Game Thread #23: Miami Heat @ Golden State Warriors :: The debut of Ekpe Udoh -- Meet me at the rim

Miami Heat (15-8) at Golden State Warriors (8-14)

TV: ESPN & CSN Bay Area (HD) | Radio: KNBR 680

Tipoff: 7:30pm

Blog BuddyPeninsula Is Mightier: ("I knew this team was small but this is ridiculous" ...LOL!)

The Heat -- and Bill Simmons, mind you -- take their talents to the Roaracle tonight. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry is out due to that ankle and Ekpe Udoh makes his long-awaited debut for the Dubs. The game will be on ESPN. I don't recall a must-see-on-TV Warriors game like this except maybe David Lee's return to New York.

Debut of Ekpe

I'll leave it to fellow GSoM contributor, Feltbot:

My twitter feed is aflame with the news that Ekpe Friday "The Nightmare" Udoh will take the court tomorrow against the Miami Heat.  Udoh practiced with the team and looked ready to multiple observers.  Marcus Thompson tweets: "Ekpe looks ready. He’s blocking shots, dunking, even making midrange jumpers." Matt Steinmetz tweets: "Asked Reggie Williams to tell me something about Udoh. He said: ‘He’s long, and he blocks everything.’"

Udoh's twitter handle is @the_nightmare13. Will he be a nightmare for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at the rim tonight? We'll see! The good news for the Warriors is, no one's ever seen him play in the NBA yet, so the Heat (nor we) have no idea what to expect.

Amongst the Warriors woes includes the debacle at backup point guard, exacerbated by Steph's injury but now reinforced by the seemingly panic-button (re-)signing of Acie Law. Warrior fans have never rooted for Law as much as today.

Also, is David Lee's elbow getting better?

As for the Heat, here's what to expect...

ASIDE: But first, let me just say that as a rec league commissioner and someone who has hosted and participated in adult national tournaments for years, this year I found the Heat's story particularly intriguing. This is because I see good players on various rec league/tourney teams jump ship all the time. Certainly there's drama and hurt feelings when that happens, but we as the 9-to-5 mass of people who answer to The Man, have certain freedoms when it comes to basketball. None of us amateur hoopsters are bound by contract to play on any given team.

That is not a luxury that NBA players have. They get drafted and are forced to play for a particular team. Sure, they are grateful for the money and the new lifestyle, but they do not have freedom of movement. Until Curt Flood made free agency a legal right. And so with LeBron, I never had a problem with him and Chris Bosh joining forces with Wade, basically choosing to play where he wanted. I actually thought it would be good for the Association, to make the race for the Trophy between more than legitimately two teams (sorry, don't mean to upset Magic fans).

Joe Lacob will not want to hear this, but it is almost impossible to "build" (whatever that means) a championship team. Ask the Jazz. Ask the Nuggets. Ask Phoenix. Heck, the Knicks! Look at how "lucky" the Lakers were to get Pau Gasol for his little brother and change, or the Celtics with Kevin Garnett facilitated by a GM in Kevin McHale who bleeds green. And so I find it very intriguing that the city of Cleveland and owner Dan Gilbert took a certain tact, and that tact was that they felt entitled to LeBron, when they never were.

Sure, LeBron made poor PR moves, but like I said, I'm a full-time rec league guy who finds joy in seeing people on the hardwood, and often times scorekeeping for them, hoping for a good, competitive, exciting game. As such, I must be the only person on the planet who has neither seen The Decision nor read Gilbert's scathing email. Really, with all that's going on in my life, I don't have time for that. See you at the scorer's table, is literally my approach to all things basketball, often with the NBA as well.

In any case, I hope that somehow explains my fascination with the Heat, and why I jumped at the opportunity to write this preview.

What was wrong with the Heat, what's now going right, and the long time horizon

It seems like a distant memory, but everyone and their mother were trashing the Heat about a week ago. Then LeBron had a home-coming met with an angry crowd and left the entire city of Cleveland in a depression they have since not recovered from, but at least the anger there has subsided. So, up until then, what was wrong with this team? Weren't they supposed to be contending for the 95-96 Chicago Bulls record of 72 wins? Oops! Well, maybe next year.

