What is “the bad-guy lift?”
It sounds like a term you haven’t heard before… maybe because that’s exactly the case. You have not heard it before.
Inspired by Charles Barkley’s immortal line, “Ya gotta make the bad guys beat you,” I submit for your approval “the bad-guy lift.”
We might have seen it Monday night in Philips Arena, as the Miami Heat — a bad road team — got healthy against the Atlanta Hawks, winning comfortably despite 28 points (on 11-of-18 shooting) from a red-hot Kent Bazemore.
Is this real life?
If you had told the Heat and coach Erik Spoelstra that Bazemore would go off for 28, the visitors in Georgia would not have felt very optimistic about their prospects. Yet, they cruised to a 100-88 win, not being threatened down the stretch. This marked a substantial reversal from Atlanta’s win in Miami earlier in the season, and for that matter, from most of the Heat’s road games this season: Miami entered Monday’s game 2-5 on the road.
What happened on Monday? It’s easy to say that the Heat learned something about how to play, and people who follow them closely made that very case:
Wallace: It remains a delicate balancing act, but Heat may have found formula for success between Wade and Dragic https://t.co/z1RQ7hOQJw
— Michael Wallace (@MyMikeCheck) December 15, 2015
However, one has to look at the other side of the equation in a case such as this: Is a result more the product of Team A finding elusive solutions, or is it the primary result of Team B encountering a profound slump in a long season, something which will happen for most teams in the league (not Golden State and probably not Cleveland or San Antonio, but surely for just about everyone else)?
It is perfectly understandable to say that Miami learned how to get more from Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic, but how many other times will Gerald Green hit 9 of 14 shots, en route to 20 points? That’s not (yet) a sustainable model. Moreover, Chris Bosh has to become a much more machine-like producer of 20-and-8 games. He has not established that standard to this point in the season, dropping in and out of form.
It would seem that Miami’s win — part of an undeniably impressive and important 30-hour stretch for the Heat, in which they abruptly changed the still-uncertain trajectory of their young season — is more a product of Atlanta’s struggles.
Jeff Teague was dominated by Tony Parker and the rest of the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday. The Hawks were blitzed by the Spurs in San Antonio earlier in the season, in a matchup of The Master (Gregg Popovich) against The Understudy (Mike Budenholzer). Therefore, this past Saturday’s game marked a chance for the Hawks and Coach Bud to show what they had learned.
With Teague failing to hit a single field goal, the Hawks had no chance. Failing to win against the Spurs was not the sin; failing to be remotely competitive in a second matchup against a team — at home — is what raised alarm bells about the state of the Hawks.
Monday night, Teague figured to bounce back after a bagel on the field goal-shooting stat sheet.
His response was shocking for a player of his caliber: He went 2 of 12 from the field, suffering another brutal night at the office. The Hawks can’t function without Teague playing at a B-minus level (at the very least). When Teague flunks, Atlanta’s chances of winning are next to zero. Yes, Miami’s main threats and its key role players all showed up on the same night. Yet, facing a broken opponent is likely the number one reason why the Heat had such a good time in a building where they’ve often struggled in recent years.
No one should be sold on the Heat after this performance. Miami and every other non-Cleveland team in the East has endured way too many swerves and jolts and potholes to be viewed with complete confidence. It will take a month of sustained quality to show NBA observers that the Heat (or any other challenger to the Cavs) is ready to be viewed in a fundamentally different way.
The hope, though, for Miami, is as follows: The bad-guy lift might become a friend.
The bad-guy lift is no more complex than this: Playing a bad opponent or (in this case) a good opponent in a very bad patch of its season can enable Team A to gain confidence. More precisely, playing a bad opponent (or a good foe in a bad spot) can create all sorts of favorable situations and outcomes which enable Team A to see, in real time, what a well-constructed game should look like. Playing teams in difficult situations can enable Team A to visualize the right blueprint, to see what the coach’s vision is supposed to achieve each night in the league.
This could be Miami’s main benefit from Monday’s win in Atlanta. It doesn’t prove the Heat are somehow “back,” but it could become a gateway experience, a moment which enables Erik Spoelstra to get through to his roster, especially the role players and Dragic, the main new component of the starting five whose task is (and has been) to integrate with Wade and Bosh, thereby turning the Heat into a top-tier East contender.
We will see in the coming weeks if “the bad-guy lift” is real for the Heat. They hope so, but there’s a wide gulf between hope and actualization.