Going into Miami’s contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a recurring thought in everyone’s mind were memories of 5’11″ point guard J.J. Barea tearing apart the Heat defense in the 2011 NBA Finals.
A member of the Dallas Mavericks at the time, Barea provided a tremendous spark off the bench for a Mavericks team that featured veteran Jason Kidd starting at point. The diminutive point guard made slight work of the Mavericks’ opponents leading into the Finals, before needing a few games to get into a rhythm against the Heat. After recording 21 combined points in the first four games, Barea went off for 17 points and five assists in Game 5 and 15 points and five assists in Game 2.
Any coincidence Barea ended up having his best games against the Heat in the final three games of the Finals–all wins.
The Heat didn’t have anybody at the time who could keep up with Barea on the defensive end. Mario Chalmers on-ball defense has always been suspect, while Mike Bibby and Eddie House had both seen their better defensive days, or lack thereof, behind them. As a result, Barea’s dribble penetration proved fatal against a Heat team that couldn’t solve Dallas on either side of the ball.
Miami met up with Barea last night for the first time since Game 6 of the NBA Finals last night in their win over Minnesota. Barea ended up with ten points on nine shots, but found each one of those shots as difficult to come by as the last. Whenever Barea attempted to penetrate, he found his progress impeded by a fellow pest of a point guard in Norris Cole.
Standing at 6’2″ and weighing in at 175 pounds–both of those listings being hard to believe–Cole kept his body in front of Barea all night and even managed to block two of Barea’s shot attempts. On the night, Barea shot 3-of-9, while Cole had another productive showing to the tune of eight points on 3-of-6 shooting to go along with four assists, two rebounds and two steals. Cole also converted 1-of-2 from beyond the arc.
You can only wonder if it was any sort of coincidence that Cole was traded for by the Heat on the draft day following the ’11 NBA Finals. Bibby and House both being on the out’s had something to do with it, but the Heat could have gone after any point guard. Instead, they went after Cleveland State’s finest: a quick guard that had just averaged 22 points per in their final season and greatly resembled the game of Barea’s.
Both Cole and Barea find themselves getting a majority of their baskets occurring as a result of their fearlessness to drive in on the trees that root themselves around the rim. Cole was getting into a great deal of trouble because of that overconfidence last season, constantly getting his shot blocked as a result of becoming adjusted to the quicker pace of the NBA. He experienced a significant drop in his minutes in the second half of the season, as well as the playoffs before making a huge showing in the Heat’s Game 4 win over Oklahoma City.
The Heat were expecting improvement out of both of their point guards. While Chalmers has been slow out of the gate due to a jammed finger causing him discomfort, Cole has taken advantage and has found himself on the floor alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Chris Bosh in the final minutes. Norris has been the hero in these instances, converting a dagger three-pointer in the final minute in a close contest against Denver.
Surprisingly, Cole’s overall numbers are down from last year. He’s converting five points per on only 38 percent shooting, but it does not feel as such when you take in Norris’ performances over the past month.
Among Cole’s better games in December, he had 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting and three steals in a 13-point win over Brooklyn, while playing excellent defense against Deron Williams, and 10 points on a perfect 4-of-4 from the field to go along with four assists in a nine-point win over Atlanta.
Jeff Teague finished with 11 points on 10 shots and five turnovers in the loss, with Cole playing 23 minutes. Deron Williams struggled with 10 points on 11 shots and four turnovers, with Cole playing nearly 30 minutes as a result of his ability to keep Williams’ out of the paint.
His offensive numbers haven’t been overwhelming, but his defense has been his calling card. His on-ball defense, sided alongside Joel Anthony’s terrific defense on the pick-and-roll and near the rim, has soundly brought Miami back to their defensive identity. When he’s on the court, the Heat are giving up 104.5 points per 100 possessions as compared to the 108 points per they give up when Cole is off the court.
Perhaps Cole’s greatest attribute in the early going has been the added pace and energy he’s given off the pine. The Heat have been sluggish in nearly every game the season and many analysts are citing it as a lack of motivation as a result of just winning the championship. With little to prove in the regular season, the Heat have been taking it easy and it’s resulting in lower-tier opponents making close games and elite teams being too much to handle at times.
Cole’s problem in his rookie season was somehow playing at a pace that exceeded that of James’ and Wade’s. Now the extra pep in his step is becoming embraced because of how demonstrative the team appears to be, especially in the start of games. When Cole comes off the bench in the final portion of the first quarter, the Heat are being provided with a necessary boost that’s able to keep the defense on their toes.
Mostly, Cole is providing the Heat with the defensive intensity they need to return back to their former glory of being one of the league’s top defensive teams. Miami has allowed less than 100 points in five consecutive games and Cole played at least 20 minutes in all five. His work against the likes of Teague, Barea, Grievis Vasquez, Stephen Curry, and Luke Ridnour has provided the Heat with the defensive help they needed when it came to keeping point guards out of the paint.
With Chalmers still working on the shot that aided in bringing him his best season of his four-year career, Cole has given the Heat time to wait on the continuing development of their starting point guard. On both sides of the ball, Norris is providing the Heat with positive results and has shown excellent patience and composure in his second season.
Even when Mario is fully healthy and back to converting nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers, Cole will still be an essential part of the team strictly because of his ability to keep opposing point guards out of the paint.