is very positive with the team," an Eastern Conference scout said of Indiana's interim caoch. "He has simplified the offense and is very good drawing up plays out of timeouts. The team is listening and executing."