At the beginning of the season, the Miami Heat heard about its Big Four.
Last month, it was the Big Five.
The Heat are mostly known for their Big Three, but increased depth has made it difficult to determine the reason for success this season. A pair of key offseason additions and the health of a two veteran returnees have been just as important as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“It’s helped a lot,” Bosh said. “If you look at our team, the team last year and the team this year, the depth is really night and day. That’s no disrespect to the guys that played last year. But I think this year with being healthy and really bringing along our young guys and having guys ready and pushing each other everyday in practice, it’s really starting to come together.”
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The Heat signed free agent forward Shane Battier in the offseason and drafted rookie guard Norris Cole. They also have had veterans Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem in the lineup all season after both missed portions of last year because of injuries.
The recipe has added to strong bench play, especially during the eight-game winning streak the Heat look to extend Thursday against the Portland Trail Blazers. It is the first of three consecutive road games.
Improved depth has helped Miami endure a season that could become trying on the starters with so many games in a short time span because of the lockout. Instead, Wade, James and Bosh have been given ample rest time.
“No question,” Wade said. “In a shortened season, I’m happy guys can come in and do the things they need to do to make sure the team continues to get better once you come off the court. It helps the way you approach the game, especially me. Having Mike (Miller) and having Shane (Battier), it enables me to feel good about playing less minutes and I’m able to give more when I’m out there.”
Newcomers Cole and Battier have proven their worth at different stages. It was Cole who got off to such a fast start that fans were calling for the Big Four label, similar to Rajon Rondo’s addition to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen with the Boston Celtics. Although he’s experienced tough stretches, Cole has proven invaluable in relief of guard Mario Chalmers.
After struggling early, Battier has found his shooting touch and continued to play solid defense.
“The addition of Shane fits very well into our system as if he’d been in our system for a long time defensively,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Cole has injected a youthful energy that’s given our second unit a spark.”
The health of Miller and Haslem has perhaps provided the biggest impact. Playing an entire season allowed the Heat to avoid adjusting to their returns to the rotation. Miller missed the first half of last year after undergoing preseason thumb surgery. Haslem was out 69 regular-season games with a foot injury before returning for the playoffs.
“It’s a lot more comfortable feeling for them,” Bosh said. “Not only did we not have those guys (Haslem and Miller), everybody was in a brand new position. We were still trying to figure things out.”
With no adjustment period, it has enabled the Heat to turn to their Big Five lineup at the end of the games. It features James, Wade, Bosh, Haslem and Miller in the closing moments. It was used in victories against the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors, with the Heat outscoring 25-0 with the group on the floor.
“The reality is we have two major components that we were missing the majority of the regular season,” Spoelstra said. “They did come back. They’re warriors but they were shadows of who they were physically. Udonis and Mike, we always anticipated would be major contributors to what we’re trying to do.”