Heat relapse a fascinating study

Published Jan. 16, 2011 5:22 p.m. ET

There's nothing like a five-game cross-country road trip full of injuries, ego, taunts and setbacks to reveal some truths about an NBA team.

Now 30-12, the Miami Heat return home with a hobbled LeBron James and Chris Bosh (ankle sprains) and, perhaps, a renewed sense of purpose.

Oh, and a happy dose of LeBron-produced drama.

The Heat also lost three straight games -- to the Clippers, Nuggets and Bulls -- that offer an interesting week in review.

This one has it all: a villain, a taunt followed by a retreat, the rust coming off, the edge coming back, some reality setting in.

Listen to your head coach

Erik Spoelstra was right when he said it's the human condition that allows success to corrupt the things that lead to it.

His point the past few weeks has been this: The Heat were an average team in November, and that ordinariness and the scorn it produced made Miami embarrassed, humbled and angry. And then hungry.

That in turn fed a stretch in which they won 21 out of 22 games and went from cautionary tale to championship threat.

All good, right?

Not to Spoelstra, who feared the very thing that played out in Milwaukee, Portland, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago: The Heat juggernaut got too comfortable and lost some of the edge that defined their turnaround.

The Heat got past Milwaukee and Portland, but it caught up with them on the back end of the road trip.

The Heat lost to the Clippers, got run out of the building in Denver and lost a blow-for-blow battle in Chicago.

Listen up, Heat players, to the young coach who has been saying this all along: Hold onto your fire.

Or prepare for more stretches like the one from this past week.

Speaking of which, rebounding is, you know, key

The Heat are 8-9 when they're out-rebounded.

This goes to effort, plain and simple.

This goes to that edge we were just talking about.

If the Big Three and Co. want to win, they need to fight for it every time the ball is in the air.

On this road trip, the Heat were out-rebounded in Milwaukee (53-48), Portland (43-41), Denver (50-41) and Chicago 42-30.

Every game except against the Clippers.

Spoelstra was right. These guys need to stop taking success for granted.

All of this can be for the best

Out-rebounded, three straight losses, no LeBron?

No problem.

One side-benefit is the past week fired up the Heat and turned some of their players from recent spectators to contributors.

After that Clippers loss, you could hear many a Heat saying it wasn't the end of the world.

Two losses after that, in Chicago?

Just a pissed-off team no longer shrugging off defeat.


This is especially important because there is no Big Two, but the Big Three can't do it alone

With LeBron out, just how much the Heat need him became abundantly clear.

Dwyane Wade and Bosh alone do not constitute a Big Two. Not big enough.

Wade took on the hero's role against Chicago, nearly powering his team to a win over the Bulls on Saturday night. But behind the three consecutive threes at the end of the game is this fact: The Heat cannot do what they hope to without LeBron.

This isn't rocket science, but it is worth noting: Wade is a closer with a killer instinct LeBron may not possess. But it's The King who is going to put this team in position to take advantage of Wade's gift for the clutch.

Bosh and Wade can't do it alone.

Neither can LeBron, Bosh and Wade.

The Heat from time to time need guys like Mike Miller, who got some minutes in Denver and turned them into serious strides in Chicago, to come up big. The Heat need their four centers to rebound, rebound, rebound and stay so angry that it makes up for an otherwise overmatched frontcourt.

For this thing to work, the Heat have to be a team in the original sense of the word. The Big Three can get these guys close, but the role players have to play a role.

Not a big one. Not in the big way the Big Three must.

But stretching the floor with a valid three-point threat (James Jones, Miller, Eddie House), playing under control with the ball (Mario Chalmers) and just average play from their bigs will play a huge role.

Michael Jordan is the game's greatest all-time player. But John Paxson and Steve Kerr, with big-time shots, symbolize the other guys the Jordans of the world need to be able to trust when championships are on the line.

There's a good chance LeBron's two-game absence helped the Heat get closer to being a more complete team. His teammates had no choice but to find another level of play without him.

Oh, LeBron -- in which he matters very much, embraces his villainy, acts like a villain, retreats, again insults the world's intelligence, messes with Karma

So LeBron says he embraces his villain's role. (A good thing, I say.) Then he plays the part by tweeting out a taunt to the Cleveland Cavaliers that includes this gem: "karma is a b****". Nice.

Then he says he didn't have any intent. Or come up with the idea. Though it was what he was thinking. And it wasn't directed at anyone. At least certainly not Cleveland's players.


Early on, a lot of observers -- including media who really don't want to feel like villains themselves for having the temerity to, goodness gracious, criticize someone important -- played the "don't be so mean to LeBron" card every time The King acted less than regally.

But his karma-tweet-and-retreat 24 hours have made even some of his most ardent supporters humbled by the depths of his arrogance.

It also should be noted that, since the karma comment, he and Bosh have sprained their ankles, though both are expected to return soon.

I'm not saying citing karma -- and then backpedaling -- means he's now experiencing some of his own. I'm just saying, why risk it?

Fate and the cosmos aside, the question that remains is whether any of this off-court LeBron stuff matters to his team's title hopes.

Short answer: maybe. Long answer: It depends.

There is no way Spoelstra was a happy head coach -- or Pat Riley a pleased planner in his ivory tower -- upon hearing about LeBron's latest letdown.

Do such things impact their ability to reach their star? To get him on board with on-court plans, team chemistry and Spoelstra's process? Do LeBron's controversies -- including, remember, reveling in an entire NBA team's misfortune -- create rifts in the Heat locker room we don't see?

Do they hint at a talent too obstinate to manage?

Do they say the very opposite?

Does being unlikable -- truly out of touch -- mean one iota when the man behind such absurdities happens to be one of the planet's premiere athletes?

That's one thing this week didn't reveal: whether LeBron James, epically gifted, spoiled child star, rising villain, fascinating basketball player and cultural icon, is built to be as much a champion as he is a talent.

Those answers lie ahead.

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