Monday March 7th, 2011

The Heat stars blunder, tears are cried in their locker room and opposing fans laugh so loudly that Dwyane Wade can imagine hearing them.

"The Miami Heat are exactly what everyone wanted, losing games," Wade said Sunday after a fourth straight loss. "The world is better now since the Heat is losing."

Those who aren't laughing at Wade's expense, though, are the opposing coaches at the top of the standings. For the first time this season, they are hearing honest talk from the Miami stars.

"I won't continue to fail late in the game," LeBron James said he told his teammates after he failed to convert a left-handed drive over Joakim Noah, one of the league's best defenders, to finish Sunday's 87-86 loss to the Bulls in Miami.

"My greatest challenge," Wade admitted of being marginalized as a secondary option in those late-game situations.

Added Chris Bosh: "I don't think we've addressed the problem yet. We have to find the problem first."

Bosh has it backward: The problem has found them. It is confronting them, humiliating them and leaving them with no choice but to respond. And that is the last thing their rivals want to see happening in Miami.

Opposing coaches would have preferred to see the Heat control a missed free throw by Luol Deng with 15.9 seconds remaining to preserve a one-point lead. Let them retrieve that loose ball to escape with a victory and convince themselves they're back on course. The longer they mask their fundamental problems, the better for the rest of the league.

That's what happened to James' teams in Cleveland while they were winning 127 games over the last two years. His Cavaliers would dominate the regular season to earn the No. 1 seed, and then Orlando or Boston would expose their weaknesses in a seven-game series that left them with no time to devise a response.

That's not happening now. The three Heat stars are being exposed and, even better for them, they are being embarrassed. If they didn't realize it before, they have to know by now that the only way to punish their opponents and critics is by working together to fix their team problems. Can that be good news for Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau and Stan Van Gundy?

The numbers are awful. Miami is 1-9 against the top five rivals (Spurs, Celtics, Mavericks, Bulls and Lakers). It is 1-of-18 from the field in the final 10 seconds of one-possession games, which is the most surprising of all NBA stats this season.

The glass-half-empty view is that Miami's stars are too self-absorbed to play winning team basketball. The more optimistic, glass-half-full view -- which has to be the view of rival coaches who must prepare for the worst -- focuses on Miami's resiliency. The Heat have suffered only three double-digit losses this season, and in many cases they need nothing more than one or two successful plays to turn losses into wins.

Opponents have been able to exploit Miami's chemistry issues to build big early leads, yet in all but two of those games the Heat have been able to climb back to within five points in the final five minutes.

Then, under the pressure of the final minute, their stars become inexplicably one-dimensional. This makes no sense. How could James, Wade and Bosh be less successful together in tight games than they were in previous years on less-talented teams?

When the 6-foot-8 James drove to the basket Sunday against the quick feet and long arms of the 6-10 Noah, four defenders collapsed around him. And yet, neither Bosh nor Wade moved into space to receive an uncontested pass.

When James, Wade and Bosh signed up together, they talked about making the game easier for each other. They came together in Miami because each was tired of carrying a team by himself. That was how they explained their group decision last summer. So how did James happen to find himself going 1-on-4 against the league's top-rated field-goal defense?

Each of these three stars is a highly skilled passer, yet their new team isn't defined by ball movement. When James has the ball, Wade and/or Bosh should be moving into open space. When the ball is moving between them, all three will be practically impossible to guard. When the Heat become known for making the extra pass -- which is something you rarely hear about this team -- no one will be talking about their unproductive role players, because open shots will be created for Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, James Jones, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Bibby. This team has a lot of shooters who aren't being utilized.

The other thing that needs to happen (if it isn't happening already) is that the three stars need to unite with coach Erik Spoelstra. Anytime they lose a few games, the rumors rise up that Spoelstra's job is in trouble, and people start reading clues of insubordination into some of James' comments. That's the least promising sign of all for Miami, because no NBA team wins a championship these days without a partnership between the coach and the best players. They don't have to always agree, but they have to be united, as Kobe Bryant's Lakers are with Phil Jackson, as the Celtics' stars are with Doc Rivers, as the Spurs' leaders are with Gregg Popovich.

Those three championship teams play cohesively under pressure. The Heat don't -- and won't, unless the stars and the coach have learned to trust in one another long before a play is being drawn in the final 10 seconds of an uptight game.

Wade is right: Fans are celebrating Miami's failures because each humbling loss appears to prove that he, James and Bosh are too full of themselves to share the ball with each other. And yet, at the same time, I don't know of any coach in the league who isn't worried about them. "Someday, they're going to figure it out," is the refrain.

The Heat have come a long way already. Within months they've assembled three stars, a lot of shooting and a defense that is statistically worthy of winning a championship. Now this team, on pace to win 56 games, is being nationally embarrassed. The entire country is daring James, Wade and Bosh to unite with their coach and exploit their skills as passers-by moving without the ball. How will they respond?

I don't think they're going to collapse or break apart. The more they're humiliated by their own play, the more likely they'll apply sincerity to resolve their problems. Everybody knows the action: They're lousy under pressure against the best teams. Now what is their reaction?

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