Heat regress against team which sparked 12-game run

Heat regress against team which sparked 12-game run

Published Dec. 20, 2010 11:29 p.m. ET

MIAMI — What began against the Dallas Mavericks nearly a month ago ended against them Monday night. Now, as the Miami Heat head west, it's time for a little more of the soul searching that turned their season around in the first place.

The Heat lost their 12-game winning streak to a very good team, but it was still a Mavericks team that often played listlessly and had long stretches in which they allowed Miami to dominate the glass.

Dallas' top player, Dirk Nowitzki, scored 26 points but had a poor night shooting, making just 8 of 21 from the field.

But it was the Heat's weaknesses that ruled the day and determined the outcome, a 98-96 Dallas victory.

Let's start with this: The Heat need to get back to practice. Now.

"The bottom line is they made bigger plays down the stretch more consistently than we did and hit some big shots," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They executed and got all the necessary open shots or offensive rebounds that led to a wide-open 3 to really pull away in the fourth quarter."

Yes, but there was more to the story than the Mavericks' 33-point fourth quarter.

Miami looked undisciplined and inconsistent as it swayed from quarter to quarter, first down 13, then up on a Dwyane Wade-led 17-point run that bridged the first and second quarters, then seesawing back and forth the rest of the game.

In the end, it was the Heat's lack of order that won out.

LeBron James, who had zero points in the first half, played the second half with scoring in mind. That meant he didn't distribute, didn't incorporate Wade, and with Mario Chalmers claiming minutes and a similar approach, the player who ushered in the Heat's first charge of the game had no chance to lead a second.

Neither LeBron nor Chalmers had an assist in the fourth quarter, and Wade finished with 22 points, but it wasn't enough.

For a time, the Heat's rebounding — a byproduct of great energy — was enough to mask the lack of discipline in their frenzy.

At the end of the third quarter, the Heat were winning the rebounding battle, 39-32. By the end of the game, Dallas had outrebounded them, 48-44.

As the rebounding shifted in Dallas' favor, so did the game.

So the Heat fell.

Now, before playing Phoenix on Thursday and battling the Lakers in their biggest game of the year Saturday, the Heat need to practice.

And practice some more.

They need to put their house back in order. They need — excuse me, Erik, for stealing your line — to get back to their process, their identity.

They are a very good team, and this thing they've started since the first loss against Dallas on Nov. 27 is real.

It's also got a long way to go.

Stagnation always runs the risk of regression, and the Heat have ventured into stagnant territory the past two games.

Against Washington, Miami shot 43.1 percent from the field. Against Dallas on Monday, 40.5 percent. The Heat and Wizards each had 44 rebounds.

This year, the Heat have averaged fewer than 17 3-point attempts per game. They shot 22 against Washington and 31 against Dallas on Monday.

All of this points to a team losing its focus, its edge.

During their winning streak, the Heat turned their anger into focused and orderly rage.

Rage together.

Rage as a team.

First, after the Nov. 27 loss at Dallas, came a players-only meeting. It was instigated by Wade, who, it should be pointed out, needs to be able to instigate such moments, on and off the court, whenever necessary.

"I personally asked the coaches to give us a minute," he said. "Shut the door. And it was time to have a talk. So we started talking."

They all talked. They talked like men. Your word in that meeting became your bond, your teammates your brothers, your stresses and resentments your fuel. Or so it has seemed since, based on what the players have disclosed about the meeting and what they have done since.

Two days later, against Washington, Hilton Armstrong pushed LeBron. So Juwan Howard pushed Hilton Armstrong. To the ground.

It had begun.

Then the team beat up on a visiting Detroit team. Two games in a row. Fine.

The next night came LeBron's return to Cleveland, and that was truly a seminal moment. The meeting after the Dallas game, the anger together, the protectiveness against the Cavaliers during a time of stress and pressure in which, as Spoelstra has said, they would either break or bond — well, they bonded.

Something important was going on.

It kept going. The players practiced hard, they listened to their coach — the one who'd been made to look silly and ineffectual by a leaked report about how players were unhappy with him — and Chris Bosh's words that they just need to chill and LeBron's complaints about too many minutes were drowned out by a war cry.

The sound of a team bonding, of coming together, of real chemistry — it sounded like genuine laughter with the press after wins, real candor about the early struggles, hoops and hollers on the floor after close calls.

Trust was forming. Acrimony was dissipating.

"We've been in some tight ball games, the Atlanta game at home, at Milwaukee," LeBron said. "Where early in the season we didn't know each other, we didn't trust each other as much on the court."

They trusted each other by the time they went west for the first time.

Because they went into the home of a very good Utah team and won. Then they went to and won at Golden State and Sacramento. They beat New Orleans and Cleveland at home and went to New York and Washington and won those games, too.

This was a turnaround and a winning streak built on trust, toughness, guts, discipline and anger.

On Monday, the toughness was gone, the guts somewhat stagnant, the anger mellowed, the discipline in need of a kick-start.

There are legitimate reasons for this.

There's no doubt playing seven games in 11 nights is tough. It's significant. It takes a toll. But Spoelstra was right this week when he said it can't be an excuse. So have his stars, who've said, simply, that's life in the NBA.

Because it can't be an excuse. Because it is life in the NBA.

Not if you have your sights set on a championship.

"One thing about us is, all year we're going to continue to get better, to improve to get to an elite level," Wade said. "These elite teams have been playing together for a long time."

They have, and this is where Spoelstra being able to drive home what his team must do to catch up with teams such as Boston and Dallas (against whom the Heat are now 0-4) matters.

There have been few practices during this stretch and, really, much of the year.

The extra time off has been smart — Spoelstra keeping players such as LeBron and Bosh happy, letting them chill at times as long as they don't at others.

But now the scales have tipped in the wrong direction.

There are different kinds of turning points: At Dallas, where anger boils over. At Cleveland, where protectiveness becomes the order of the day. Out west, where simply being together becomes the glue that binds these things.

And, with luck, at home, where such a loss brings these things back into sharp focus.

If you're off, you're off. If you need practice, tough schedule or otherwise, you need practice.

The Heat got lucky in Washington on Saturday night.

Maybe they got lucky Monday at home against Dallas, too.

Because now, with a tough loss and a tough two-game road trip about to begin, the Heat's head coach can use this as an opportunity to command his guys' attention and remind them how the good stuff began in the first place.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter.