MIAMI -- There have been repeated adjustments to the rotation, the schemes have been tweaked, and there appears to be a good chance that All-Star big man Chris Bosh will return from injury as soon as the very next game.
But when it comes to changes the Miami Heat need to make to regain control of their Eastern Conference finals series against the stubborn and feisty Boston Celtics, there's one that matters above all the rest.
“We can't be cool about this,” Heat forward and co-captain Udonis Haslem said about his team's mindset and lethargic play at times in the series. “We can't just sit back and wait for things to happen. It's gotta be a switch flipped in our head that as soon as that ball is tossed up, we've got to go.”
After winning the first two games in Miami, the Heat have dropped two in Boston. Along the way, the Celtics have gained both a rhythm and confidence that has them believing more than ever that they can make perhaps one final run to the NBA Finals with their veteran core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.
Now that it's a best-of-three series, a path to the Finals is back up for grabs. And Heat players are convinced they must regain something that has been missing: desperation.
Beating the Celtics on the road is difficult enough. But trying to beat them after spotting them 20-point leads with lackadaisical play at the start of games proved to be impossible. Miami trailed by as many as 24 points in Game 3 before rallying to within eight, and fell 101-91.
The Heat then fell behind by 18 points in Game 4 before storming back to briefly take the lead in the fourth quarter. But LeBron James fouled out in overtime -- the first time he has fouled out in a playoff game -- and Dwyane Wade's play fizzled as the Heat stumbled to a 93-91 loss on Sunday.
If there was a common theme in both games, it was that Miami took too long to get on track defensively at the start and then expended so much energy playing catch-up that there wasn't much left in the tank to finish the job.
“We weathered that first storm, but that was too big of a storm,” Wade said. “We don't want to get down that much, even though we fought back. It takes too much out of you to do that. That's the difference between playing at home and playing on the road -- we've gotten behind too far. We've made comebacks, but it takes too much out of you against a team that keeps coming.”
It's been a disturbing trend for the Heat in this series. In each of the past three games, Miami has faced a double-digit deficit. Even in Game 2 on their home court, the Heat trailed by as many as 15 points before coming back for a 115-111 overtime victory that registered as the biggest comeback in a playoff game in franchise history.
But what the Heat learned in Boston was that those sluggish starts and poor habits can haunt you on the road, especially against a playoff-tested team like the Celtics.
Garnett has described the ebb and flow of the series as “just two teams throwing punches, really, to be honest.”
Miami, however, has yet to play with a level of defensive consistency that has defined their identity for much of the season. Through four games, the Celtics have already had four quarters in which they have scored at least 30 points and one when they had 29.
By comparison, Miami didn't allow any 30-point quarters in its previous two series against the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. Those defensive lapses prompted coach Erik Spoelstra to say during an in-game television interview in Game 4 that the Heat hadn't defended at all since they arrived in the city of Boston.
“Well, no one said this was going to be easy,” said Spoelstra, whose frustration stemmed from the Heat giving up 61 points in the first half Sunday. “The way we came out in the first half, we were as committed as we can be. That's the way you have to be against this team. You have to collectively be willing to get into the pit and get your hands dirty for however many minutes it may be. Oftentimes, it won't be pretty. You have to find different ways to come out ahead.”
Now the challenge is to avoid falling behind -- this time in the series. The Heat are 7-1 at home in the playoffs this season and 16-3 overall in the postseason at AmericanAirlines Arena since James, Wade and Bosh came together last season to lead the Heat to the NBA Finals.
“I think we play best when we feel desperate, but we have to come out with a sense of desperation even when the score is zero to zero,” Haslem said. “We can't wait until the score is 22-5 or 24-10 before we start to play with a desperate sense of urgency. It definitely helps going back home because our crowd is going to be behind us. We're going to have that energy from the home crowd.”
Wade agreed. He also said the Heat can't afford to continue to pace themselves through games against the Celtics, regardless of the location.
“We're playing our game,” Wade said before stopping to correct himself. “After we get down, we played it. That's not the recipe for success. We're not going to make an excuse. They beat us. They came out and did what they should have done at home. Now, it goes back to Miami and we have to come out, play better and win a ballgame.”