ATLANTA -- It's Day 13 of a six-game East Coast swing, and the Miami Heat are weary.
They’ve spent only five of the past 27 days at home, and the fatigue was apparent in the locker room pregame, as guys shuffled to and from the training room and on the floor against the Atlanta Hawks, where contests at the rim were late and half-hearted.
The Heat won’t say it publicly, of course, but they’re dog tired. LeBron James looks gassed. Dwyane Wade less so, but that’s only because he was on the bench in street clothes conserving his fuel. Chris Bosh’s eyelids were heavy as he offered explanations for the daze that surrounds the team. Even head coach Erik Spoelstra seems like he needs a double shot of espresso.
Whether it was exhaustion, a lack of focus, poor execution, iffy schemes or the lunar cycle, the result was defensive carnage at Philips Arena, where Miami fell 121-114 to Atlanta. The loss completes a lackluster 2-4 road trip.
“I can’t pinpoint what it is,” James said. “It was a little bit of everything. At some point we have to figure it out.”
That was the sentiment on Monday night as the team packed up to return home to face Boston on Tuesday. There was no specific diagnosis, no reference to pick-and-roll coverage or defending the point of attack or rim protection or defensive rotations. The Heat insist that the issues reside in the more general realms of focus, effort and accountability.
“There just wasn’t a lot of pride on that side of the court tonight,” Spoelstra said. “We tried to win it on a shootout, and then when our offense came up dry toward the end -- a couple of missed shots and turnovers -- we weren’t able to secure a win.”
In what’s become an unsettling pattern, the Heat bled for 24 minutes in the first half. In 50 brisk possessions, Miami gave up 71 points -- the most they’ve surrendered in any half this season.
The Hawks went at Miami early, after both makes and misses, sending backpedaling Heat defenders into disarray. Once Jeff Teague, Lou williams or Shelvin Mack crossed half-court, the Heat never caught up. They played rearview mirror defense for most of the night.
Credit Kyle Korver or, more times than not, the threat of Korver on the floor for the pockets of space that allowed the Hawks to bludgeon the Heat in the paint in the first half. Korver finished with a modest 12 points on 3-for-10 shooting from the field, but the Heat devoted a huge amount of attention to the marksman, and it cost them.
For example, early in the first quarter, the Heat switched on a weakside down screen to free up Korver, then switched again as Korver sprinted wing-to-wing past a cross-screen by Paul Millsap. In turn, Korver was covered by Bosh when he caught the pass at the spot, but the resulting confusion allowed Millsap to roll untouched to the rim, where Korver hit him. It’s this kind of thing that freed up the Hawks’ frontcourt for close-range shots all night, as Korver dished out a season-high six assists leveraging all that attention.
“We’re just not taking away much,” Shane Battier said. “Usually when our defense is clicking, we’re taking away a few things out of a team’s offense and living with other parts of the team’s offense. Right now, the other team has a full menu of what they want to get -- paint shots, 3s, transition.”
When things are clicking, in Battier’s words, it’s not unusual to go 15 or 20 possessions without seeing a fundamental defensive mistake by Miami. Lately, the Heat are having trouble putting together consecutive stops. The Heat are failing NBA Defense 101. Simple angle pick-and-rolls -- like the one the Hawks ran in the third quarter that yielded a wide-open 3-pointer for Williams -- produce mass confusion with Heat defenders helping off the strong side perimeter (a major no-no).
The Heat’s offense racked up 114 points on 97 possessions -- “We scored enough points to win,” James noted -- and they roared back in the second half to take a brief lead in the fourth quarter. James finished with 21 points, while each of the other starters totaled double figures. The switch-happy defense normalized into their traditional show-and-recover coverage, which helped stop the bleeding.
But on a key possession during the final minute trailing Atlanta by two, the Heat’s defense malfunctioned again. The Hawks ran a gorgeous set that started with a high pick-and-roll on the right side with Williams and Millsap, who rolled to the foul line. From there, it was elementary: The massive Pero Antic set a flare screen to free Korver to cut from the top of the floor to the left wing. Korver’s defender, Mario Chalmers, crashed into Antic, crumbling to the ground, as the man who served as a decoy for much of the night seized control of the game for Atlanta.
“I was almost too open,” Korver said. “Pero set a good flare screen for me, and I was wide open. It was one of those where you’re so open and it’s the end of the game, you better make it.”
And that’s what it has come to for Miami of late -- yielding shots at crucial moments that are so open that the opponent feels like he picked up found money off the hardwood. The Heat deny that it’s exhaustion, but the most plausible alternative theory is even more damning: A team virtually locked into the No. 2 seed in January that feels as if it’s playing for nothing.