There’s nary a pair of skates visible in the Miami Heat locker room, no bucket of pucks in the practice facility and no Zamboni following the team around, either.
Still, there’s at least one hockey principle that’s in the mind of the reigning NBA champions so far this season.
With emphasis on ball movement, the Heat are currently into what’s known as ”hockey assists” – essentially, the pass that sets up the pass that sets up the score. In hockey, it’s typical for two players to be credited with having passes to set up a goal, and while it’s hardly an NBA statistic, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is working it into his team’s repertoire as well.
”If anything, it’s a compliment to the game of hockey,” Heat center Joel Anthony said. ”We’re recognizing the different types of ways they reward players for making the extra pass. Hockey acknowledges it a lot more. There’s no stat for it in basketball but we still acknowledge that. Spo recognizes that and wants to make sure we know it’s extremely important.”
Anthony would seem to be the resident Miami expert in this field.
After all, he’s the Heat player who hails from Canada — hockey’s epicenter.
”That extra pass, it means a lot for us,” Anthony said.
The Heat begin a six-games-in-nine-days trip in Atlanta on Friday night, a game followed by contests at Memphis, Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver and Phoenix. Miami doesn’t play at home again until Nov. 21.
Miami’s ball movement this season is beyond statistically impressive. In their four wins so far, the Heat have 109 assists against only 43 turnovers. Even with their lone loss taken into account, the Heat assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.98-to-1 leads the NBA entering Thursday’s games.
”Our team assist-to-turnover ratio is important,” Spoelstra said.
As a team, Miami reached the 25-assist mark only 12 times in 66 regular-season games last season; this year, the Heat have gotten there four times in five games.
”It’s all about getting somebody the better shot,” Wade said.
Take Wednesday’s 103-73 win over Brooklyn as an example. LeBron James finished the game with 20 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in only 30 minutes, getting the fourth quarter off. A triple-double was easily within reach, though with the game in hand, there was no need for the NBA’s MVP to play in the final period.
So, no triple-double. That is, unless one takes into account the manner Spoelstra and the Heat chart certain things.
”He could have had more assists if he was thinking ego during the course of the game, if he was hunting down his own pass,” Spoelstra said. ”But again, I think he probably had three or four or five hockey assists, where he knew that it was going to be a rotation, that the next guy would be open. That’s how fast his mind is going, thinking of the play after the play after the play. But that’s the point.”
While it might be one of the go-to terms for the Heat these days, it’s not a new concept.
James said he began thinking about the parallel between hockey assists and smart basketball passing in high school. Chris Bosh credits Paul Hewitt – his college coach at Georgia Tech – with introducing him to the concept. Dwyane Wade had similar sentiments, saying it was a term that Tom Crean used when he was in college at Marquette.
”Making the pass to the guy who makes the pass is just as valuable,” Bosh said. ”We’re unselfish. We don’t care. From night to night, (statistics) will be different. From time to time, we’re going to have guys with a hot hand. But as long as we’re playing together and it’s spread out, we’re playing well.”
The first Miami basket of the game on Wednesday night had four players in key roles.
Bosh got a steal, threw the ball to Mario Chalmers, who found Wade, who tossed a perfect lob to James for a dunk. The entire play took five seconds – one steal, three passes, one dribble, one dunk. And in the ”hockey assist” formula, Chalmers’ nifty one-handed flick to Wade would have gotten as much credit for the score as the lob did, since it took defenders away from James’ sprint down the left side to the rim.
”I’m all-in,” Chalmers said. ”I like it, since I’m usually the one that gets the hockey assist. As long as we’re winning, everybody’s happy.”