The Miami Heat lost to the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night, looking largely helpless as rising star Anthony Davis continued his stellar run of form en route to a 30-point, 11-rebound, three-steal performance that propelled a lottery-bound Pelicans missing injured contributors Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to their 29th win of the year against 40 losses. That the shorthanded and largely unimpressive Pelicans could waylay the two-time-defending NBA champions might seem somewhat surprising ... unless, of course, you've watched the Heat much recently.
After winning their first six games coming out of the All-Star break, the Heat have dropped seven of their last 11, with their last three defeats coming to sub-.500 teams — the Denver Nuggets two Fridays ago, the Boston Celtics last Wednesday, and the Pelicans on Sunday. There were extenuating circumstances, if you were looking for them — LeBron James sprained his right ankle during a third-quarter drive, star shooting guard Dwyane Wade and new starting center Greg Oden missed the second game of the back-to-back to rest their balky knees, it was Miami's fourth game in five nights, etc. — but the problem, as several voices within the Heat locker room apparently see it, is that the team is too often looking for those excuses these days. From Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel:
"Too many excuses," James said. "Something goes wrong? An excuse. Lineup change? An excuse. Turn the ball over? An excuse. We've got to own what we're doing right now, and what we're doing right now isn't good enough. It's very frustrating. We're all frustrated.
"Guys who are on the floor need to produce. It's that simple. It's very frustrating. We're all frustrated. We just got to all get on the same page. I don't know what we're going to do, but we've got to figure it out."
Compounding the problem, according to All-Star big man Chris Bosh? Amid all that looking, there's not nearly enough communication. Well, Bosh is sick of the silence, and he's speaking loudly, according to Michael Wallace of ESPN.com:
“I haven’t heard nothing, just nothing,” said Bosh, who took his routinely constructive criticism to a new depth Saturday. “We just show up and do whatever. [After] a loss, nobody’s upset. [After] a win, nobody’s happy. There’s no passion. There’s nothing. If you’re frustrated, say you’re frustrated. Give reasons for that. We just need some dialogue around here. We’ve been keeping things in for a whole season now. And we’re running out of time. We need to let it out and have some urgency.”
Bosh responded to his own challenge.
“We’re going to have to draw the line in the sand somewhere,” he said. “We don’t talk about it. We’re not expressing ourselves in the locker room or on the court. So I figure I’ll be the first one to say it. We suck. And if we don’t play better, we’ll be watching the championship at home.”
Miami's fallen off offensively during this 11-game stretch, scoring just 104.3 points per 100 possessions — a full 5.3 points-per-100 below their league-leading full-season mark, an efficiency number that would rank 14th among 30 NBA teams over the full year. But it's the other end of the floor where the problems have been most glaring — Miami's allowing an unsightly 106.3 points-per-100 during the 4-7 spell, three points-per-100 worse than their full-season mark, equivalent to the New York Knicks' 26th-ranked defense. A version of the Heat that plays bottom-five-caliber defense is exceedingly vulnerable if their offense isn't lights out, and Bosh knows it. More from Wallace:
“No offense to the Pelicans, but we’ve been losing to sub-.500 teams for a month now,” Bosh said. “Defensively, we can’t stop a nosebleed. This team got everything they wanted. The only person that’s going to help us out of this is the person staring back in the mirror. Until we recognize that ... we’ll keep getting the same result. We need that competitive drive back. We don’t have it.”
It's worth noting, of course, that Bosh isn't immune from criticism here. His per-minute scoring, rebounding and shooting percentages have all dipped during the 11-game swoon, too, and many of the Heat's recent stumbles have featured strong outings from the opposing front-court players — Davis' big night, Boston getting 44 points and 13 rebounds from the Brandon Bass-Jared Sullinger-Kelly Olynyk trio, Houston getting 42 and 28 from the Dwight Howard-Terrence Jones combo, Kenneth Faried's 24 and 10 to pace the Nuggets, Joakim Noah slicing up the Heat defense for 20, 12 and 7, Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw wrecking shop, etc. — that Bosh and his fellow Heat bigs are relied upon to tamp down.
Still, someone had to say something; Miami really hasn't "had it" in any phase of the game over the past three weeks.
Miami's team field-goal percentage and 3-point accuracy have both dropped over the last 11 games, with the Heat attempting fewer shots in the paint than usual while hitting them at a lower clip; Heat opponents, on the other hand, are shooting higher percentages from the field and from beyond the arc during this slide than they did earlier in the season, getting more shots per game in the lane and converting on them more frequently, according to NBA.com's stat tool. The already low full-season team rebounding numbers have been even worse; they're turning it over more often (16.1 percent of offensive possessions, up from 15.7 percent) while forcing cough-ups on a lower share of their opponents' trips (17 percent, down from 17.7 percent); they're getting to the free-throw line less often; they're scoring about five fewer points per game in the paint.
Just about every way Miami could be worse, they have been, and it's kept them from making up any ground on the East-leading Indiana Pacers as they go through their own rough patch. In fact, despite going 5-6 over their last 11 games themselves, Indiana has actually gained a game over Miami in the Eastern Conference standings since March 3, holding a three-game advantage for the top spot in the Eastern Conference heading into Monday's action. Miami does have a couple more games to work with, though — the 47-21 Heat have 14 games left on their schedule, while 51-19 Indiana's got 12 remaining — and can lop a full game off their deficit when they meet the Pacers in a marquee matchup on Wednesday night.
If they keep playing the listless brand of ball they've turned in over the last three weeks, though, their chances of toppling the Pacers and earning home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs would seem to be slim. Miami might not care about that — they've been far more successful at home than on the road during the Big Three era, of course, but they've also proven their capacity to win on the road over the past couple of postseasons, and they may value the continued management of their stars' minutes than they do the chance to open a potential Eastern Conference finals rematch at AmericanAirlines Arena rather than at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But whether the Heat's apparent complacency follows naturally from their tactical tendency toward switch-flipping when it matters most, the natural result of fatigue catching up with them after having played nearly four full seasons in the last three years, or simply a matter of poor execution and inconsistent effort scuttling a system that requires two-way focus and precision to reach maximum effectiveness, it's leading to some bad basketball at the moment and, by the sound of it, even worse locker-room vibes.
If Miami doesn't do a better job of executing over the next three weeks than they did over the last three weeks, they'll head into the playoffs looking less like a fully operational, firing-on-all-cylinders war machine and more ripe for an upset than at any point in the past couple of seasons. Now that, Heat fans, would really suck.
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