Heat’s biggest threat: Their lackluster starts

ORLANDO, Fla. — Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade sat out for the second straight game Monday night in Orlando, resting his achy right knee as the defending champs put their 26-game win streak on the line against the woeful Magic. But Wade may have reconsidered taking the precautionary evening off had he known his teammates on the court would follow suit.

Against a rebuilding Orlando squad in a heated race for the NBA’s worst record, the Heat looked rudderless for most of the night, trailing by as many as six points in the first half against a Magic team with nearly as many losses (53) as Miami has wins (55). And with less than three minutes left in the third quarter, following a Jameer Nelson 3-pointer, Miami found itself locked in a tie.

But before things got irreparably ugly, LeBron James finally decided to play like the MVP that he is, and Miami’s reserves went unconscious from the floor, sparking a 37-17 burst during an 11-minute stretch to create enough separation for an uninspiring 108-94 win.

“We did enough late in the third quarter and the fourth quarter to come away with this win,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the victory. “That was some of our best, in that fourth quarter, on both ends of the court — the activity level, and then obviously the offense, movement, finding open shooters. Before that, it was a little bit more of a sleepwalk.”

With 27 consecutive victories, Miami is now within six of the 1971-72 Lakers’ all-time record of 33, and any win is one worth celebrating with a target that massive on your back. But the Heat’s lackadaisical nature during a recent lull in their near-record run — one that has seen them require huge rallies against Boston and Cleveland in recent days — and the team’s increasing dependence on its ability to flip a switch is, at the very least, troubling.

That kind of halfhearted approach to winning may work against basement-dwelling teams such as Orlando, Charlotte and Detroit. But it won’t cut it against the league’s best. And with upcoming trips to Chicago and San Antonio on its current four-game swing, Miami had better start coming out stronger earlier, or else its streak may soon be over.

“You could see it in the body language and our effort, our focus and concentration, how it shifted after that timeout in the third quarter,” Spoelstra said Monday of his team’s effort. “But each game is not going to be perfect, and you have to figure games out. We were able to do that, so we’ll take that positive.”

The Heat, of course, continue to say they’re not overlooking teams like the Magic on their path toward the record book. But their play certainly suggests otherwise. Virtually all of their close calls have come against afterthoughts on the schedule, and Miami has really only played its best when it’s had to.

“We are not taking our team for granted,” insisted LeBron James, who overcame a slow start Monday to finish one rebound shy of a triple-double with 24 points, 11 assists and nine boards. “I continue to always say that in professional sports, wins are hard to come by, and teams like this are really rare. To be a part of a team like this, we do not take it for granted.”

Next up on Wednesday come the Bulls, whom the Heat crushed in Game 9 of the streak in their best defensive performance of the season. Then the Heat pay a visit to the Hornets, who just snapped Denver’s 15-game winning streak with a 24-point rout in New Orleans on Monday. After that, the trip ends in San Antonio, against the West’s best team, the Spurs. And if there were ever an opportunity to break any bad habits that may have formed as Miami went through the motions over the past few games, this stretch would be it.

“Each game is its own challenge,” Spoelstra said. “Physically, we need the rest to get ready for Wednesday night’s battle against Chicago. It’s always one of the most physical games and competitions that our guys go through, against that team. So we’ll have to gear up for that. It’s never easy.”

It’s tough to say whether Miami will emerge from San Antonio with a 30-game streak intact, especially as the weight of the run becomes harder and harder to bear. But if nothing else, Miami shouldn’t fall to the Bulls, Spurs — or even Hornets — because of the type of listless effort that was on display against the Magic. And if the Heat should happen lose because they simply got outplayed, they’ll be OK with that, as long as it puts them in better position to repeat in June.

“Our historic run is about winning championships,” James said. “That is what we want to be known for. It is part of a process. Whatever comes in between that, we can be excited for it. We didn’t have a goal in mind to say, ‘Let’s go on a long consecutive win streak,’ but our goal of mind is to win every game that we are on the floor. It doesn’t happen like that every night, and we know that, but that is how we approach the game.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.