Heat struggling to find motivation for title defense
Erik Spoelstra has heard that things should be easier for his team this season, that winning a championship would pull back the smoldering microscope that has been pointed at the Heat for the last two years and allow LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to play more freely.
"Honestly," Spoelstra told me recently, "I have no idea what that means."
Pressure? Spoelstra loves it and thinks his team needs it. "If it doesn't collapse you," Spoelstra said, "it gives you an incredible sense of focus and urgency." It's why early in training camp Spoelstra summoned the team to the Dewar's Clubhouse, a restaurant in the upper level of American Airlines Arena. On a white board, he wrote one word: Legacy.
Spoelstra's hope was that the carrot of winning multiple championships, of fulfilling the promises Miami's Big Three made on that smoky stage two and a half years ago, would provide the motivation last year's title run dissolved.
Well ... it hasn't.
Miami was 24-12 entering Wednesday's visit to Golden State, the fifth stop on a six-game road trip. Though that record leads the Eastern Conference, the Heat are far from the team that steamrolled Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals last June. The defense, which ranked fourth in the NBA in points allowed per possession last season, has fallen to 16th, according to Basketball-Reference.com. The frequent use of a small lineup has dropped the Heat from 21st in rebounding in '11-12 (41.6 per game) to dead last (38.6) this season. Miami is under .500 on the road (8-9), including a woeful 3-7 against teams with winning records.
"The main thing is not seeing a big focus on their side," an Eastern Conference scout said. "I don't see great defense. Teams are getting into the paint a lot. They are getting beaten down the floor. I don't see a real intense, laser-like focus."
Chemistry has also become an issue. James called the Heat "not the most talented bunch." Bosh -- who has absorbed the bulk of the blame for Miami's rebounding problems -- has suggested that the system needs to be tweaked. After Spoelstra kept Wade on the bench for the entire fourth quarter of a 104-97 loss to Utah on Monday, suggestions of a rift between the two -- who have had public spats in the past -- began to resurface.
"[The bench] turned that deficit around so quickly, that it was really an easy decision to keep them in there during the middle of the fourth quarter," Spoelstra told reporters after the game, which Miami trailed by 19 points early in the fourth quarter before rallying within two with 3:30 left. "Then you've got to make some tough decisions down the stretch."
"Coach makes the calls," Wade said. "I'm just the player."
Time to panic? Hardly. It's January, after all, and, noted the scout, "They have sucked and are still in first place." Failing to show overwhelming interest in games against Washington and Detroit is not cause to shake things up midseason.
Privately, though, Miami acknowledges key weaknesses. The Heat can get out of the Eastern Conference with mediocre rebounding -- Indiana looms as the only team that could make them pay for it -- but they know that a Finals matchup against teams such as Oklahoma City, Memphis, San Antonio or the Clippers could expose them. It's why the Heat have signed Josh Harrellson and Jarvis Varnado. It's why they have worked out Chris Andersen. It's why they could still explore adding the mercurial Kenyon Martin. They're also monitoring former No. 1 pick Greg Oden, though he might not be ready to play until next season in his comeback from multiple knee surgeries.
"Not having a true center presence hurts them," the scout said. "I'm kind of surprised they don't play Joel Anthony more because he can affect the game defensively. They need someone like that. They don't need someone who can score. When you have a guy like Udonis Haslem in there, he's about 6-foot-7 and is not the same player he used to be, you have a 4-man battling some big guys. They need someone to block shots and rebound, who doesn't need to score."
Miami overcame a lack of size last season, riding the heart of Shane Battier and the single-minded focus of James to a title. But things are different now. The spotlight has moved to Los Angeles, to the Lakers, and deep down members of the Miami organization want it back. It was painful at times to have every move scrutinized, every loss dissected and every game intensely covered. But it worked. The pressure brought out the best in the Heat, powering them to back-to-back Finals appearances and an NBA championship.
There is still plenty of time for Miami to recover. April is a long way off. But the fuel provided by the countless critics is gone, and it isn't coming back. To defend their title, the Heat need to find new sources of motivation. Championships are won by the hungry and right now Miami is a team that looks, well, stuffed.