INDIANAPOLIS -- After a week on the road, the Miami Heat will return home from a four-game trip during which they seem to have raised more questions than they answered.
“We came out with a mindset that we wanted to get a win to end this road trip the right way, end it over .500,” forward LeBron James said after Tuesday’s 90-84 loss to Indiana assured the Heat of a 2-2 mark. “We had our chances, and we just didn't capitalize the best way we could.”
Now six weeks into the season, the two-time defending champion Heat remain very much a work in progress as they search for a level of stability that seems to have eluded the team since training camp. Amid their latest stretch of up-and-down play, the Heat have dropped three of their past five games since they rolled off 10 consecutive victories.
Tuesday’s performance against the Pacers, clearly the Heat’s biggest threat in the Eastern Conference, was a microcosm of how sporadic the season has been to this point. A dominant first half of defense and ball movement completely shut down the Pacers as the Heat led 47-40 in a building that hadn't seen Indiana lose a game this season. The second half saw Miami's offensive flow grind to a halt, when the Heat generated just 37 points on the way to finishing with a season-low 84 for the game.
The Heat continue to sort through a number of issues.
First, the rotation remains in flux. Coach Erik Spoelstra has tinkered with the rotation on a regular basis, using lineup combinations that hadn't previously spent time on the court together. A new wrinkle was added in Sunday’s win against Detroit, where the Heat used Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen together for extended stretches to provide more size on the front line.
On Tuesday, Spoelstra further tweaked that unit by playing two point guards -- Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole -- on the floor with two centers in Bosh and Andersen. As the Heat try to find ways to counter an opponent’s size and length down low, Bosh said he hopes to see more of the latest look.
“[Andersen], he fills the five very uniquely; he can run the floor, he can rebound, he can finish,” Bosh said. “He allows me to sometimes take a little bit of a break. I like playing basketball at [center], but not, like, for 48 minutes all the time. Any rest he can give me is awesome. We can always go to it. It’s something we can keep in our back pocket.”
Secondly, the road trip served as a reminder that the Heat need more in the middle. The two losses came against a Chicago Bulls team that outrebounded Miami by 21 on the glass and a Pacers squad that played through 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert in the second half, won the rebounding battle by double figures and outscored the Heat 50-37 over the third and fourth quarters.
It’s a concern that looms larger when the Heat struggle to create their preferred mismatches by spreading the floor with perimeter shooters. But Shane Battier has been in a lengthy slump as the starting power forward. The Heat’s primary group of floor-spacing shooters -- Battier, Bosh, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Rashard Lewis -- were a combined 3-for-15 against the Pacers. The supporting cast didn't provide much of a lift for James and Dwyane Wade, who shot 12-of-30 themselves.
The Heat are still figuring out how to play effectively against bigger teams that succeed in slowing down the game and limiting their transition opportunities.
“Their defense is No. 1 in the league,” James said of the Pacers. “They make you do things, at times, you don’t want to do and [force you] into shots you don’t want to take. I had some really good looks at the rim that didn't go down that I’m capable of making.”
Over the past four games, Miami’s shooting percentages have been 41.6, 55.1, 55.6 and 42.9. Another factor that has played into the mixed results has been Wade’s on-and-off availability as he goes through a maintenance program designed to reduce the wear and tear on his troublesome right knee.
Wade was back in the lineup Tuesday after sitting out Sunday against Detroit. He also missed Thursday's loss in Chicago, meaning the Heat’s second-most important player missed every other game on the trip. Wade said it’s too soon to take meaningful inventory of the Heat at this stage but added that Tuesday’s game serves as a reminder of how much improvement needs to be made in the coming months.
“They’re always good for us, especially as you’re preparing for the playoffs as the season goes on, because those are the kind of games you’re going to see,” Wade said. “We do look forward to those games because we learn a lot about ourselves, and we learn things we can work on and get better at. We’ll take what we didn't do well tonight, we’ll take it back home and hopefully by the time we see this team again, we've used what we've learned in this game and we’ll play a better game.”
The Heat return to Miami facing a three-day break before their next game on Saturday against Cleveland. It’s the start of a five-game homestand that offers a chance to regroup and regain rhythm.
“It’s [been] a tough week for us,” James said. “I think we’re all excited to get back to Miami, to get back home for the next two weeks. We’ll get better. We’ll look at the film and we’ll move on to the next game. You don’t hold your head low long on one loss, especially as a veteran ballclub. We’re not the team we want to be in April right now, and that’s OK. That’s exactly what we want. We want to continue to get better every month.”