MIAMI — Midway through the third quarter of the Miami Heat’s 118-85 victory over Orlando on Sunday, second-year center Dexter Pittman got right in Dwight Howard’s face as though he wanted to start something.
The result of the altercation was a double foul — one on Pittman, one on Howard — and a measure of respect. But it didn’t answer any questions about the Heat’s toughness in the middle.
Miami’s four-headed center — starter Joel Anthony, Pittman, and power forwards Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem — remains a question mark. Behind them there’s newly-signed Eddy Curry, who, in a shocking development, is out of shape, and veteran Juwan Howard, now is in his 18th season. Yikes.
Elsewhere in the starting lineup, Miami point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole outplayed Orlando’s Jameer Nelson and Chris Duhon. But it wasn’t one of those lopsided, eye-opening beatdowns that you’ll recall as a landmark moment.
So, just as it was a year ago, you wonder if the Heat has enough, specifically at the center and point guard positions.
Those positions aren’t the main reasons the Heat lost to Dallas in the NBA Finals. LeBron James’ fourth-quarter disappearing acts, and Dallas’ zone defense were much bigger issues.
But here’s the point: by not making any moves, the Heat has opted to invoke that familiar refrain from a year ago: “We feel we have enough,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
There’s a chance Spoelstra is right. Cole, the speedy rookie who was the 28th pick out of Cleveland State, looks promising enough that he might challenge Chalmers for the starting job at some point this season. Cole, who was such a fast-moving blur early in the Magic game that he twice got called for charging, finished with eight points, eight assists and four turnovers.
“It’s no secret I’m pretty fast,” Cole said. “I’ve just got to learn when to go full-gear and when to turn it down a gear. Once I figured out the speed of the game, I was fine.”
Chalmers (eight points, five assists, two steals), was, as Spoelstra said, “solid.” Chalmers’ defense contributed to a terrible night by Nelson (0-for-10 from the floor, one point, seven assists) and a nondescript night by Duhon (three points, one assist).
On Sunday, the Chalmers-Norris combination was good enough to win.
“Those two guys played great,” LeBron James said, “and we’re going to need that out of them.”
Most likely, the Heat will need more. The Chalmers-Norris combination is promising, but it also leaves you with doubts. Neither player is complete. Chalmers is the better defender, and Cole’s speed and ability to penetrate are enticing. You just wonder if it’s enough.
The same goes for center. Anthony is an agile, athletic shot-blocker, but he’s only 6-foot-9 and has bad hands, which means he struggles to grab a rebound and make the pass to start the offense. Then there’s Pittman. He’s promising, but he only played 11 minutes last year as a rookie, spending part of the season in the D-League, where he did quite well, and part of the season injured. At 6-11, and a listed weight of 308, Pittman appears heavy and out of shape; he doesn’t seem ready to contribute meaningful minutes right now. He was manhandled by Anthony in the Red & Black scrimmage held for season-ticket holders.
But teammates offer encouraging reviews of the affable Pittman.
“He’s started practicing very aggressive of late,” guard Dwyane Wade, “really rebounding the ball and carving out space and using what he has.”
There’s a chance the seeming deficiencies at point guard and center don’t cost the Heat the title. After all, neither Chalmers, Anthony, Pittman nor Cole is likely to be on the floor in the closing minutes of a tight game.
If all goes according to plan the Heat’s closing five will be selected among the six-man group of Wade, James, Bosh, Haslem, forward Shane Battier and swingman Mike Miller. At certain times Miami will need Anthony’s shot-blocking, Pittman’s bulk, Chalmers’ defense or Cole’s offense. But for the most part the center and point guard positions will be manned by the highly-skilled veterans.
However, that leads back to the original question of whether the Heat has enough.
In fairness, the Heat had “enough” throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. They shrugged off Philadelphia’s youth and athleticism, Boston’s toughness and savvy, and Chicago’s tenacious rebounding and amazing depth.
It was a different story, however, when Dallas came calling in the Finals. Center Tyson Chandler gave the Heat fits with his length and dogged defense. Backup Brendan Haywood had more beef than Miami could throw back at him. And point guards Jason Kidd and J.J. Barea tormented the Heat with their play-making ability and 3-point shots
Right now, few teams seem to have the qualities Dallas had last year, the ones that gave Miami so many problems — length, depth, defense, and quality contributors at center and point guard.
The Mavericks gave away the piece that made them unique (Chandler), the Lakers seem to have given away one of the key pieces that made them unique (Lamar Odom), Chicago might not have made enough improvement by adding guard Rip Hamilton, and Boston, which has lost forward Jeff Green for the season to a heart ailment, still hasn’t recovered from the Kendrick Perkins trade. Among those lurking in the shadows: Memphis might be a year away, San Antonio might be a couple of years removed, and Atlanta lost guard Jamal Crawford.
That might leave Oklahoma City as the No. 1 threat to the Heat’s title hopes right now. The Thunder has the center (Perkins), point guard (Russell Westbrook) and star power (Kevin Durant) to rattle the Heat, as well as a wealth of athleticism, depth and length. And they play defense.
Oklahoma City is a scary team. The Thunder is so scary they make you wonder if, in fact, the Heat has enough.
Chris Perkins is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com, covering the NBA and the Miami Heat. His columns appear every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter.