A third straight NBA title can only be delivered like the first two, which means it won't happen for the Heat unless LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh make it happen. For the most part, anyway.
They generate two thirds of the offense, command much of the attention and concern of the other team and usually make the plays that win trophies. This dynasty, if you want to call it that, is a three-player production. We're not exactly breaking any news here with that information.
But even with that star power in their favor, the Heat have always leaned on a role player in desperate moments over the last three years, hoping he could perform and respond beyond his comfort zone. It was perhaps Pat Riley's most remarkable work: Finding players from the discount bin who could deal with being in a minor role, yet come up major when needed. Not many have such an on-off switch, or could flip it suddenly in the playoffs or a championship setting, when the stakes are steep and everything's magnified. Lots of marginally talented players want nothing to do with that pressure.
Udonis Haslem was that guy in 2010, then Mike Miller the following year, then Shane Battier, then Ray Allen. And now … who?
That's a rather important issue for Miami, now in the process of searching for candidates. Haslem is wearing down. Miller is gone. Battier has announced he'll retire after the season (Bill Parcells once said that if you're thinking about retirement, you're already retired) and saw his minutes reduced this season; he didn't play in the playoff opener. Allen's production is dropping slightly and he's also the oldest player on the team. The impression, then, is Miami needs to tap into new blood, and that's if any such player exists on the roster.
Their first-round series with the Bobcats is all about finding that guy, a player the Heat can count on when the opponent gets better and the urgency gets higher, in the next round and beyond. The Bobcats are too new to the playoffs and Al Jefferson is too gimpy to threaten the Heat. Therefore, what Miami wants to know from its roster is: Who's got next?
Is it James Jones? Really?
Buried on the bench for the last three years, Jones was pulled from the missing persons file and made big shots in Game 1 against Charlotte. Coach Erik Spoelstra didn't exactly go all-in on Jones, who only received 14 minutes, but his 12 points represented his first double-digit scoring game since 2011, way back when LeBron was still considered the greatest villain in sports. That's how long ago it's been since Jones broke a serious sweat in a Heat game.
"I think J.J. is going to be a big part of our success, in terms of how far we go," said LeBron, suddenly elevating Jones, a one-dimensional bit player during this era, to second-tier savior status.
Giving reasonable playing time to Jones says more about the state of the Heat role players than it does about Jones, a lifetime 40-percent shooter from deep. Miami just doesn't have many options here. The overall quality of the "help" is perhaps the lowest ever in the Big Three era. The supporting cast is either aging or too untested or too unreliable, compared to before. Does Miami really have a player with the guts and ability to take and hit a shot as big as Allen's three-pointer against the Spurs last summer? Hell, can Allen still hit that shot?
The general belief is that LeBron, Wade and Bosh could produce three wins in a best-of-seven series, and that Miami would need something from someone else to win that fourth game. That's how the Heat have reached the championship series three years straight. Haslem, then a starter, had a terrific series in the East finals against Chicago in 2011. His legs were younger then and he aggressively checked bigger players and went after the rebound at the rim, while earning the trust of his teammates with a 15-foot baseline jumper.
In 2012, Battier was Miami's second-best defender after LeBron and drew the tough assignments in the playoffs, often against players taller and heavier, like David West of the Pacers and OKC's Kevin Durant. Also, Miller came alive in the NBA Finals and sent OKC home after a rush of three-pointers.
Last season, three-point shooting by Allen and Battier was the difference between the Heat and the Spurs in a tight championship series that went to the limit. It also helped that Chris Andersen and his hyperactivity around the rim made Joel Anthony go away. The playoffs were mostly about LeBron, of course, yet the supporting help was never more important last season when Miami had to sweat out a title and almost blew it.
So … what's coming next? By whom? And when?
Sensing the need for new blood among the supporting cast, Riley reeled in Michael Beasley and Greg Oden, both on the cheap, both arriving with risks nonetheless. Beasley is an enigma, a player with undeniable NBA talent and also with a basketball IQ that matches his jersey number. You wonder if Beasley, now dealing with a bum ankle, can be trusted to make the right decisions in tough spots, and if Spoelstra would even put him on the floor in those situations (probably not). Oden played only 23 games this season, averaging 9 minutes, and at this point the Heat can't expect him to give much more than that.
Who else? Rashard Lewis? Strictly a three-point shooter and nothing more, Lewis brings little to justify keeping him on the floor more than 5-10 minutes. That leaves Jones as the only untapped resource on the bench, someone who does offer what Miami needs most: A player who can hit the open shot.
And really, that's all the Heat want. With the defense paying tremendous respect to LeBron, teammates are left open. That's how Haslem helped three years ago, how Battier and Miller contributed to the first championship and how Allen created big moments last season. By hitting the open jumper, a role player can suddenly serve a major role, but finding that difference-maker will be especially tricky for the Heat this season.
Over the last two years, Jones watched as his playing time was gobbled up by Battier and Miller, and through it all remained a true professional. Even this year, Jones only played in 20 games. He never complained or stopped working, and now, with Miller gone and Battier on his way out, Jones finally has his chance.
"We learned this from early on that he is a unique guy," said Spoelstra. "He's one of those unique players that you can pull out of your bullpen and not many guys ave that type of mentality, the patience to understand the big picture, the willingness to sacrifice and don't have an ego in that regard, yet have incredible confidence when they do play."
So, for now, Jones is the new guy, the limited role player who'll be asked to adopt a starter's mentality, or even a star's mentality, in a big spot when the ball comes his way.
"It's a tremendous responsibility but I'll do whatever the team needs," he said.
Well, they need him to make the shot when left open. Mainly because they're running out of options.