Ilgauskas started 51 games for the Heat last season, but was extremely ineffective in the playoffs and was essentially benched against Boston, Chicago, and Dallas. After the season, there had been some speculation that the 36-year old Ilgauskas would retire, but it appears he wants to play next season, or at least collect the money he’s owed in his contract.
It seems unlikely that Ilgauskas is a part of the Heat’s future plans at center after his disastrous playoffs, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Heat waive Ilgauskas before the season starts.
Having talked to Zydrunas Ilgauskas for a while during conference finals and reading between lines, wouldn’t be surprised if he will retire.
The 36-year old Ilgauskas was the starting center and a key part of the 66-win 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers, but his numbers fell off a cliff when his starting spot was given to Shaquille O’Neal the following season. He signed with the Heat last off-season, started a lot of games for them, and did some good things offensively, but his lack of speed made him a liability in Erik Spoelstra’s ultra-aggressive defensive system and left him out of the rotation after the first round of the playoffs.
If Ilgauskas does retire after this season, he’ll be remembered as one of the most beloved athletes in Cleveland history, one of the NBA’s true good guys, and an inspirational story because of the way he came back and had a long, productive career after some Oden-like injury struggles (with his feet, not his knees) early in it. If he does come back, his combination of size, rebounding, passing, and outside shooting could allow him to help some team in spot minutes, although it seems unlikely he’ll be a part of Miami’s future plans.
This was the dream. For all the criticism, the spontaneous hatred from people he never met in cities he’d never lived, for the questions and the scrutiny, this was what he had hoped for. When LeBron James decided to abandon the franchise that drafted him and pursue a team that didn’t think Wally Sczcerbiak/Ben Wallace/Mo Williams/Antawn Jamison was the answer to pushing a franchise over the top, it was in the hopes of getting past the Celtics.
The funny part is, in the end, it was James doing it himself anyway. While it may not have been possible without Dwyane Wade making one huge key play after another, it was still James finishing the game with 10 straight points. It was James taking over, James clamping down on Pierce, James unleashing a volcano of pent-up emotion which led the Heat into the conference finals and left the Celtics in their Mesozoic Era.
Afterwards, James was apologetic about the Decision, respectful towards the Celtics, humble about his career. There was no dancing, no preening, no over-the-top indulgence. Maybe he learned from the past three years of braggadocio and the reaction to the formation of the Heat. Maybe he didn’t. But Tuesday night represented the beginning of LeBron James’ reclamation project, the path from pariah back to “Chosen One’ status. Everyone will still hate him tomorrow that hated him Tuesday night, but they’ll respect him more. His talents were stunning apparent at the end of Game 5, in the steal that became the dunk, and 3-pointers which should have been impossible. There was no way to deny it Tuesday night. If LeBron James isn’t the best player in basketball, he shares that honor.
Winning is supposed to heal all wounds. It won’t make Cleveland feel any better, New York any less slighted, Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles any less resentful. But James taking the step forward, downing the Celtics, signifies a move out of NBA adolescence, which James has been stuck in for years, since the infamous Detroit game, really. James grew up in this series against the Celtics. He closed games. He hit clutch shots. He didn’t abandon hope and sulk away when things didn’t go his way. Was it easier since he was surrounded by so much talent? Absolutely. But the story here is that evolution.
By the same token, it can come crashing down just as quickly if the same demons that have chased his game in the form of the Celtics simply inhabit Bulls colors. A failure next round and all this advancement means is that the Celtics have really fallen that far. But for a night, the Heat vanquished the Celtics, and James has moved into a new stage in his career.
Game 5 was his finest moment, even better than the Detroit Game 5. It was a bigger stage, as counterintuitive as that sounds considering the Detroit series clinched his way to his first and only Finals appearance. This was when everyone was watching, waiting for him to fail. The Celtics were supposed to close him out, to shut him down. And instead, James took over, finishing with emotion and command. Maybe it was nothing more than a good game against a team whose timer had run out.
But it felt like more.
