MIAMI – The words would come out of Old Man Riles’ playbook, a young coach desperate to rewire confusion and calamity into something strong and sure. Oh, this is no surprise. Oh, this will be great for us come the playoffs. With his declarations of processes and timetables, Erik Spoelstra sounded like a new-age CEO spinning the shareholders. His Miami Heat are soft, staggered and fragile to the touch.
“In the last 48 hours, we’re getting to know each other,” Spoelstra said. “This is good. You need to face this adversity.
“You need to stumble.”
Yes, they’re getting to know each other. With two horrific losses within three days at American Airlines Arena, the Heat are mortified to find themselves fighting to stay above .500, and Spoelstra is getting to know his superstar, LeBron James(notes). Chris Bosh(notes) came and went, Dwyane Wade(notes) stood in the corners and watched. Most of all, James found himself in postseason shape, closing a loss to the Boston Celtics with a missed layup, two missed free throws and a corner 3-pointer off the side of the backboard.
The world’s bearing down, times are tumultuous, and James is the one Heat star in playoff form.
“For myself, 44 minutes is too much,” James declared. “I think Coach Spo knows that. Forty minutes for D-Wade is too much. We have to have as much energy as we can to finish games out.”
There you go, Coach Spo.
Get to know him well.
Two days earlier, James had done nothing in overtime and ultimately decided the difference was a Hall of Fame coach, Jerry Sloan, who knew exactly what the Heat were going to do. James never takes responsibility, never says, "I'm the MVP and I need to do more." He didn’t do it in Cleveland, and he’s never going to do it in Miami. Now, 44 minutes in a grudge game with the Celtics is too much. Always an out, always an excuse.
The Celtics were machinery. They beat up the Heat, obliterated them on the boards and bludgeoned them in a 112-107 victory. The Heat were never close, even with a late fool’s-gold rally that never truly threatened the Celtics. With their brilliant passing, precise shooting and ferocious physical play, no one exposes the flaws of these Heat like the Celtics.
Boston believes it can bully these Heat, believes they’re susceptible to games of the mind and body. When it was over, Big Baby Davis marched out of the showers and declared: “No one can spoil this night. Good for us to come in and spank that ass.”
As the Celtics hung around town for a couple days before the game, they loved hearing the Heat lament about how tough teams had been on them, how they’d been targeted for physical play. So the Celtics started laying out Miami players with forceful screens, flagrant fouls and crushing shots at the rim. They harassed Wade into missing 10 of 12 shots and made James work for his 35 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
Frequent isolations are reducing Wade to an offensive sidebar, and the death of ball movement is turning these Heat into something so eerily familiar with the Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron, and four guys watching LeBron.
There’s time for the Heat to become a more fluid, more polished offensive team. They’re not missing X’s and O’s as much as they’re missing a mindset. They created something that they played make-believe about embracing. They talked tough about reveling in a world that despises them, only to find it’s a bigger burden of scrutiny than they ever imagined.
Make no mistake: Wade and Bosh don’t want to be bad guys. It isn’t in their DNA. Bosh is a goofball who dresses up like a cowboy on YouTube. He loved the idea of coming to Miami for max money without max pressure. As Bosh figured, the big shots belonged to D-Wade and James, and he’d get all the benefits without the burdens.
“At times it will be bumpy, and this is a bumpy stretch,” Spoelstra said. “Nobody said this was going to be easy.”
No, the Heat just acted that way. They act surprised that people want to pop them in the mouth, that TVs and websites crackle with disdain for them. All those players like Eddie House(notes) who thought they were going on tour with a rock band? They're now under the kind of daily national – even global – examination that they’ve never experienced. No one ever cared whether House missed a week’s worth of 3-pointers in the past. Now it’s dissected and digested everywhere.
And let’s face it: They’re getting buried because of LeBron. Now, they’re the bad guys, and they’ve never had to deal with the thickness of that haze. They turn on the television, the Internet, and people are wishing ill, reveling in the small failures of a young season. In a lot of ways, James is cut out for it. He’s oblivious. He surrounds himself with so many yes-men, so much skewed perspective, that his lack of self-awareness almost benefits him.
Before Spoelstra let the Heat leave the locker room on Thursday night, he declared that it was “us against the world.” Only, it isn’t the Heat against the world. It’s the Heat against themselves, against the backdrop of a hysteria they created through a smoky stage, public preening and promises of five and six championship rings. Spoelstra is kidding himself when he talks about a “different timeline” to develop the Heat, when he suggests that a 5-4 record isn’t such a big deal.
The Heat are long on talk and short on toughness. Right now, this is a mentally soft team that the Celtics exposed and will expose again – unless the Heat find some leadership, some character, some staying power. Riles would send his protégée to the interview room deep inside American Airlines Arena, and the words were straight out of his self-help manual: a young coach embracing the adversity and declaring it’ll make his team stronger come playoff time. Only, Spoelstra knows full well that he had better win, and win big, or he’ll never make it to the playoffs.
Erik Spoelstra pulled the pages straight out of Riles’ playbook, trying to transform chaos into a coachable moment. After the second devastating loss in three days, Spoelstra gave the Heat a big speech about staying together, about a world that would want to do harm to them. Yes, we’ll get to know each other now, Spoelstra said with a sigh. We’ll get to know all about us.
Times are tumultuous, and here was LeBron James, claiming that 44 minutes had worn him out, that he had nothing left in the end, and that Wade had played too much as well. One night, and King James had an issue with too many minutes on the floor. Always easier to blame some vague force, always easier to escape the responsibility. There you go, Coach Spo. There’s your star. Enjoy him.
- Erik Spoelstra