Only a few games into the season, Chris Bosh was being abused by media. He wasn't quite sure how to fit in on the floor but lately, he's upped his season averages to 18-and-9. With his entire career previously spent in Canada, it seems that many people, including NBA beatwriters and bloggers, were unfairly judging Bosh before knowing what came with the package.

Bosh has a sweet midrange left-handed stroke and uses that acumen with an effective upfake on hard steps to the bucket. He doesn't really have any fear on offense. As far as his defense is concerned, he is limited by his knees, his slender frame, and tends to play very flat-footed. So with all the hype of the Heat, I think people expected Bosh to be this third supreme athlete, and he's not. He's just a very skilled, fundamental player who is way more mobile than most 6'11" guys. Kind of like Tim Duncan but more face-the-basket style, more finesse than Timmy, but less power. Overall, one of the most skilled power forwards you will ever see.

Second, LeBron and Wade weren't trying to get uptempo as much as they have been in the past week. Part of this is just attributed to a severe lack of chemistry, more so than I had expected. Wade, who has been hampered by a bad left wrist, still seems to average three horribly bad passes per game. We're talking passes directly into an off-ball defender's chest, or a bounce pass into the crowd. LeBron has been guilty of this too, but not as much as Wade. Not to mention Wade's many missed free throws in the first quarter, or his problems finishing at the rim. When I asked Heat blogger @takahoopshi if Wade had exhibited such alarming errors in the past, he responded that Wade used to play the perfect game... because he had to.

So yes, Wade and LeBron have been playing somewhat carelessly at times. It's quite simply, mental focus knowing what consequences are on the line. When they do end up playing their perfect game, it will be quite a sight to see, I'm sure.

But then you remember that these guys are 25 years old. Definitely not the same as the older Big Three in Boston. Let's not forget the absence of Mike Miller, who has a lot more game than he's credited for, and at 6'8" to boot.

The Heat's strength is in their fastbreak and early offense, so when the season began and the offense became stagnant against teams with established systems, things were ugly. At one point, I was even suggesting they implement the stamina-sapping but low-learning-curve John Calipari "dribble-drive" offense, which puts your two ballhandlers up top and facilitates their one-on-one abilities, but Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra seems to have successfully installed a pinch-post offense utilizing Bosh, sometimes even LeBron ending up in the post off a switch, and with Wade or LeBron coming off screens and making long cuts from the other side of the court that potentially lead to handoffs and pick-and-rolls. This gets the defense on their heels more often than not, seeing LeBron and Wade in their peripheral vision, flying by on either side of the court before getting the ball.

The early-season losses against teams with established systems needs to be emphasized. The Heat had a very difficult schedule to start, some by the NBA's design and some not. Surely, no one could have foreseen the Heat's early problems, but to start the season at Boston -- well, someone had to play them on Opening Day and it very well couldn't be the Lakers because the two teams had just gotten done with the Finals. Similarly, the Warriors started off with a rather easy schedule. As someone who makes rec league schedules for a living, I can tell you that the early season is an opportunity to mask the large gaps between elite teams and cellar dwellers with perceived parity. In other words, start the season with the good teams playing the good teams and likewise the bad ones against each other. And if your team doesn't have chemistry, like the Heat, then you're subject to getting beat up.

As we now know, the Heat losses to the Celtics (two of them already), Hornets, Jazz, Pacers (yes, Pacers!), Magic, and Mavericks -- all of whom are well-coached and whose players have submitted themselves into a system -- are really not that surprising. The loss to the Grizzlies can be considered a mulligan, and Rudy Gay hit a game-winner on that one.

