PORTLAND, Ore. -- The clock was unraveling down to its last threads, but LeBron James moved without panic as the defense trapped out to him. His backhanded pass around the defenders found Chris Bosh alone in the seam. Another closing defender forced Bosh to shovel a pass for Mario Chalmers behind him, alone at last as he shot the decisive three-pointer. This should not have turned into Miami's fifth loss in eight games -- and yet the confetti was falling into the end zones after the ball ricocheted hard off the back iron.
"Blazers win! Blazers win!'' the announcer wailed as if they had stolen a game in the NBA Finals -- which, for a young team finding its way happily in the New Year, is exactly how the 20-15 Trail Blazers should have celebrated. For the 23-11 Heat, however, this 92-90 loss Thursday was something else entirely. It was game No. 34 of their third long season together. The All-Star break is five weeks away, with the playoffs to come two months after that, and the NBA Finals to be decided another two months later.
"A loss like this, you can't hold your head down,'' Dwyane Wade said after Miami had controlled the play until 18 fourth-quarter points between Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews pushed Portland ahead in the final half-minute. "They came in at the end and stole it from us. We played the game we wanted to play.''
The Heat have entered the least comfortable segment of their draining year as defending champions. After losing for the fourth time in five road games dating to Dec. 28, they find themselves wanting urgently to fix their midseason problems while also understanding that they still have months in which to fix them.
"There's a fine line that you have to walk,'' Bosh said earlier Thursday. "You want to be able to have the confidence to say, OK, these things are happening right now, we're not too worried about it. We're going to play better. We just have to stay with it. It's a certain mental toughness that you have to have.''
At the same time, they can't wait for improvement to happen on its own. That's why the Heat were treating this as a big game during their morning shootaround preparations. When it came to the question of whether a team can peak too early, James shook his head.
"I've never been a huge believer in it,'' he said of the idea of peaking in June rather than in January. "I just think each and every day you want to practice excellence and practice getting better. It's not your fault if you peak at some point -- you just want to continue to try to get better.''
He remembered that the Celtics went 29-3 to start their championship season of 2007-08.
"They played their best basketball early and they played their best basketball late,'' James said. "You can't decide or choose when you want to play your best basketball. You're playing good ball, you got to do it; you don't want to be like, OK, let's slow down. The league is fragile in the sense of if you're winning, you want to take those wins.''
James' body reminds him each day that he must exploit opportunities while he can.
"Absolutely, you feel it,'' he said of the soreness and stiffness that come with his 10th year in the NBA. "I'm not 18 or 19 or 21 anymore, where I can just show up to the arena and not stretch and not ice and go out and play 40 or so minutes. So I got to prepare myself each and every night. I got to take care of my body and do the things I couldn't do when I was 18, 19, 21.''
Is he beginning to pace himself? Does he gauge when to dunk?
"No, no,'' he said, laughing. "I don't have a gauge on that. No, once I'm on the court, ain't no holding back.''
At 28, James is in that sweet spot of his career when his athleticism and experience are peaking simultaneously. In the first half Thursday, he made a signature all-in-one play by closing out to Matthews defensively, forcing him to step inside the three-point line, then blocking his shot from behind and chasing down the loose ball for a breakaway layup and an early 12-point lead for Miami.
Afterward, coach Erik Spoelstra rued his team's failure to extend its 13-point halftime lead. Instead of running away altogether, the Heat kept Portland at arm's length, just close enough to remain dangerous. Wade (6-of-18) and James (6-of-16) combined to shoot 12-of-34 from the floor, and LeBron's season-long streak of 33 games with 20 or more points (the NBA's best since George Gervin streaked for 45 such games in 1981-82) ended with him settling for 15.
Earlier in the day, James shrugged off a question of whether he was playing the best basketball of his career.
"I have no idea, man," James said with another laugh. "I do I feel like I keep getting better, but to say this is the best I've played, I don't know. I've played some really good basketball in my career. I'm just efficient, my confidence is very high, like it's always been. But I'm happy to see that what I've done as far as preparation in the summertime and also during the season has translated onto the floor.''
The misery of the 2010-11 season hasn't been wasted on the Heat.
"Yeah, every day was just the end of the world,'' Bosh recalled of their first year together. "I like to pride myself on detaching from my emotions sometimes and keeping the bigger picture in mind. For sure, if times get tough here, it's like, Hey, remember that time when ... and we have stories and experiences to draw off of. And when we really think about it, it puts things into perspective for us.''
They lean on those experiences as a reminder of how they've been able to climb out of much deeper holes than anything they're facing this season. On Tuesday, the Heat opened a six-game road trip at Indiana by being outrebounded 55-36 (surrendering 22 offensive rebounds) while scoring one fast break point in an 88-77 loss. Poor rebounding has been a nagging theme: They rank last on the offensive glass and 29th in rebounds overall.
On Thursday, however, a team effort enabled them to match Portland's 45 boards, even as LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson were dominating the glass for 25 rebounds between them. James had seen the improvement coming as he chose to dwell on the bigger picture.
"I think we're getting better,'' he said. "We're playing good basketball right now -- we're first in the East and a couple games out of first in the whole league. Early on, we were a little bit inconsistent with our defense, but we've been playing some good ball.''
Before the game, Wade chose to view the Heat's current difficulties as a kind of necessary reminder that they must improve on their way to another title.
"It's minor in the larger scheme of things,'' he said of their issues with controlling the boards and holding on to the ball. "I think we've got to catch ourselves and understand, OK, we've only lost 10 games, and everything is not as bad as it seems.''
But that perspective was harder to come by 11 hours later. "You want it so bad,'' Wade said. His eyes reflected the pain of the moment, and in them you could see that championships really are won in this lonely time of year.