It was a classic performance, capping off a classic series from James. The ten straight points will be remembered most. But it was James, feeding James Jones on an outlet, trusting his teammate to make a big shot that defines the breadth of James’ game. He came, he saw, he conquered. Against the team that embodied defense, chemistry, greatness in the East over the past four seasons, James rose to the occasion, finally.
For a player who had been given so much before he’d earned it, who had been titled King before he had a kingdom, it felt like an ascension. It wasn’t how people wanted him to do it, and he may never be forgiven. But maybe LeBron’s ready to be King of his jungle, finally.
UPDATE 7:35 PM: Udonis Haslem not only was in uniform but got time starting in the second quarter for the Heat. He picked up two quick fouls, plus a technical foul for arguing the calls (the second was iffy).
So, welcome back.
6:02 pm: The Miami Heat are up 2-1 on the Boston Celtics, but their success has come despite the play of starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Every time Ilgauskas has been on the floor, the Heat have gotten torched: according to basketballvalue.com, Ilgauskas has the worst +/- of any player in the playoffs by a stunning, stunning margin.
How bad have things been for Ilgauskas? When he’s on the court, the Heat have been the worst team in the playoffs. When the infinitely more athletic Joel Anthony, Ilgauskas’ backup, has been on the court, the Heat have been the best team in the playoffs. Clearly, some changes need to be made to the Heat’s front-line rotation, but Erik Spoelstra appears to have few options. Anthony can’t play 48 minutes a game, Erick Dampier hasn’t been in the playoff rotation, and Jamaal Magloire is Jamaal Magloire.
But help might be on the way for the Heat from an unlikely source: Udonis Haslem, who hasn’t played in a game since injuring his foot on November 20th. Haslem is one of two players who played on the Heat team that won a championship in 2006, took a pay-cut to re-sign with the Heat last summer, and was supposed to be one of the Heat’s key supporting players. Haslem will be active and in uniform tonight, and according to Ethan J. Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post, Haslem is ready to go, saying that he’s “in good shape,” but “isn’t sure how many minutes he can play.”
Obviously, the Heat have been able to do well enough without Haslem, but his return would be a huge benefit to them if he’s anywhere near 100% and doesn’t disrupt the chemistry. The Heat can’t do any worse than they’ve done with Ilgauskas on the floor, and while replacing Ilgauskas’ minutes with minutes for Haslem makes the Heat smaller, daring the Celtics to win by posting up Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal isn’t the worst defensive strategy. Erik Spoelstra has some tough decisions to make, and whether or not he makes the right rotation choices could mean the difference between the Heat going back to Miami with a 3-1 series lead or a tie series.
Erik Spoelstra may tweak starting lineup. Finally.
Miami’s starting five has been a disaster these playoffs.
The Heat are still winning games, but they are not going to continue doing that consistently playing out of a hole. So far in these playoffs, the starting five for the Heat — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — has been outscored by 40 points per 48 minutes. (Stats via NBA Statscube)
Finally, Erik Spoelstra is apparently going to do something about it.
He would not tell the media at shootaround Monday who would start that night, and added that he would not discuss the issue at pregame media availability, according to a tweet from John Schuhmann of NBA.com.
Before every other game, Spoelstra has announced who was starting at shootaround and he defended his starters in the past.
“I’m looking at everything right now and I’ll continue to look at that for the next day.”
He followed up by saying of the team’s practice session at Emerson College, “We walked through quite a different amount of situations, different lineups.”
Switch Mario Chalmers for Bibby and Joel Anthony for Ilgauskas and the Heat outscore opponents by 36 points per 48 minutes.
There are more practical reasons to make the moves now. Having Ilgauskas on the bench lets you sub him in and play him just when you need to against the size of Shaquille O’Neal. And Chalmers is a much better defender than Bibby (who isn’t?), and that means someone who could put more ball pressure on an injured Rajon Rondo.
We’ll see if he actually goes through with it — Spoelstra, like most coaches, does not want to make changes mid-playoffs. But if the Heat want to advance, he may not have a choice.