As far as the role players are concerned, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is proving to be one of the best 7-foot set-shooters ever in the NBA -- mark my words. James Jones and Eddie House are just out there to be the weakside option, knock down shots, and not screw up too bad on defense, although House has not been hitting shots lately. Joel Anthony is a rebounding fiend who has absolutely no offensive skills whatsoever, kind of like a Homeless Man's (i.e., worse than Poor Man's and even worse than Welfare Man's) Dennis Rodman. Juwan Howard has been playing relatively error-free basketball, with a jumper here or there -- a true professional in the short-range Robert Horry sense. Finally, Erick Dampier is slowly getting into a groove. I was suprised that he did not even play one minute after the day he was signed. Udonis Haslem and his ability to consistently hit a midrange shot is sorely missed, but don't underestimate the Heat's ability to tap offensive rebounds out with Big Z and Dampier's long arms, and Anthony's relentless hustle.

Still, on defense, the Heat rely a lot on their given talent. But the most glaring weakness of the Heat is Carlos Arroyo. While this may not become apparent against the guard-thin Warriors, you may see that the other four Heat do not trust Arroyo's man-on-man abilities, and often sag too far off whom they're guarding, resulting in potential easy baskets off swings for their opponents.

IMHO, Spoelstra needs to start developing Mario Chalmers, who is far more athletic and a much better defender than Arroyo, but who also has a confidence issue in his jumpshot, unlike Arroyo. However, I think a recurring theme of the Heat is that they are on a longer time horizon than you, me, or the many NBA writers and bloggers out there. Pat Riley is more of a mentor to Spoelstra than he was to Stan Van Gundy and there's a lot more collaboration going on here. Some hints of this long horizon are Spoelstra's continued use of words like "going through the process" and "getting there", as well as the very slow addition of game minutes for Dampier. This strategy is not unlike other franchises with championship pedigree a la Riley, such as the Boston Celtics last year.

Besides, Riley has LeBron, Wade, and Bosh for five more years after this one, and probably more. Assuming everything on the basketball court remains drama-free after Year Five, I really do expect these three to stick around together into the sunset. The five years is just standard business practice (salary raises, having the requisite out, et. al.).

One caveat is that I'm not sure Spoelstra is a great coach as far as making in-game X's and O's adjustments. For example, Gay should've been fouled by LeBron before Gay hit the game-winner, because the Heat weren't in the penalty yet. And a missed buzzer-beater by last-option House that resulted in a Heat loss was not the best out-of-bounds play that could've been drawn up. But then, Doc Rivers isn't a X-and-O genius, either. Not many good teams in the East have a guru like that as a coach, except maybe for Jim O'Brien of the Pacers (again, apologies to Magic fans!).

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via Peninsula Is Mightier via cdn3.sbnation.com

Predictions for tonight

Well, when Udoh's on the court, all bets are off. And how many minutes will he play?

When he's not in there, I expect plenty of fastbreaks and dunks for LeBron and Wade because the Warriors just do not have anybody imposing down low. Worse, the Heat thrive in the Warriors' finesse, shoot-it-if-you're-open style. There are more long rebounds and shots with no one rebounding in that environment. That's not the type of environment you want when trying to beat the Heat.

You might even see some Warriors in foul trouble, trying to contain the Heat's outlets and Bosh's offensive abilities. Dubs fans with tickets should get their money's worth tonight. Bosh will earn your respect as a fan and he will be a good matchup against Lee.

Add the Warriors youth and vulnerability in becoming starry-eyed, especially with Dorell Wright a former Wade teammate [I know that in his junior year, Jeremy Lin once marveled at a Wade highlight], and unlike most predictions I make, I have full confidence that the Heat win by 30. On the other hand, I've been wrong before.

This despite the late 10:30pm EST tipoff for the Heat. Nationwide Nate had the privilege of attending the LeBron/Wade party last night and reports that Bosh was not there, but that the Big Two left at 2am (PST). That should be of plenty of time to get rested.

Again, thanks for reading. I'll be posting my real-time game notes on @nbalivetweet. Catch my rants, ranging from future NBA draftpicks to discovering good teams like the Pacers,  as usual at @poormanscommish.

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