MIAMI The NHL still might be in a lockout. But theres one place theyre really talking hockey.
Its where there are palm trees.
Until a few days ago, Miami Heat forward Rashard Lewis never had heard of a hockey assist.
Not much hockey in Houston, he said of his hometown.
But then Miami coach Erik Spoelstra gave his team lectures on the hockey assist. Hes using it to describe how important it is for his team to have ball movement.
In hockey, two players can be awarded an assist: the one who made the pass directly leading to a goal and the one who had the pass before that. In basketball, only one player can get an assist: the guy who made the last pass.
So what. Spoelstra often puts just as much stock in the guy who made the pass that led to the assist.
Lately, everybody on the Heat seems to uttering the word hockey. Before, Canadian Joel Anthony and Alaska native Mario Chalmers were about the only ones you would expect to hear that from.
Miamis hockey-like ball movement has been a major reason why the Heat are 4-1, shooting 52.0 percent and outscoring foes by an average of 10.2 points per game. Theyre averaging 25.4 assists per game, third in the NBA and on pace to be a team record.
But one wonders how the Heat might rank if assists were counted the way they are on the ice. Forward Lebron James had 20 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists before not being needed in the fourth quarter of Wednesdays 103-73 rout of Brooklyn.
He could have had more assists if he was thinking ego during the course of the game, if he was hunting down his own pass, Spoelstra said of James not getting a triple-double. But again, I think he probably had three or four or five hockey assists, where he knew that it was going to be a rotation, that the next guy would be open. Thats how fast his mind is going, thinking of the play after the play after the play.
James is adept at swinging the ball to a man who then finds another for an easy layup or an open 3-pointer. Hes just one of many cerebral Miami players.
Its just good basketball, said savvy forward Shane Battier, once dubbed by the Sporting News as the smartest player in the NBA. You make the pass. If you dont have ball movement on this team, that bogs down the offense.
It helps that the Heat have unselfish players. On a team in which James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen and Lewis have combined for 35 career All-Star appearances, theres been a willingness to sacrifice.
Also, passing has improved by Chalmers, the point guard who looks more confident in his fifth season. Chalmers is averaging 8.2 assists per 36 minutes played, a huge increase from last years 4.4. Hes already had two 11-assist games.
James is the past week has had games of 11 and eight assists. But he considers a hockey assist just as good as a regular one.
We always talked about hockey assists in high school, James said about first having learned about them at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, Ohio. I just come from an unselfish brand of basketball. Thats how I grew up. Thats how my little-league coaches taught me all the way up through high school and its always stuck with me.
Wade also has known for a while about applying the hockey assist to basketball. He got an introduction a decade ago at Marquette when coach Tom Crean, now at Indiana, tracked them on the team.
But Lewis has been in the NBA since 1998 and knew nothing about them until some recent Spoelstra talks.
The first time I heard it actually was a couple of days ago and (Wednesday) when he talked about it in the film session before we went out to play (the Nets), Lewis said. He talked about creating a shot, even though LeBron didnt get the assist, but he created that for that guy in the corner.
So a guy from Houston is learning about hockey in Miami.
Whos Hot: In what area is James not hot? In the past week, hes had games of 12 and 11 rebounds and with 11 and eight assists while scoring 20 or more points in all four games. About the only thing thats down this season is James scoring average, being 22.4 to make his career number 27.6. But James had said his scoring might go down this season due to Miamis great depth.
Whos Not: Sharpshooting swingman Mike Miller is becoming an afterthought for the Heat, his playing time torpedoed by the acquisition of Allen. Miller is averaging just 7.0 minutes per game. Hes made just two 3-pointers this season, tied for seventh on the team.
Whos Hot and Not: Over the past three games, Bosh scored 58 points in the first three halves he played. He had a meager eight in his next three halves.
1. Perhaps the Heat finally will have to dust off a traditional center on an upcoming six-game trip. The Heat face some big, physical and good teams, namely Memphis, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver, which recently outrebounded them 47-32 in a 119-116 loss at Miami. Traditional big men Joel Anthony only has played 16 minutes in three games and Dexter Pittman hasnt played at all this season. Some nights we have to go big, Lewis predicted. We may have to go with Joel Anthony or some of the other bigger guys on the team.''
2. So much for Hall of Famer and Boston television analyst Tom Heinsohn thinking Allen, 37, might struggle this season after leaving the Celtics for the Heat. Heinsohn believed Allen was going to have some trouble this year due to coming off ankle surgery. Yeah, right. In his first five games with the Heat, all Allen has done is shoot 59 percent both the field and 3-point range while averaging 14.2 points.
3. Udonis Haslem, 32, has given and taken a lot of pounding in his career as an undersized power forward. Its starting to show. The 6-foot-8 Haslem is averaging career lows of 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 14.8 minutes. Haslem slowing down and the Heat playing smaller lineups have contributed to time being significantly cut for the Miami native, who averaged 24.8 minutes last season.
Quotes of the Week
The assist in NBA basketball, they should get rid of it. Lets just be honest. Its a very subjective stat. I dont agree with it always. There are some liberties involved in finding what what an assist is in the NBA. Its not a standard stat.
Battier, on there not being a uniform manner to record an assist.
We know that were a defensive-first team even though people get it wrong.
Bosh, on fans paying more attention to Miamis flashy offense.
"He is ahead (of schedule). He always talks each and every day that Im just trying to get my legs up under me and Im feeling better . He had two dunks (Wednesday against Brooklyn) so that lets you know his legs are coming back.
James on Lewis, rounding into form after being bothered by knee problems the previous two seasons.
29 Regular-season triple-doubles James had in his first eight seasons, from 2003-11.
0 Regular-season triple-doubles James has had this season and last.
4 Home wins to start the season by the Heat. Thats the first time thats happened in the 25-year history of the franchise.
10 Consecutive games the Heat have lost at Denver, where they play next Thursday. Wade, who entered the NBA in 2003-04, never has won in Denver, going 0-9.
Whats Next? The Heat hit the road for six games starting with Atlanta on Friday. Thats followed by games at Memphis, Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver and Phoenix. With some critics wondering whether Spoelstras position-less play can be effective against bigger teams, Spoelstra relishes the battles. The type of teams that we are playing are big, physical frontcourt teams, so this is what everybody wants to see right now, and were looking forward to the challenge, he said.
Tower of Power? The Heat have been super at home and sub-par on the road. Theyre 4-0 at home and outscoring foes by an average of 17.8 points. But they lost their only road game, 104-84 Nov. 2 at New York. Theres no reason to believe now the Heat arent a Tower of Power, but it might be good for them to prove it on the upcoming six-game trip.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson