M.I.A. in Miami: What's going on with the Heat?

The two-time defending champions have 20 losses already. It's March 20. Last year, they lost their 20th game of the season on the 1st of June. It was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Are they just bored, or are they legitimately worse? One thing's for sure, it's about time people started paying attention to this under-the-radar squad.

A few days ago I studied up a bit on the western powers of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers. Now it's time to look at Eastern contenders Miami and Indiana. As you might imagine, I have slightly more animus for one of these clubs than the other, but I'll try (and fail miserably) at being somewhat objective. Today it's Miami's turn. Indiana will be next.

I was hardly alone in guessing that the Heat, in attempting a three-peat, would quickly abandon any notions of going for another historic 65-plus win season and opt instead to be the classic on/off switch team, especially with Dwayne Wade's well-chronicled knee issues. Miami actually surprised me by getting off to a pretty solid 14-3 start, despite losses to the Sixers (who knew the best game of Michael Carter-Wiliams's rookie season would be his first?)  and the lowly Celtics, on a miracle buzzer three from Jeff Green. They then lost three of six, including at Indiana, and the Pacers' statement-making start got all of us pretty settled into the narrative of, "Okay, the Heat will relax be content with the second seed."

Miami did beat the Pacers at home in a tight one a few nights later, but for the most part they spent the next 20 or so games in relative anonymity, as under the radar as a two-time champion with LeBron James on the roster possibly could be. Wade missed seven of those games, including four in a row at one point, but the Heat never faced all that much scrutiny, not even when they lost three in a row at New York, Brooklyn and Washington (with the last of those being a total beat-down right after they visited President Obama). For the most part, Erik Spoelstra was free to tinker with new rotation piece Michael Beasley and to usher along Greg Oden's comeback while most of America's sports fans occupied themselves with the NFL's stretch run.

The rest of the East was so bad that it became clear very early on -- especially once Derrick Rose went down for the Bulls and Brook Lopez for the Nets -- that they would have no competition at all for that second seed. Still, nobody seemed to notice what was going on with the Heat. I don't think they themselves felt anything was off until the Jan. 29 game at home, where they got their rear ends handed to them by a Thunder team playing without Russell Westbrook. I don't think the result was alarming -- after all, it's not like Jeremy Lamb, Derek Fisher and Perry Jones are gonna drill ten threes too often -- as much as OKC just made Miami's defense look so old and slow. Then there was Kevin Durant attacking James with no fear whatsoever. Even worse for the Heat, they got NOTHING from anyone besides their Big Three, and neither Wade nor Chris Bosh were all that good. All the pundits basically handed the MVP trophy to Durant then and there.

Around that point, James flipped the switch. Starting with the new year, Spoelstra upped his minutes to an ungodly 39.0 a night, in part to account for Wade's absences, but James was conserving his energy, shooting just 18 times a night and he didn't seem to have legs on his threes as he made just 27.5 percent of them in January. Once they lost to Durant though, James turned into another animal altogether. 30.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists, on 57.5 shooting from the field on over 20 attempts per game and 36.2 percent from downtown. Also of note, his steals went from 1.1 per game in January to 2.7 in February. He played at least 37 minutes in every game that month except, ironically, in Miami's annihilation of the Thunder on the road in their first game after the All-Star break, where Serge Ibaka broke LeBron's nose, causing James to leave midway through the fourth quarter. Still, the Heat won 11 of 12 games and beat the Clippers, Suns, Mavericks and Warriors (on a ridiculous James three at the end) on the road to go along with their statement win at OKC. The one game James played poorly was at Utah.

Overall, James was playing at a level that I've never seen before, not even from Michael Jordan, as sacrilegious as that sounds. He hit his crescendo on March 3rd against Charlotte, scoring a career-high 61, a game in which Spoelstra let him chuck away despite a commanding fourth quarter lead. After that, like a pitcher that throws a crazy amount of pitches pursuing a no-hitter, James fell back to Earth, relatively speaking. Eight straight games of 24 or fewer points, games in which he hardly had the legs to attempt shots in the fourth quarter and a stretch of five losses in six games for Miami. Even in his 43-point effort at Cleveland, he scored 25 of those in the first quarter. The 45.5 shooting percentage from three in March looks outstanding, but he made 14-of-18 over two games and 6-of-26 in the rest.

And through it all, recklessly, Spoelstra continues to play him far too much -- 39.2 minutes in March and at least 37 in nine straight (and over 40 in the last three) to the point that James' back finally gave out on him and he had to sit at Boston. James may indeed be an alien cyborg sent to destroy us all, but he's also tired enough that he's clearly dragging at the end of games.

Why is Spoelstra playing him so abusively? A couple of reasons, I suspect. For one, the Pacers are stubbornly refusing to run away and hide, and they've been just as crummy as the Heat of late, and over the past two months, even more so. The Heat are still quite capable of catching them in the standings as they're just two losses back with two games left head-to-head. If they win both, then they'll own the tiebreaker. Maybe they're legitimately concerned about the prospect of having to play a Game 7 on the road and haven't shut down James yet because of it.

Or maybe it's as simple as James refusing to sit, still chasing after, in his mind, a winnable MVP award. He might have been the front-runner after the 61-point game, but I think he's certainly slid since, especially with Durant continuing his scoring streak. Whatever the reason, I'd be more than a little surprised if Spoelstra doesn't sit him for a few games in April.

Still, why play him so much game after game? Because it doesn't seem he can afford not to. For example, I looked up a lineup of five of Miami's most commonly-utilized players sans James from February 1 onward. Bosh-Wade-Chris Andersen-Ray Allen-Norris Cole have scored 101 points-per-100 possessions and allowed 111 over 52 minutes together these past two months. Replace Bosh with Shane Battier and it's 103 for, 109 against. In fact, over 272 minutes since February 1, the Heat have a net rating of -2.1 while James sits, and there haven't been too many garbage time minutes in there.

The defense has sagged team wide. The Heat are just 12th in the league now, with a 103.2 defensive rating. Last year they were seventh, at 100.5. Oden was signed to provide a defensive anchor, only his rating of 106.3 is the second-worst of any player in their rotation, ahead of just Michael Beasley, whose rating of 107.8 basically makes him unplayable in any serious situation. Spoelstra has been playing bigger lineups in an effort to save the wear and tear on James and improve the team's rebounding, but nothing has changed from last season. The only bigs they can rely on are Bosh and Andersen. Don't be surprised if the main Heat lineup we see down the stretch in the playoffs are those two along with James, Wade and Allen, with no point guards.

Their offense has been consistent, still tops in the league, but more has been put on the plate of their Big Three than ever, and you can see Bosh and Wade wearing down too, from the burden. The Heat lost at Boston without James, with Wade being unable to give anything in the second half. As for James, he's feeling the strain on both ends. Maybe he did deserve to be Defensive Player of the Year last season, with a 99.3 rating. This year it's at 104.3. Last year his offensive rating was 113.4, now it's 111.7. The net has dipped from 14.1 to almost half that, 7.4. That's pretty substantial.

Honestly, the thing that pops out the most about the Heat isn't that they're losing but who they're losing to. 13 losses already in a crappy Eastern conference including three to Brooklyn, two to Chicago and two to Boston, all teams that struggle to score. Losses on the road to Philadelphia, Sacramento and Utah. Home losses to Detroit and Denver. They get everyone's best game, night in and night out and they're just too old and too bored to deal with it, the consequence of having a top-heavy roster that's been there and done that. I think, technically, the Spurs hold the tiebreaker over them now because they've lost just 10 conference games, though I suppose that San Antonio would have to lose quite a few conference games to give four games in the loss column back to Miami over the next 15 games.

Can the Heat still win it all? With their A game, Miami can still beat anybody and their B+ game is good enough to beat anyone but the Spurs and maybe the Pacers on the road. It's just a question of whether their main guys -- Wade in particular but also James -- can survive the heavy minute toll that lies ahead. Even the second round will be more competitive for them than we thought a couple months back.

Right now, I think they're a guy short. They're missing Mike Miller, Battier looks to be washed up, while Beasley is just unreliable. They're not gonna win a title unless Chalmers and Allen play out of their minds for two months straight. Even if they get past the Pacers, I think that'd be more of an indictment on Indiana than anything to praise the Heat over, but let's see how those two regular season games play out first.

All stats cited courtesy of NBA.com and NBAWowy.com

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