HoopsHype.com Articles

A shot at the title
by Marc Narducci / October 7, 2004

The Miami Heat have justifiably moved into the NBA's high-rent district with the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal, but the key to the success will come far away from the basket.

O'Neal has averaged 27.1 points and 12.1 rebounds per game for his career, so his scoring and rebounding will be a given for the Heat. Second-year guard Dwyane Wade is already among the best penetrators in the league, so the Heat will get plenty of layup opportunities.

Yet the team's fate will rest on its ability to hit from the perimeter, specifically from three-point range. Opponents will no doubt play more zone than usual against the Heat, sagging back in a way to double- and triple-team Shaq.

That will provide more open shots from both medium and deep range. The one major question the Heat has entering a season of high expectations is whether they can hit the open J with consistency.

It's a question to many, but not to coach Stan Van Gundy, who feels his team is well equipped with firepower from the perimeter.

"The major thing we did in the offseason was that we got shooting to go around Shaquille," Van Gundy said. "Michael Doleac and Christian Laettner are two of the better shooting big men in league."

Van Gundy seemed to get more excited as he spoke about his shooters.

"Wes Person is one of the best three-point shooters in the history of league and Damon Jones was the best three-point shooting free agent guard."

Of all the acquisitions the Heat made besides getting Shaq, the most important may have been Person. The 33-year-old NBA veteran was signed as a free agent after a well-traveled season last year in which he
played for Memphis, Portland and Atlanta. Person is a 41.6 percent career three-point shooter and despite his advanced age, the stroke is as sweet as ever.

"Hopefully I will have a chance to compete for a championship, playing with Shaquille and playing with a guy like Dwyane Wade who can penetrate," Person said. "I may be the third option and get more open looks."

Getting open looks and making them are two different things. Last year for example, the Heat's Eddie Jones had the looks, but couldn't complete the job consistently, especially in the postseason. Known throughout most of his first 10 seasons as a reliable shooter, the 6-6 Jones slumped miserably in last season's playoffs, hitting just 36.6 percent from the field and 29.9 percent (20 for 67) from three-point range.

Jones made no excuses for his subpar postseason performance.

"I know I can shoot the basketball," said Jones, a career 44.2 percent shooter. "Sometimes players get in stretches and the ball doesn't just go in the hole and I've been around long enough to understand it happens."

Jones, who was a teammate of Shaq for a little more than two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, is excited to be reunited with the ten-time All-Star.

"I know with Shaquille on the floor now, it gives me another two feet from somebody at me, so I am definitely going to have that shot down pat," Jones said smiling.

O'Neal himself says that one of the most underrated aspects of his game is passing, a skill he unveiled to his new teammates during informal workouts in September.

"The guys didn't realize I was such a good passer because they have been doubling me and tripling me downstairs (in the workouts) and I've been hitting all the shooters," O'Neal said. "It's going to be fun and I look
forward to it."

Of course hitting open shots in an empty practice gym in September is much different than connecting during the pressurized setting the playoffs provide.

Make no mistake about it, the Heat have only one thing on their mind – winning an NBA title. Last year they overcame a miserable 5-15 start to finish 42-40 and qualify for the playoffs. After beating New Orleans in seven games during the first round, the Heat proved to be tougher than expected in extending Indiana to six games before bowing out in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Now they have added the most dominant player in the game. Whether the Heat is able to advance further in the postseason will depend on its ability to hit all those open jumpers that the players expect to get due to
Shaq's presence.

"We have a lot of good shooters," O'Neal said. "I don't think they understand how easy the game is going to be. Once we start throwing it in and rolling, they will understand where they need to be to take shots."

Nothing in the NBA is easy, including making open shots. That's why questions will persist about the Heat's chances to win a title until the players can consistently transform their sharp-shooting marksmanship from those September workouts into NBA games, specifically in the playoffs.

Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

Tell us what you think about this article. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com