That deflating sound you hear is the suspense beginning to leak out of the NBA season.
Yes, it's only a few days old, but a fifth of the schedule has already been erased by the lockout and if Miami figures out how to attack zone defenses, it's over. No team is going to beat the Heat then. In the opener they blew out a Dallas team that came back to steal the finals by gumming up Miami's offensive machine with a zone. On Tuesday night, they outlasted a Boston team that deployed the same defense in the second half to avoid getting run out of the gym. Though the Celtics clawed back within three points at the 2-minute mark, in the eight quarters the Heat have played, they've trailed for only 14 seconds. Get used to it.
Miami has already fixed the problems that were so apparent when LeBron James and his super sidekicks, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, made their debut together against Boston to kick off the 2010 season. They can play sustained, ferocious defense and they're even more opportunistic — and spectacular — than they were in transition by the end of last season. Even so, Miami coach Eric Spoelstra used some of his free time during the lockout to pick the brains of some of the country's best coaches — Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky's John Calipari and Oregon football coach Chip Kelly, who runs a particularly hectic version of the no-huddle spread offense — looking for ways to rev up Miami's attack. The lessons appear to have taken. The faster pace and extra space on the floor means more room for James, Wade and Bosh to take advantage of individual matchups, which plays into Miami's strength.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn't need to consult the scoreboard at halftime to convince him of that. He watched the finals, saw how well a zone worked for the Mavericks, and despite a commitment to man-to-man defense from the outset of his NBA career, began working on the scheme over the summer. Boston unveiled its version in the third quarter, while the Heat stood around and settled for jumpers, and the Celtics slowly climbed back into the game. An 18-6 run over the final 6 minutes of the period — Miami helpfully misfired on its last eight shots — brought the Celtics to 91-83. That margin seemed comfortable enough, though, until former Heat guard Keyon Dooling scored seven straight points to cut it to 108-105 with 2:02 left.
In Wade and James, the Heat have two of the best finishers in the game, but they still haven't sorted out the question of who is going to finish which game, especially when they're facing a zone. They still hadn't when crunch time came against Boston — the duo combined for just seven points on 3-of-8 shooting in the fourth quarter Tuesday night — but might have come up with an alternative. That would be rookie point guard Norris Cole, who had his hands filled most of the night trying to slow down his opposite, Boston's Rajon Rondo, but found his shooting touch from the perimeter when the Heat needed him most. In quick succession, James and Wade played supporting roles to set Cole up for jumpers and he drained both. Turns out all the talk about Cole's remarkable play during Miami's abbreviated training camp might not have been an exaggeration.
"He's earned their respect. Even though it's been a short period of time, about three weeks, because he's pure, he's all about the team. He's mature ... and he gets them the ball. You're always a popular guy," Spoelstra said, "when you find people when they're open."
Whether Cole turns out to be a dependable alternative at the end of games remains to be seen. He's likely to get the chances, though, because the Heat are certain to see plenty zones before the season has run its course. And either way, considering how little preparation the lockout afforded them, they're certainly going to get better at countering it. Based on the admittedly slim evidence of two games, they've already figured out almost everything else.
"We have confidence in whoever's on the floor at that time," said James, though he said much the same thing with less conviction last season.
If that turns out to be true this time around, look out.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke