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Dazed Heat could find brief relief vs. Lakers

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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MIAMI -- The wicked oddity at this awful stage of misery for the Miami Heat is that they need the Los Angeles Lakers.

Oh, how the Heat, reeling on a five-game losing streak, need the reigning NBA champion Lakers, who have won their past eight games.

Specifically, the Heat need a win against a glamour opponent, and the Lakers are as glamorous as anyone comes at the moment given their status and momentum. Not that a Miami victory on its home floor Thursday night at American Airlines Arena would prove all is right in a Heat world where things mostly have come unhinged lately. But it'd sure be a handy exhibit to suggest the franchise isn't in ruins.

Miami is 1-9 against the five teams -- Boston, Chicago, Dallas, San Antonio and the Lakers -- with the best chance to win the next NBA championship. One. And nine. The lone victory came on Christmas Day in L.A. against the Lakers when Miami was rolling through a stretch during which it would win 21 of 22 games and push its record to 30-9.

Now?

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Take a deep breath. Miami has skidded to 43-21 after a stunning loss to the restructured New York Knicks, the waste of a huge lead against Orlando, a wipeout vs. San Antonio, a one-point defeat by Chicago and a loss to Portland, with all of those games save the one against the Spurs having been played at home.

The Heat had the look, sound and feel of lost souls in the wake of the latest failure. The more Dwyane Wade and LeBron James tried to calm the storm, the more panic-stricken they appeared.

Point: "This isn't rock bottom for us," said James.

Counter-point: "It can't get any worse," said Wade.

Which player speaks the truth?

And then Heat coach Erik Spoelstra admitted, "Frankly, we don't have a lot of answers."

As the troubles have mounted, the Heat have played scared -- steering shots, uncertain on defense, robotic in almost every phase of the game -- earlier and earlier as whatever meltdown begins to present itself. It's a contention substantiated by Wade's recent admissions that he's often confused about his role in concert with James, who has usurped him as the go-to guy at important moments. And the fact that James so often has failed to come through at those times has added to the sense that Wade feels disrespected (disgusted?).

"Anxious," Spoelstra has called his team.

That's semantics. Anxious, in this context, means frightened. But it might be the best explanation as to why Spoelstra also said a couple of Heat players cried after the loss to the Bulls, though he subsequently revised the observation to having seen players with "glassy eyes."

OK, so there was no weeping.

But might the Heat's overwrought reaction suggest that the team lacks a mean gene?

During a game in Boston last month, for example, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo eavesdropped on the Heat huddle during a stoppage in play. Rondo was beginning to ravage Miami with his on-court aggressiveness, and all James did was playfully push him away. Someone in Heat clothing should have knocked Rondo on his butt.

And now comes Wade's whining about how "the world is happier, because the Heat is losing."

Spare me the pity party. Someone might want to remind Wade that he, James and Chris Bosh invited vitriol with their ego-saturated introductory party last summer. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy had it right the other day when he said, "My suggestion would be if you don't want the scrutiny, you don't hold a championship celebration before you've even practiced together ... and then when things aren't going well, sort of bemoan the fact that you're getting [hatred]. To me, that doesn't follow."

Exactly.

The Heat have issues at point guard and center. A question about whether quality depth exists is legitimate. The sense that Spoelstra might not be up to the monumental task at hand -- and with NBA godfather Pat Riley camped out in the president's office -- is presenting itself.

But the overriding problem is that Wade and James haven't made each other, or the team, better. They have played as separate entities more often than in effective combination. They have generated little of the energy that was supposed to make the Heat great. Not even a combined 69 points by the superstars Tuesday night was enough to lift Miami past Portland.

"I'd be a fool to say it's hard to play with LeBron," Wade said back when the Heat sputtered at the start of the season.

Doesn't seem so foolish these four months later.

There absolutely has been an exaggerated reaction to almost everything the Heat have done this season in the wake of Miami's free-agent haul during which Wade was retained and James and Bosh, plus others, were brought into the fold. Again, though, the preening excess the Heat involved themselves in during those heady days begged pointed criticism were they to falter. And they're faltering.

James too often has acted as though he's still a Cleveland Cavalier expecting and insisting that the ball always has to come through his hands. Wade, meanwhile, still doesn't seem to know what to do with himself when James is dominating the offense.

It's a mess, and Spoelstra's continued plea about "a process" grows more hollow every day.

That's why the Heat should be thankful for the opportunity the hot and hotshot Lakers present. Miami's new chore is to rediscover an emotional equilibrium, and the Heat couldn't ask for a better chance to do so than against Kobe Bryant's marauding gang.

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