What was True Then, is True Now. Have a Plan, Stick to It
“What was true then, is true now. Have a plan, stick to it” – X.
There’s a brief scene at the end of Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake where Daniel Craig’s character, X, is allowed a few moments to bask in the spoils of a conquering hero, surrounded by friends and caviar in the private back room of an exclusive country club. He’d been beaten – multiple times – and had well-laid plans go horribly awry – multiple times – but in the end, enough pieces come together to put him on top.
As he exits the club, Craig’s voiceover lists the many that have fallen, big and small, during his rise to the top. A woman takes his arm and he heads towards his new car and a happy ending. But Craig pauses halfway down the stairs to turn back and reflect, breaking the fourth wall in acknowledgement of his achievement. A moment later, he’s shot by a forgotten character, and the movie ends.
Likewise, the 2010-11 Miami HEAT took its lumps and hardly won every battle, but all comers were dealt with eventually, with the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls – against which the HEAT were 1-6 during the regular season – knocked off in dramatic fashion in the playoffs by an opponent few had expected.
But just as soon as a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals appeared in hand, with a 15-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, there was the pause. And then the Dallas Mavericks stood tall, incredibly hitting 10 unassisted threes in the final two games of the series, winning the NBA Championship.
That final bit of business left unfinished.
The days that followed, just as in the times after any of Miami’s fleeting failures, the door opened for criticisms. For statements carved in black or white. For sentencing. Accomplishments rendered insignificant by the end of a stage.
Movies, like seasons, end. But defining either by a finish is as silly as putting aside an album because Track 12 is lackluster. There’s much to build on, and Miami gets plenty of sequels.
“Details, details. Things to do. Things to get done. Don't bother me with details, just tell me when they're done,” – Jimmy Price.
It’s easy to paint Miami’s season in broad strokes. LeBron James and Chris Bosh join Dwyane Wade in July. Preseason at Eglin Air Force Base. Mike Miller hurt. Opening night loss to Boston. Udonis Haslem hurt until May. A 9-8 start in November followed by 21 wins in 22 games. Another eight-game streak in late January. Mike Bibby comes in after the trade deadline. An Eddie House game-winner against Oklahoma City. A .500 winning percentage through a brutal stretch of home games in March. A Southeast Division title, the second seed in the East. Philadelphia. Boston. Chicago. Six games with Dallas. The season footnoted with a loss.
How much of that matters to 2011-12? The injuries, certainly. Having an excellent spot-up shooter and an excellent defender coming off the bench for an entire season could make all the difference. But the outcomes, lack of rings aside, are inconsequential. So much action is reduced to a win or a loss, to a record that summarizes each night by an end. There are no more details in a W than there are in two points.
Of any lesson to be gleaned from this HEAT team, it’s that no two points are made the same.
Miami’s fifth-ranked defense, pace-adjusted, was consistent to the point of being easy to take for granted. They hedged on pick-and-rolls, they disrupted the passing lanes and doubled-and-recovered on the ball as each player bought into their role in third-year coach Erik Spoelstra’s system. It wasn’t always perfect, but the HEAT rarely lost sight of its principles on that end of the court as they had only four streaks of three losses or more all year.
The true journey was on offense, where Spoelstra had to figure out how to utilize two players that had previously used 30+ percent of their teams’ possessions, and another, Bosh, who used barely less than that.
Popular terms early on for the HEAT’s offense were that they were “taking turns” and that they had to get away from playing “hero ball”. Bosh had to adjust to functioning more out of the high post, and both Wade and James had to get used to working without the ball. They had to learn tendencies, strengths, weaknesses, spacing and balance.
Those were lessons undertaken during a crushing loss to the Utah Jazz, when Paul Millsap hit the third, fourth and fifth threes of his career in the final minute to force overtime. Those were the lessons of a four-losses-in-five-games stretch in late November that culminated in a hearty beating at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. And the lessons remained the same during the subsequent winning streak, including a 38-point performance from James in his return to Cleveland and a miracle comeback against Washington.
Wins and losses got the HEAT the second seed in the Eastern Conference, and home-court advantage over Philadelphia, Boston and Dallas, but as much as the narrative hung on the standings, the evolution of the team always mattered more than the results.
It took some time, and it wasn’t until early February – after the return of Miller but months before Haslem would return to save a couple games deep in the playoffs – at the earliest, when Miami began to look like more than just a sum of its parts.
The parts were so talented it didn’t always matter. Miami didn’t just have elite scorers, but efficient scorers, and that kept them winning. But after a few months of Spoelstra experimenting with the playbook – with everything from the Triangle Offense to James-Wade pick-and-rolls – defenses improved in the playoffs and it was back to relying on talent in dire situations, with three-point barrages from James and Wade clinching series’ against Boston and Chicago.
The HEAT survived until they were two wins away from a title, and though “survives” may appear to carry negative connotations – particularly in context of that season – that word offers nothing but hope. The rotation was always in flux and the offense showed signs – full-court alley oops on the spectacular end of the spectrum, improving off-ball movement and execution on the fundamental end – but they were still signs.
Plenty to build on.
Yes, the team survived heated trips to Cleveland and Toronto, not to mention boos in nearly every other destination, and that’s part of the adventure. But this was a great team despite its flaws, nearly a championship season despite existing purely in the realm of “Yes, but…” It’s the on-court that’s always going to matter, in 2011 the same as 2012, and there was enough evidence in favor of contender-status, of an experiment that was working, that the emotional calls for dramatic changes ring false. Then, the same as now, they had a plan, and it’s one worth sticking to.