Heat's dismal road play a real concern

April 1, 2012

BOSTON — A tired, dejected and exasperated Erik Spoelstra emerged from the visitors' locker room at TD Garden on Sunday afternoon and addressed the buzzing media horde, where he attempted, once again, to explain how everything could have gone so horribly wrong for a team that can be so devastatingly good.

"It's not about what we say right now," Spoelstra barked after the Heat's pathetic 91-72 loss to the Celtics, Miami's seventh defeat in its past 10 games away from home. "It's not about any kind of meeting, any kind of talk. It's not about a response to the media. This game was unacceptable."

The scene is becoming an all too familiar one for the Heat, who have beaten just one playoff team away from home in the past month while dropping road contests against the Jazz, Lakers, Magic, Bulls, Thunder, Pacers and now Celtics by an average of 10 points per game.

And as the road KOs pile up, the growing concern is that the Heat — for all of their success at home, where they've won 15 straight and are 21-2 — are not a reliable enough team away from AmericanAirlines Arena to live up to the immense pressure and exceedingly high expectations they've placed upon themselves over the past two seasons.

The Heat have been tormented on the road, but Sunday's brutal effort was their worst showing yet. They hit season lows in points (72), shooting percentage (.348) and margin of defeat (19 points) as they dropped to 37-14.

"They just completely dominated us," said LeBron James, who was the lone bright spot with 23 points on 11-of-20 shooting. "You've got to give credit when credit is due. … And as a unit, we understand that we've got to play better on the road and we've got to figure it out before the playoffs."

And when they get to the playoffs, the Heat had better hope they don't face the Celtics again, because Boston, once counted out as too old and too slow to compete at the level they once did, looks suddenly spry and surprisingly dangerous.

Sunday's victory was the eighth straight home win for the Celtics, who are 15-5 since the All-Star break and moved a full game ahead of Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division lead. The Celtics are the No. 4 seed in the East, and given the way they're playing, it seems like they'll stay there.

Still, with 14 games left to play, including two more against Miami, two against Atlanta, and meetings with San Antonio, Chicago, Indiana, Philadelphia, Orlando and New York, it's entirely possible that Boston could lose its division lead and drop to the No. 7 seed in the East — a potentially poor proposition for the Heat, who likely will finish as the No. 2 seed.

"Our guys are a pretty confident group," Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said. "They feel they can play with anyone. We also know we have to get better at a lot of things, too, while we're doing that. We're a team that, to me, is still trending up, and that's a good thing."

Miami cruised past the Celtics 4-1 in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals, and James and co-star Dwyane Wade were utterly dominant, with James averaging 28 points and 8.2 rebounds and Wade scoring 30.2 points with 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists.

But a rematch could result in a completely different outcome, particularly if the Heat can't fix their road blues and Boston point guard Rajon Rondo continues to excel when his team needs him most.

Rondo was invaluable once again Sunday, as he has been for most of the season. The young spark plug, who was, bafflingly, the subject of trade rumors earlier in the year, scored 16 points to go with 11 rebounds and 14 assists, abusing Miami's point guard duo of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole in his fifth triple-double of the season.

"Coach ordered it, and I was just trying to get it done," said Rondo, who has dished out 10 or more assists in a career-high 13 straight games. "Statement or not, we did what we were supposed to do."

A lot could change over the final four weeks of the regular season, but the Celtics and Heat are moving in opposite directions. Sunday's performance wasn't one that the Heat should overreact to, but put in the context of their struggles since the All-Star break, it can't be brushed aside, either.

"We have not been able to come up with an answer on the road," Spoelstra said, with the body language of a man who couldn't get out of Boston fast enough. "But we'll figure it out."

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner