Heat hope future is no longer cloudy

MIAMI – LeBron James is wise enough to know that this won't be a quick fix.

He understands that regardless of how dominant and committed Miami might be in Saturday's game against the young and rebuilding New Orleans Hornets, the Heat still have a long way to go to get themselves back on track.

After a stretch of lackluster defensive performances in recent weeks that culminated with losses to the lowly Washington Wizards and a 20-point drubbing at home by the New York Knicks, the Heat are left with a bitter taste.

And it'll take more than one game, one night to erase.

“It's going to take more than that,” James said. “We've got to have a string. We've got to have a month [like] we've had months before. A month of December, month of January, where we just absolutely just get back to where we play defensively and sharing the ball. One game is not going to change it.”

One strong defensive outing would, however, make for a decent start. The problems have been diagnosed by the Heat extensively over the past two days since the Knicks and Wizards left them reeling. The question now is whether the Heat will take the necessary steps to self-medicate and regain their identity.

A Heat team that has prided itself on being one of the toughest and stingiest defenses in the league is ranked 23rd overall on that side of the ball amid a lukewarm 12-5 start. Within that distinction, Miami is giving up 100.6 points a game, getting outrebounded by more than two boards a night and is allowing opponents to shoot 44.5 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from 3-point range.

That's uncharacteristic of a team that finished last season's championship run with the NBA's fourth-best defense. Granted, it's too early in the season to expect the Heat to execute with postseason precision. But coach Erik Spoelstra is already tired of seeing bad habits build.

“If that is a reality, then that is a major problem,” Spoelstra said Friday when asked if his players believe they'll simply turn up the intensity as the season gets closer to more meaningful games. “We have an opportunity to correct it right now. If it goes too long, then what it becomes is a tendency. It goes longer than that, it becomes a habit. If it continues by the time you get to the playoffs, that's who you are. So that's what we're looking to change right now.”

By all accounts from the Heat's locker room, that sort of necessary change must begin from within. While the Heat initially dismissed Tuesday's loss to a one-win Washington team as simply a bad night that shouldn't offer too many lessons, the mood around the team was completely different following Thursday's 112-92 setback against the rival Knicks, who have the East's best record.

There were no fun-natured shooting games after practice between James and his teammates. Instead, the mood was quiet and businesslike. Statements given during interviews with the media were short and to the point.

“Numbers-wise, this is probably the worst it's been in a long time, since I've been here,” 10-year veteran Dwyane Wade said of the Heat's defensive output. “But I've been around. I've seen it all. You understand when it's time to, what they say, 'panic,' I guess. And you understand when it's time to continue to work it and understand that you can be better. If you know you can get better, that's a good thing. If you feel like you've played your best game and you're getting your butt whipped, now you've got a problem.”

Correcting that problem starts with reorganizing priorities. The Heat pushed through the playoffs last season with an up-tempo style that emphasized spreading the floor with shooters around James, Wade and Chris Bosh. The mission was to create matchup problems at every position on the court by often going with a smaller lineup.

It's what Spoelstra branded as “position-less” basketball. But too often in recently, the Heat have found themselves out of position altogether, especially on defense.

Fixing the issues is more a matter of application, not preparation.

“It is a cloud for our team because we know we're not defending the way we're capable of defending,” James said. “The good thing is we know we can be great. But right now we're not good. We're not very good right now as a team and we've got to get to that point. It's us. It's not like we've added 15 new guys. We've got a veteran ballclub. We've got guys that have been here, that have defended. That's our staple. Offense is overshadowing our defense right now and it's not a good thing.”

Spoelstra believes there's no more room for explanations. Right now, it's time for improved results.

“We've had a very good training camp, we've had good practices, shootarounds, film sessions, we've been relatively healthy, our best players have been leading the way,” Spoelstra said. “I can come up with a lot of excuses or complaints as a head coach, but they're not there from that regard. It has to translate now to the emotional, physical commitment during the course of a game.”