MIAMI -- Like virtually every other team in the NBA, the Miami Heat spend the last 10 minutes of practice shooting free throws. It forces players to shoot when their legs are tired -- a simulation of fourth-quarter free throws -- but it's also a way for them to wind down. A few break off to each basket, usually chatting as they go, sometimes making up competitions to spice an otherwise mundane exercise. On Wednesday afternoon, as the Heat shot their free throws, no one spoke. If there were competitions, they were conducted in eerie silence. The gym was a place of work, not play.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh convened in Miami because they wanted to win championships, of course, but also because they believed it would be a lot of fun. How could it not? They could ease their individual burdens, blow away inferior opponents and repair to South Beach afterward. It sounded like a blast. But their grand experiment is becoming a rather joyless pursuit. They talk wearily about all the attention they are receiving, which seemed like such a drawback in the summer, but feels more like a burden now.
Some bullseye teams relish the hate, marinate in the vitriol, use it to foster an us-against-the-world identity. The Raiders did it. So did the Pistons. The Yankees make it an annual tradition. James, Wade and Bosh do not wear the black hat as naturally. Two weeks and two days into what was supposed to be The Year of the Heat, they stand at 5-4. They have lost three of four games and have dropped their last two, both at home, blowing a 22-point lead in one and falling behind by 20 in the other. Their defense, an early-season standby, has yielded 184 points over the past six quarters. And most recently, they were slapped with another vicious reality check by the Celtics.
When the Heat fell in Boston on Opening Night, they had an easy alibi, their first time playing together. "It was a mess," said Wade. He had a harder time explaining what occurred at American Airlines Arena on Thursday night, when the Celtics beat the Heat 112-107, in a game that wasn't as close as the score. "We're the best 5-4 team in the league," Wade said. The Heat claimed they had grown since the opener, but James still spent much of the night pounding the ball, with Wade waiting for him on the perimeter. Although James finished with 35 points, Wade was 2-of-12 and missed all five three-pointers. The Heat again looked like the Cavaliers of the past two years, though those Cavs were more formidable inside. Miami's lack of chemistry was magnified by Boston's surplus. The Celtics sprung Ray Allen for seven three-pointers and Paul Pierce tweeted on his way out of town: "It's been a pleasure to bring my talents to South Beach," the latest jab at James and his crew. "They carved us up and exploited us," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, "it paralyzed us." Spoelstra has repeated, over and over again, that the Heat were not built this summer. Constructing a real contender could take all winter. He likes to say that he has his own timeline for progress, but clearly, everyone else's is being pushed way back.
"Some people expected this to happen right away," Spoelstra said. "It is going to be a process and it won't always be an easy one. ... In March, April, this is something that will really benefit us. You need to feel the pain to respond and grow. In the last 48 hours, we're getting to know each other."
Spoelstra is preaching patience, but there are signs he is running a bit low himself. He turned to little-used Jerry Stackhouse in the first quarter Thursday and Mario Chalmers in the second. He stuck with starting point guard Carlos Arroyo for fewer than 11 minutes and starting center Joel Anthony for fewer than eight. The Heat's roster remains unbalanced, but there is not much they can do about it. They have few trade assets of any value. Their financial flexibility is essentially shot. They will have to find the answers either in their locker room or on the street.
"No matter how much talent we have, this is a team game," James said. "It's going to take a while for us to be a complete team."They admit they are still looking for an identity, and without a natural point guard or low-post scorer, it may be a long search. But here is a place they can start: Wear the black hat. Embrace the anger. Be the bad guys. They may never receive the adulation they imagined, but just like the Raiders and the Pistons, they can create their own kind of fun. There is no going back to July 1. The only way they can go forward is on their own.