The first championship season was motivated by the desire to flip the middle finger at everyone who wanted so badly to see them fail. The second title run was energized by a late-season winning streak that flirted with history. But this third time around for the Miami Heat, the impetus to push through the end of the regular season in their quest for another crown comes from ... where, exactly?
The Heat have been trying to find the answer to that question for the better part of a month. Their 5-7 record since March 4, their inability to chase down the similarly slumping Indiana Pacers -- whom they face tonight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse -- for the best record in the Eastern Conference (still two games back), and even their own body language indicates a champion that is weary -- in every sense of the word.
You can see and hear them grinding, trying to summon the physical and mental energy to take them through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. LeBron James has used words and phrases like "mentally fatiguing" and "grueling," and talked about the need to get their enthusiasm back. Chris Bosh was more blunt after a recent loss to New Orleans when he said, "We suck. Lose, nobody is upset. Win, nobody is happy. There's no passion. There's nothing. We need that competitive drive back. We don't have it."
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Even when they win, it's appears that Miami is trying to nurture a small spark into a flame, as they did in a 93-91 win over Portland on Monday. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra met James with a celebratory two-hand shove in the second quarter as James came to the bench after an aggressive move to the hoop, trying to keep his star and his team pumped up. "Just wanted him to continue to attack," Spoelstra told reporters after the game. "I wanted LeBron to be aggressive, and everybody else would follow. But that energy was terrific on both ends of the court. That last six minutes of the second quarter is what we were talking about the last 48 hours."
It wasn't hard to see this malaise coming, because three-peat attempts are a special challenge of mind and body. The Heat have had their share of injuries -- Dwyane Wade has missed 19 games with his chronic knee issues, James is dealing with back and ankle problems, and various role players have been knicked up -- but their biggest obstacle may be the psychology of chasing ring three. "There's a reason that these teams don't do it," TNT analyst Steve Kerr, a member of the Bulls' three-time champs from 1996-98, told the Los Angeles Times before the season. "Emotionally, it's just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny of the team."
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There is injury and age. Wade is 32 with fragile knees, Chris Andersen and Shane Battier are both 35 and 38-year-old Ray Allen's three-point shooting percentage (36.9) is among the lowest of his career. There is, perhaps inevitably, a touch of complacency. There is the cumulative effect of the added mileage from the previous deep playoff runs. There is the tedium of slogging through regular-season games that are mostly formalities before the playoffs. It has all conspired to take a bit of the spring out of the Heat's step, to make them a trifle slower on their defensive rotations, to dull their edge.
It shows in the numbers, where their defensive efficiency has slipped from seventh in the league (100.5 points per 100 possessions) last year to a middle-of-the-pack 12th (103.3) this year. A year ago, the Heat were in the midst of a 27-game win streak, and the only question was whether they were peaking too soon before the postseason. Now they go into Indiana needing a victory to keep from dropping three games behind the Pacers with 12 to play. Homecourt advantage in what appears to be the inevitable matchup between the two teams in the Eastern Conference finals is at stake, but so far, that reward hasn't been enough to get Miami's motor running.
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Of course, the slippage could be strictly a regular season phenomenon. The Heat has been down this road enough times to realize that nothing really matters until the playoffs, and they may be, even subconsciously, saving themselves for the postseason. But there is no guarantee that they can flip the switch when the time comes, that they will be able to shake the lethargy that plagues them now. Despite Indiana's current struggles, the Pacers are hungry, and a Game 7 in Indianapolis could be the Heat's undoing. If Miami does reach the Finals, they will find a formidable opponent from the West.
There will be more than enough challenges from without. The only way the Heat will be able to hold a third straight championship parade is if they find greater motivation from within.