MIAMI—There are so many statistics that surface over the course of the season that some get buried beneath the rest. And something has been happening lately that has certainly helped Miami grab a share of the lead of the Eastern Conference, actually four percentage points ahead of the Indiana Pacers.
They've done a better job of dealing with the absence of Dwyane Wade.
After starting 5-6 without Wade, they are 10-1 in their past 11, including wins in the last three contests while he's been resting a sore hamstring—much closer to the 11-2 mark they recorded with Mike Miller as the Wade replacement last season. Toney Douglas has started nine of those last 11 Wade-less games, and Miami has won all but one, with Douglas providing active defense even if he's still a bit frenetic on offense. On Monday against Toronto, Douglas even played down the stretch, splashing a late three-pointer and later thanking LeBron James in the locker room for showing confidence with the pass.
"I told him, 'Don't even mention it,'" James said. "I told him, 'You're on the floor for a reason, right?' I believe in every guy that's on the floor."
Of course, more people will believe in the Heat's championship chances if Wade can get on the floor more often, since he's had his most efficient season in between all of the interruptions. Most of the time he's missed has been due to his ongoing knee-strengthening program, but he's also missed time due to an illness, migraine, a sore Achilles and now a tight hamstring.
And that's when the next phase of the Heat's pre-playoff preparation will begin. He and James need some time together, to get some rhythm. Both James and Erik Spoelstra acknowledged as much on Monday, even if Spoelstra didn't mention the two stars specifically.
"It's a great point," Spoelstra said.
He predicted that rhythm would return, and would return "quicker," because of the deep postseason runs and all the minutes played together over the past four years. "But that doesn't mean that there won't be a process to it," he said. "There always is. We constantly have to work on it."
They need to work at it, so that the team as a whole—one that "is built different"—can play with "great momentum and great rhythm. That doesn't happen through osmosis. You have to work on it, you have to watch it, you have to drill it, you have to be conscious of it."
Certainly, Spoelstra is conscious of some of the following numbers, all of which are according to the NBA's official media-accessible stats site.
Last season, James and Wade played 1,932 minutes together, the second-most of any duo on the team, and just 52 fewer than James and Chris Bosh did. They posted a net positive rating of 15.4 per 100 possessions, better than the ratings of James and Bosh (13.8) or Bosh and Wade (12.0).
This season, James and Wade have played just 1,149 minutes together, the fifth-most of any duo on the team, just eight more than James and Shane Battier, just 24 more than James and Ray Allen and just 89 more than James and Norris Cole. Their net positive rating per 100 possessions is 7.2, which is not bad, but not close to James and Bosh (11.5) or, for that matter, Bosh and Mario Chalmers (11.9) or Bosh and Battier (10.9). In fact, of the Heat's 10 most-used duos, that rating ranks seventh—James and Norris Cole are a 7.9, as are Cole and Chris Andersen.
Since Feb. 10, James and Wade have played in only 13 of 24 games together, and their net rating is 5.7, while James and Bosh are at 13.1 during that same time.
Some of that is due to what most would assume is a statistical oddity: The Heat actually have a better net rating with Wade sitting this season (plus-7.9) than when he's playing (plus-5.7), whereas they are a plus-8.2 with James playing and a plus-2.7 with James sitting. They are a plus-10.2 with Bosh playing and just a plus-0.6 with Bosh sitting, the starkest difference on the team.
But Bosh does benefit from usually playing with James or Wade, or both, while Spoelstra has more frequently used one of the two perimeter stars to anchor the all-reserve lineups.
He'll need Wade to get to doing that soon. And whatever the analytics say, there's no question that Wade will play when he's able.
Against the best teams, he'll be needed.
And that's why this remaining regular-season time is essential.
That's why, for as much as having patience with Wade has been prudent, James and Wade need some work now.
Just ask James.
"It may be a little bit of a rhythm thing," James said. "It's something you can't take for granted. I mean, obviously, we've been together for almost four years now, but you can't take those opportunities for granted. We haven't practiced much together, we haven't played as much. So see what happens when we get out on the floor. It's going to be very challenging. But I think it's something we can figure out."
Figure on it being the focus from here.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.
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