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Ira Winderman: Heat learning smoke, mirrors, injuries muddle team’s true identity

LOS ANGELES — None of this matters.

No, most assuredly not a Spo-ism, certainly nothing you ever will hear from the mouth of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Nor should you.

His job is to take what is available and squeeze the most out of it, something he does as well as anyone in the NBA.

And there certainly is something laudable about the perseverance that culminated in the victory over the Golden State Warriors that opened this five-game trip.

But what the Heat much of this season have put out on the floor is not representative of what Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg crafted.

So when Spoelstra, after Monday night’s 121-104 loss spoke of the Heat’s inability to defend at the point of attack in a game the Clippers shot .588 from the field, he was being true to himself but not necessarily true to his roster.

“I have to go to work, and we have to get to work,” he said, “Defensively we can be better. We struggled again in one-on-one situations.”

As they should have, with no Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin, Haywood Highsmith and Josh Richardson — also known as the Heat’s best point-of-attack defenders.

What happens when those types of perimeter defenders are out is those at the next level are asked — essentially required — to be what they are not.

Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson are better defenders than they were previous seasons. But they are not Butler or Martin or Highsmith or even Richardson.

Kyle Lowry, at 37, is not what he once was defensively. But there also is no backup plan at point guard.

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So, yes, back to video and strategizing from Spoelstra ahead of LeBron James, Anthony Davis & Co. in Wednesday night’s return to Crypto.com Arena against the Lakers.

But it is the training room that matters more, with Butler’s foot, Martin’s ankle, Richardson’s back and getting Highsmith back from a dark place after the concussion sustained in Saturday’s loss in Utah at the start of what so far is a 1-2 trip.

For Wednesday, Butler and Highsmith again are out, with Martin doubtful and Richardson questionable.

With an 82-game schedule there is ample time to get it right if you are of the belief that your roster is right. The Heat have shown that belief with silence on the personnel market.

This is not the NFL where one off night, like one for the Dolphins against the Titans, can change everything.

Which means it’s not the end of the world losing to the Jazz, nor of being rendered defenseless by the Clippers.

The reality remains that not only have the Heat had Butler, Herro and Bam Adebayo together for only eight games and on the court together for only 152 of the season’s 1,584 minutes, but in one of those games, Herro was lost after eight minutes with an ankle sprain. In another, Saturday’s loss in Utah, Butler exited for good halfway through the third quarter.

With those three together, there is the defensive yin and yang of Adebayo and Butler.

With those three together, Lowry can play a more deliberate style without questions of being too passive.

With those three together, Herro does not have to force the action on nights such as Monday night’s 4-of-13 showing against the Clippers.

Add in Martin and/or Highsmith when either is able to return, and there is another defensive component and floor spacer in the first unit, which, in turn, then allows for a second unit of Robinson, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Kevin Love and either Highsmith or Martin as the core.

That is what this is all about, the complete Heat. That is how rosters are constructed.

So, yes, Spoelstra brought the group together Tuesday, amplified the messages that he has since the first day of camp, assuredly captivated his audience after Monday’s disheartening moment.

But until the full audience is ambulatory, nights such as Monday are cast to the ether of a six-month regular-season, one of 82.

Wednesday, it could be more of the same. Against LeBron, Martin likely would have stood as the preliminary defensive deterrence, then Highsmith, possibly followed by Richardson, with Butler taking the assignment, if needed, at closing time.

Now, unless Martin returns, an argument could be made for Adebayo for the initial assignment, which is all well and good until you have to consider … who defends Davis?

Yes, as Spoelstra has stressed for weeks, learning how to win matters no matter the rotation components. For the likes of Jamal Cain, RJ Hampton, Nikola Jovic, confidence has been gained during this week on the road.

But who are the 2023-24 Miami Heat?

The turn of the calendar hasn’t solved that riddle.

That becomes known only through the power of healing.

Because until we see it all, see it sustained, we haven’t seen anything.