MINNEAPOLIS –- It was all good just a week ago.
Then, the Miami Heat were in the process of extending their winning streak to 10 games. LeBron James was dunking flawlessly, dominating games with his efficiency and touting the Heat’s supporting cast as the deepest he’s had since he arrived from Cleveland three years ago.
This time last week, Chris Bosh seemed to have shaken out of an offensive slump after rescuing the Heat from a 14-point deficit against Charlotte by scoring 13 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and grabbing nine rebounds in the win. And Dwyane Wade was in the midst of arguably his best flow of the season, having negotiated his knee soreness to score at least 20 points in four consecutive games.
Considering how matters have gone for Miami the past few days, last week seems more like last season.
That’s how quickly things change for the Heat, who are now in a deep search for answers as they head into Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season. After getting hammered in the paint and on the boards in consecutive double-figure losses to Detroit and Chicago, the challenges don’t get any smaller for the Heat -– literally or figuratively –- as they try to gain traction in their latest stop of a frigid four-game road trip.
Heat players had the day off Friday coming off their worst loss of the season in Thursday’s 107-87 setback against the Bulls. But there was hardly a sense of idleness surrounding the Heat as they look to address some interior issues from the past two games, in which they've been outrebounded by a total of 34 boards and have allowed a combined 104 points in the paint.
Those disturbing numbers had the Heat taking inventory ahead of facing the Timberwolves.
“It’s a recurring thing with our team, and we have to do a better job with that,” James said of the Heat’s recent struggles in the paint. “We would love to shoot 50 percent every game, but it’s going to be times we need to gut out a win. Teams have done a much better rebounding job than us. It can be an effort thing; it can be a lot of things. But we just have to go out and go get them. I’m going to do a much better job with that, get more rebounds. But it’s a group thing for our team.”
As Miami examines every aspect of its rebounding woes -- from working on fundamental techniques to perhaps tweaking personnel groupings and schemes -- the next chance to regroup will come against the shorthanded Timberwolves, who expect to be without league-leading rebounder Kevin Love, who has been away from the team because of a death in the family.
After Saturday’s game, the trip continues with a rematch against the Pistons on Sunday and ends with Tuesday’s showdown against the Indiana Pacers as the teams with the best records in the East meet for the first time since last season’s conference finals.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra suggested a lack of consistent toughness is among the reasons why his team has been pushed around the past two games. And, considering the competition, matters could get worse before they get better if the Heat don’t fix the problem quickly.
“We are going to look at film of the last couple of games and see where the opportunities are,” Spoelstra said. “However, there are a lot of things to do before changing lineups. We have to look at other things like rebounding, putting two hands on the ball and playing defense.”
That seems simple enough, even for a team that’s won consecutive championships despite ranking among the league’s worst in rebounding each of the past two seasons. But complicating matters has been the lack of lineup continuity. Wade is expected to be available Saturday after missing Thursday’s game with flu-like symptoms and sitting out Tuesday with right-knee soreness.
But even if Wade returns against the Timberwolves, he’s likely to be out of the lineup again Sunday in Detroit as a precaution to avoid pushing the veteran guard through games on back-to-back nights. Miami is also expected to have Chris Andersen back after the reserve center was away from the team Thursday to deal with a personal matter.
James said it’s been difficult to establish cohesion amid so much unevenness from game to game.
“But what are you going to do about it?” James rhetorically asked after the loss in Chicago. “When guys are out, (other) guys have to step in. As far as continuity, you would love to have your set rotation. But things happen. It’s been a challenge for us, because it’s been more off than on with us since the season started. But it’s better early than, hopefully, late.”
Only James and backup point guard Norris Cole have played in all 19 games with season. Spoelstra has either had to alter his starting lineup or tweak his playing rotation at least once a week since the Oct. 29 season-opening win against the Bulls.
Rebounding is one concern. Roster reliability has been another.
“We just have to do a better job with our schemes, of helping guys out, help rotating,” James said. “We just want to get healthy. That’s our concern. We want to play with what we've got. And we haven’t been able to do that consistently.”
And that’s led to inconsistent results, which explains the odd ebb and flow of the Heat’s season.
Bosh, whose uneven play has been a microcosm of said season, is confident Miami will soon settle into a productive groove again on both ends of the court. He insists the team won’t get too distraught amid this week’s turmoil, just as it didn't grow overconfident with last week’s success.
“When random situations happen during the season, we have to be ready for it,” Bosh said. “We are looking forward to bouncing back, and it’s a huge challenge for us on the road right now. We have a chance to really make some ground up. We always expect to win, no matter who we put on the floor. We’re going to have to just get back to playing our game and let everything else take care of itself.”