MIAMI -- The looks on the faces of Miami Heat players were telling, and they were not merely the result of an old nemesis lighting them up.
The look of a frustrated Dwyane Wade, alone under the basket without the ball coming his way in a crucial possession with less than a minute remaining.
The stares between James and Chris Bosh after the two couldn’t connect on a play drawn up brilliantly that looked like it would’ve resulted in a game-winning layup for James or a trip to the foul line (or both).
Those were the looks of a team not truly expecting what they’re experiencing -- at least not at this time of the season. Not after an eight-game win streak that appeared to show the Heat were fine-tuned and playoff-ready.
Miami’s 96-95 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, its fourth loss in five games, was especially frustrating to the Heat not because Paul Pierce went off for 29 points on just 12 shots, or because the Heat are now 0-3 against a hot Brooklyn team that Miami could end up facing in the playoffs. Those kinds of concerns were the stuff of three seasons ago.
This was three-peat fatigue -- the kind of difficulties everyone told the Heat they’d experience during another long run for a title, but the kind of difficulties you don’t even recognize until you’re in the middle of them.
Granted, the Nets pose matchup problems for Miami, even when Kevin Garnett is out of the game like he was on Wednesday. And yes, the Nets’ switching defense gives the Heat problems. And of course, the Nets are now 23-9 in 2014 and looking much more like the team many thought they’d be back in November.
But when James doesn’t get a single field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter, and when Miami turns it over seven times in a tight fourth, and when Wade takes a difficult turnaround jumper over Pierce in a critical situation seemingly out of frustration, you know that something is off with this group.
Bosh explained it best.
“It’s just a feeling,” Bosh said. “It’s just like, ‘Man, come on.’ You tell your body to go some days and it doesn’t want to go. And you don’t have any control of when it comes. It just comes when it comes. It’s more so doing the hard things -- getting loose balls, playing against everybody’s best every night.
“It’s frustrating not going. You’re just in a cold sweat. It’s like, ‘Come on! We gotta have more energy.’ You try and it’s just not there.
“It’s extremely tough trying to do this thing again.”
The challenge gets even more problematic when the Heat can’t even muster a well-executed play down the stretch.
Wednesday’s game makes it three of the Heat’s past four losses where failed execution late in close contests doomed them.
Against the Houston Rockets, James dribbled down the clock and missed a contested 3-pointer. Against the Chicago Bulls, James was stripped by Jimmy Butler in what started to look like a go-ahead layup. And Wednesday, trailing by a point with 3.5 seconds left, Bosh didn’t lead James enough on an inbounds pass, allowing Shaun Livingston to tip the ball away and effectively kill the final seconds off the clock.
“We do need to execute down the stretch,” Wade said. “We need to be able to at least get the ball at the rim.”
While Wade’s answer to whether he was concerned about the four-of-five losses was a simple “nope,” this game had to be additionally aggravating for him because he didn’t seem to be suffering from three-peat fatigue. In fact, he looked especially quick, and if not for a few ball-handling mishaps could’ve put together a significantly better game than his 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting.
His frustration was most evident with the Heat trailing by 94-92 with a minute remaining. Wade set a screen for Ray Allen, who drew the attention of the Nets' defenders, leaving Wade momentarily open for either a lob pass or a simple pass under the basket for a layup. In fact, Wade even jumped in anticipation of a potential lob, exasperated when it didn’t come.
Eventually, Wade ended up with the ball in the mid-post and Pierce on his back. Wade tried to fake Pierce with some fancy dribbling, then shot a turnaround with Pierce draped all over him. It missed.
Fittingly for Miami, Deron Williams hit one of his two baskets on the night (2-of-8) to give the Nets a four-point lead with 35 seconds remaining.
It was all further evidence that Bosh’s assessment is correct.
“I don’t think we’re getting the best shots possible,” Bosh said. “We took some contested turnaround jumpers. We’re not getting our guys in their situations. I think we’re too good for that. I think we need to have LeBron catching the ball where he’s a threat, Dwyane catching the ball where he’s a threat and me catching the ball where I’m a threat and see if the defense can guard it.
“I mean, we’re not helping ourselves in any aspect of the game right now. As tough as today was, we had a chance to win it.”
Further proof was LeBron’s fourth quarter: no shots, two points, two assists.
“I just wasn’t in the situation to get [a field-goal attempt],” said James, who broke his personal streak of 20-point games against the Nets at 22 games, dating back to April 2007. “The way we ran the offense, D-Wade handled the ball a lot and I was more of a facilitator. It’s just how the game was played.”
How many times since the 2011 NBA Finals has that really been an issue for the four-time MVP?
Bosh said his team has to “exhale a little bit” and realize it’s this group’s latest challenge, one it can overcome.
Or, as Wade put it:
“We have something to work on as a team in our fourth year together. It’s not a bad thing.”