The Miami Heat’s 2016 season is not over, but it seems reasonable to say — even now, before an elimination game Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets — that Miami’s presence as a threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers has been oversold.
Game 5 of the Heat’s Eastern Conference first-round series on Wednesday night illustrated the point.
What happened in Games 1 and 2 of this series was, in a word, unsustainable. Another word would be aberrational. The Heat hit over 57 percent of their shots in those two games, after laboring through the winter with barely anyone who could shoot from the perimeter. Not until the trade-deadline acquisition of Joe Johnson and the late-season improvement of Josh Richardson did this team pose a consistent threat behind the three-point line, the key word being consistent.
Gerald Green is hardly consistent.
In Games 1 and 2 against Charlotte, Richardson and Justise Winslow joined Luol Deng and Dwyane Wade in burying the Hornets. Yes, Miami looked like a house of fire — the Heat in full flame and full flight — but surely, that wasn’t going to last.
The reality of the Heat in 2016 — even if the flames are not doused on Friday in Game 6 — can already be framed in a certain context defined by limitations more than hype. This is not a knock on the Heat, even though certain people might perceive it as such.
Facts are facts: Winslow and Richardson — as luminous as they were in the first two games of this series — remain rookies. As Charlotte returned home for Games 3 and 4, Winslow and Richardson (especially Richardson) became smaller. Winslow has at times ignited the Heat with a proper sense of aggression, but Richardson has become so valuable to this team as a three-point-making floor spacer, and he hasn’t been able to offer very much over the past three games. The man whose late-season emergence added a significantly potent dimension to Miami’s offense has provided nothing more than an occasional make since the Heat went up 2-0 in this series.
Wednesday night hammered home the extent to which this team misses Chris Bosh, magnifying the odd nature of claims that this team was fully equipped to take on Cleveland and LeBron.
In Game 5, with the Heat clinging to a one-point lead inside the final two minutes, Richardson — not Johnson, the veteran who pulls in a lot more money and has traveled many more miles in his career — took two heaves no closer than 27 feet from the basket. It’s one thing for a rookie to take shots in and of itself; if they’re good shots, a team can live with the result. However, a 27-footer obviously cannot be a corner shot (there’s not enough room in that area of the floor), and corner threes are what Richardson shoots best:
Miami Heat rookie Josh Richardson is shooting 70% from the right corner on the year.
— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) April 28, 2016
Miami’s reliance on rookies — Richardson and Winslow — in the stretch run of this season and the playoffs is highly encouraging in the long run. The Heat are in the process of developing a young core which could really dazzle if Bosh is able to play full seasons in the coming years. Moreover, having to play without Bosh has given the Heat a sense of what they can and can’t do in their present iteration. The 2017 group should be a title contender in the East, even with Brad Stevens working his magic in Boston and Scott Brooks taking over in Washington with the Wizards.
In the long run, Miami has a lot to look forward to.
In the short run, however, a Bosh-less team entrusting crunch-time minutes to young players is a recipe for almost. Richardson’s late hoists in Game 5 underscore that point.
One shouldn’t be too surprised by what’s transpired in this series over the past three games. Yes, it is striking that after scoring at least 115 in Games 1 and 2, the Heat haven’t even hit 90 points in Games 3 through 5. What must frustrate Erik Spoelstra and Dwyane Wade is that 91 points would have been enough to win each of the past two games, but the role-player shooting which existed at the start of the series has vanished, all while Marvin Williams — who couldn’t hit the side of a barn door in the first two games — has resumed being his normal, productive self for Charlotte.
As we turn to Game 6, it’s obviously a time for Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic to be at their best, but each of them have played great games earlier in this series, and Wade played well in Game 5 to boot.
The man who must really step up for the Heat — justifying a trade-deadline move and the big salary he commands (more than three times what series hero Courtney Lee pulls in for the Hornets) — is Joe Johnson. One of the ironic elements of this series is that Johnson, a noted shot-chucker in previous seasons with other franchises, has erred on the side of being too cautious and deferential. Instead of craving the big shot, Johnson isn’t looking for threes at every opportunity. Yet, that’s why Johnson came to the Heat; it’s why Pat Riley wanted him on the roster.
The other irony of Johnson’s presence on the team is that when Miami had a chance to finish off Game 5, the Heat hoisted the kinds of shots Johnson often put up in Brooklyn with the Nets… but Josh Richardson was the man tossing those low-percentage looks into the air. Friday in Charlotte, Joe Johnson has a chance to lead by example for the Heat.
With rookies facing elimination on the road and Chris Bosh not in uniform, the Heat’s limitations in 2016 have never been more conspicuous, even if 2017 and beyond offer a substantial amount of hope to this organization.
In the short term — solely the context of this season and this playoff run — it’s up to veterans such as Johnson to give the Heat another sunrise, one in which there’s another basketball game to look forward to.
A Game 7 in Miami on Sunday.