MINNEAPOLIS -- This was all about toughness.
It was about addressing the lack of toughness the Miami Heat showed in consecutive lopsided, embarrassing losses earlier in the week to Detroit and Chicago.
It was about embracing Saturday’s opportunity to toughen up in the paint and on the boards, areas where the Heat have consistently been a bit too weak.
And mostly, it was about carrying that toughness forward through a road trip that continues Sunday against the same Detroit Pistons who pummeled Miami a few days ago, then wraps up with a marquee showdown against the East-leading Indiana Pacers.
So yes, Heat center Chris Bosh suggested Saturday, it’s understandable if observers discount Miami’s improved effort in 103-82 win over a Minnesota Timberwolves team that was missing leading scorer and the NBA’s top rebounder in Kevin Love because of a death in the family.
Technically, Miami still lost Saturday’s rebounding battle, 45-44.
But the final numbers were much less important than the initial aggression and approach. And to that end, even a two-time defending champion isn't ashamed to carry a moral victory in the paint into the rest of trip that will again challenge the Heat’s toughness.
“Every time we step out there, we’re going to take pride in that,” Bosh said. “We’re in a new space now, where the microscope is there as far as rebounding is concerned. And we’re going to have to do a better job. This was really good for us. But we have our work cut out for us [Sunday] and after that [Tuesday] against Indiana. It’s not going to stop.”
The only thing colder than the sub-zero temperatures that greeted the Heat in Minnesota the past two days was the chilling and sobering reality that accompanied the lengthy film sessions coach Erik Spoelstra forced his team to digest.
The footage began rolling during the team’s meetings Friday and continued through final preparation sessions before Saturday’s game at the Target Center. Spoelstra said the Heat watched just about every rebounding opportunity they squandered in losses to Detroit and Chicago, which outrebounded Miami by a total of 34 boards in those two games.
Spoelstra placed a fresh set of demands on the team and tweaked the scheme, and players challenged themselves and one another to recommit to the grittiest of grunt work in the lane.
The results were encouraging, even if tempered by the contest of Love’s absence.
After hauling in just two rebounds Thursday in Chicago, Bosh grabbed nine Saturday. He had six rebounds in his first seven minutes of action. Bosh was the victim of friendly fire in the lane, where he was boxing out Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic and was inadvertently hit in the eye by teammate Shane Battier as they all pursued a loose ball in the first quarter.
Bosh left the game and was treated in the locker room before he returned to finish the game, although he sat out the fourth quarter after the Heat put the game out of reach.
But the tone was set by LeBron James, who snagged a season-high 14 rebounds Saturday after he grabbed a total of 15 over his three previous games. James had 10 rebounds by the intermission, the most by a Heat player in any half this season.
In the moments after the Bulls handed the Heat their worst loss of the season, James vowed that he would lead his team’s redemption effort in the next game.
“This is not an individual sport -- I never feel like I have to do it on my own,” James said immediately after Thursday’s 107-87 setback in Chicago. “But I’m going to do a better job with that, get more rebounds.”
James revisited those comments after he nearly posted a triple-double, with 21 points and eight assists to go with those 14 rebounds in 31 minutes Saturday.
“With me, I was just trying to put more pressure on myself to help out,” James said. “You don’t talk about it. Just go do it. For me, when I say it, I go and make it happen. I understood that this is a very good rebounding team, even with Love out. We had to help [Bosh] down there, help our bigs. I just tried to get mine over the top, get some in traffic, and it worked out for us.”
Sustaining that level of physicality and toughness is now the goal.
It helped Saturday that Miami was closer to full strength, with both guard Dwyane Wade (flu-like symptoms) and center Chris Andersen (personal matter) returning to action after missing Thursday’s game in Chicago. The two combined for 29 points and nine rebounds, contributions the Heat certainly could have used against the Bulls.
But the Heat could be dealing with another dose of absences Sunday in Detroit. Wade, who had also missed last Tuesday’s loss to Detroit with knee soreness, aggravated his bruised right knee in the first half against the Timberwolves when he banged knees with Kevin Martin.
When Wade remained on the ground midway through the first quarter for several seconds, reaching for his right knee, Spoelstra said the entire franchise held its breath in hopes the injury wasn’t as serious as it initially appeared. But Wade eventually shook off the pain and stayed in the game. Wade played 32 minutes after asking Spoelstra to allow him to get extended work.
Wade is not expected to play Sunday as part of a recovery plan to prevent him from playing in both games of a back-to-back set. The veteran guard, who is coming off an offseason procedure on the right knee, repeatedly has said he regrets when he tried to play in games on consecutive nights earlier this season. That’s when he aggravating his right knee in a Nov. 16 victory at Charlotte and ended up sitting out a week to address the soreness.
Like Bosh, Wade got back on his feet Saturday to keep battling.
And James kept soaring.
“It’s just commitment,” Wade said. “We still had a couple of moments where there were lapses. But we did a better job. We just did a better job of trying to box out, and just trying to go get it.”
The Heat now take the next step toward the next test of their toughness.
“It’s going to be a challenge against a team that just beat us on our own floor,” James said of the Pistons. “But we accept that challenge and look forward to it.”