If you've listened to the Heat all season, ever since those halcyon days in training camp back at Hurlburt Air Force Base, you've known all along that this was going to be a "process" and a "journey." You've known that the Heat have been on their own timetable, not anybody else's.
Except the NBA season eventually imposes its own timetable on everyone, and that time has come for the Superteam in South Beach. Eventually in sports, you become what your record says you are -- and right now, there are too many blemishes on the Heat's record, blemishes in all the wrong places, to take them seriously as a championship contender.
|Acquired to be veteran leaders and contributors, Juwan Howard and Eddie House have been inconsistent off the bench. (Getty Images)|
The first turning point came on Dec. 2, a 118-90 victory over LeBron James' former team in Cleveland -- a cathartic beatdown for the King that seemed to galvanize Miami, which suddenly found itself swept up in a 12-game winning streak after starting 9-8 amid league-wide catcalls, harrumphs and belly laughs.
Then Miami lost to Dallas by two points at home Dec. 20, and it was only the beginning of the Heat's woes against so-called "elite" teams. At that point, the Heat were 1-5 against Boston, Orlando and Dallas -- cause for concern but not enough evidence to declare a crisis.
The bounce-back came five days later, when the Heat eviscerated the disinterested defending champion Lakers on Christmas Day at Staples Center.
The next dose of malaise came in mid-January in the form of a four-game skid, including another loss to a top-five team (at Chicago) and one to a potential playoff opponent (Atlanta). The slide extended to five out of six with a home loss to the old Knicks on Jan. 27. The new Knicks, featuring a Heat-inspired duo of Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, sent Miami on its current three-game losing streak by beating the Heat in Miami last Sunday.
Sprinkled into Miami's current slide was another loss to the Celtics, another loss to the Bulls, a loss to Orlando featuring a blown 24-point lead before the ultimate disgrace -- a 30-point loss in San Antonio the very next night, Miami's worst loss of the season. Next up, the Bulls again in Miami on Sunday.
What does it all mean? It means the Heat can no longer afford to be on their own timetable. The grueling beat of the NBA season has come to them, and Miami has no choice but to respond -- one way or another.
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Their 1-8 mark against the top five teams in the league not named the Heat (San Antonio, Dallas, Boston, Chicago and the Lakers) is both an ominous trend and a bit of an obtuse moving target. The Heat are 2-0 against Oklahoma City and 2-2 against Orlando, both of whom could be considered elite come playoff time. But the irrefutable fact is this: Over the next 12 days, the Heat will be tested in ways that no title contender in recent memory has been tested at this juncture of the regular season. Beginning Sunday, the next six games at home -- Chicago, Portland, Lakers, Memphis, San Antonio and Oklahoma City -- followed by a road game against the Hawks on March 18, will force the champions of July to confront everything they knew and didn't know they would have to prove when they formed this chemistry experiment back then.
So far, Miami has bounced back every time. But this time, entering the fourth quarter of their first season together, the stakes are higher. Everything -- from the melding of LeBron's talents with Dwyane Wade, to the weepy Chris Bosh, to the uptight Erik Spoelstra, to the inconsistent supporting cast -- comes under scrutiny now for Miami more than it does for any other contending team. This is the bull's eye that Pat Riley put on the Heat in July. This is the challenge they all should have known they would have to answer.
Riley thought he had assembled enough shooters around James and Wade, but Mike Miller and Eddie House haven't delivered consistently. He thought he had patched together enough size in the middle, but Erick Dampier, Juwan Howard and Zydrunas Ilgauskas haven't been able to fill Udonis Haslem's shoes. Spoelstra gave in to James' reluctance to play point guard and now the Heat are on their third point man of the season -- Mike Bibby -- when they didn't need one in the first place. Finally, the Heat are learning that when you have two closers -- James and Wade -- sometimes you have none. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Heat are now a league-worst 1 for 14 on potential tying or go-ahead field-goal attempts in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime.
The next seven games in 12 days represent a microcosm of that ultimate definition of crunch time for the Heat. To borrow a phrase from LeBron, what will they do?
The Heat are no longer setting the timetable. The timetable has come to them.