The Heat were going to win 70-plus games and run through the regular season. Parade routes were being planned down Biscayne Blvd. They were guaranteed to be champions in their first year together, or so they thought.
|Derrick Rose shows the Heat what a team can do with a top-notch point guard running the show. (Getty Images)|
Miami has now lost four in a row and five of its past six games, and the Heat continue to struggle against quality opponents. Coach Erik Spoelstra said players were crying in the locker room after the game, and the panic alarm has become a screaming siren.
"This is painful for every single one of us going through this," Spoelstra said. "It isn't a matter of want. It is a matter of doing and continuing to put ourselves in this position until we break through."
Is it too soon to write the obituary on this Heat team? Maybe. There are still 19 games remaining in the regular season, and the Heat are headed to the playoffs, most likely as a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference. They can still correct their problems and find a way to be successful at the level many expected when the season began.
But this Heat team is not going to win a championship. And there's a good chance they could lose in the first round of the playoffs, especially with a potential matchup against the Knicks. Miami is now 1-9 against the top five teams in the NBA (San Antonio, Dallas, Boston, Chicago and the Lakers), but more importantly the Heat are 0-6 against Boston and Chicago, the top contenders in the East.
The players aren't giving up but it's clear frustration has set in. Bosh wouldn't say who was crying in the locker room, but he said he "almost did." Between Bosh, James and Wade, each player talked about staying strong and confident, but at some point they have to realize what they are -- which is a good team, just not a great one.
"Any time you're in the same predicament and you have doubts, you are beaten," Bosh said. "Our attitude is to win every time we take the court. The minute we stop being like that we have failed ourselves, and we don't want to do that. We believe in each other. We believe that we're eventually going to get better. As much as it hurts, we just have to keep working."
Sunday's loss showed all their flaws -- blowing double-digit leads, no inside presence, lack of a bench, poor point-guard play and late-game failures. All of these problems were evident in recent losses to New York, Orlando, San Antonio and Chicago twice.
On Sunday, the Heat led by 11 in the third quarter but the Bulls made all the plays at the end when it counted. Chicago outscored Miami 36-30 in the paint and had 16 bench points to six. Derrick Rose, an MVP candidate at point guard, had 27 points and five assists. Miami's point-guard combo of Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby combined for 11 points and five assists -- all from Chalmers.
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James again missed a game-winning shot, this one coming on a left-handed layup that he tried to shoot over Bulls center Joakim Noah. The rebound came to Wade, who missed a 15-footer from the baseline. James has now missed a potential game-winning or tying shot in four of the past five losses.
"I put a lot of blame on myself," said James, who finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists. "I told the guys I just keep failing them late in games, and that I won't continue to do that. I'm going to continue to push."
The Heat, to their credit, are trying to make adjustments. They added Bibby to help at point guard and improve the bench, and players are going "outside their comfort zone," as Wade put it, to try and end this recent slide. It showed in small spurts against the Bulls.
Bosh, who went 1 of 18 from the field at Chicago on Feb. 24, had one of his more aggressive games since joining the Heat. He played in the post early instead of settling for jump shots and finished with 23 points and five rebounds on 9-of-14 shooting.
Wade, not known for being a vocal leader, was noticeably more talkative, especially to Chalmers and Mike Miller on separate plays. He said he's tired of losing, and he wanted to do something about it.
"One of the messages that I said before the game was, 'Let's try a little harder, let's do a little more,'" said Wade, who finished with 20 points, five assists and four rebounds. "I tried to do that -- just do a little more."
But the Heat are going to have to do a lot more if they want to end this season with a long playoff run. And they're going to have to do it fast since time is running out. But what is the answer?
If you ask fans in South Florida, they will say fire Spoelstra. Maybe that does make a difference, but he doesn't deserve all the blame. After all, he's not missing shots at the end of games or failing to block out the shooter on missed free throws, which happened Sunday with Luol Deng late in the fourth quarter. Deng missed a free throw, got fouled after Noah tipped the ball out to him and hit two more free throws to turn an 86-85 Heat advantage into the 87-86 final score.
Bibby is not going to save this roster. The bench isn't going to miraculously improve even if Miller starts hitting shots (0 of 5 from the field Sunday) and Udonis Haslem (foot) comes back at 100 percent. Those players aren't difference makers even though they will help.
If the Heat are going to win, it's going to be James, Wade and Bosh carrying them to a title. But as we've seen, this team just isn't good enough when it matters against quality opponents. Each loss magnifies that point and shows that a title likely isn't coming to Miami this year.
That might make you want to cry. It did for some Heat players Sunday since they realized their dream appears to be slipping away.