BOSTON -- All LeBron James wanted Wednesday was to enjoy a McFlurry and a rare night off.
Instead, he sat on the Miami Heat’s bench in street clothes after his pregame snack and had to digest Miami’s 11th defeat this season to a team with a losing record. A 101-96 loss to the Boston Celtics was the Heat’s sixth loss in nine games and left them yet again assessing their recent troubles.
Even with James sitting out to rest his sore back, this was a bad loss for the Heat.
At a time of the season when the two-time defending champions are normally gearing up for the playoffs, the Heat are instead stuck in neutral, shifting with the level of competition from night to night.
Managing rest and injuries has affected the continuity. The constant lineup tweaking to this point has thrown off chemistry. And a 5-6 record in the month of March has challenged the prideful Heat’s confidence.
“We’ve never played this poorly at this point in the season before,” forward Shane Battier said. “This is unchartered territory for us. I’d like to think this will forge us and make us better for the stretch run. But we have to make it happen. We just can’t hope that things will turn around.”
On the surface, Wednesday’s loss could easily be rationalized as insignificant because the Heat (46-20) were pushing through the second night of a back-to-back set on the road and were without a four-time MVP in James after he scored 43 points in Tuesday’s win against Cleveland.
“I think the jury’s still out on this team,” Wade said of his biggest concern about the Heat with less than a month to go before the playoffs. “But I’m confident in this team. I think when we’re healthy, we’re still one of the best teams in the league and give ourselves a chance to win every night.”
Wade, who scored 17 points but was 7-of-17 from the field in one of his worst shooting performances of an otherwise ultra-efficient season, said the Heat have faced and overcome enough adversity over the past three seasons to get through this rough patch they are stuck in right now.
“I think we’ve responded very well for a team that’s played the most basketball of any team the past four years, and fighting the human nature of complacency and all these things,” Wade said. “I’m satisfied with our mentality and how we approach things -- also understanding how certain teams have gotten better than they were last year, so that knocks our record down a little bit.”
Admittedly, Wade’s focus has been on the big picture with this team. It’s a vantage point from which he also views his long-term health amid a season-long knee rehabilitation program on track to deliver him into the postseason much healthier than he was during last year’s championship run.
But the Heat aren’t quite developing and rounding into form according to last season’s pace. While it’s unfair to compare their current sporadic play to the 27-game winning streak last spring that propelled the Heat into the playoffs, it’s within reason to question the Heat’s recent inability to sustain success.
“We’re searching for consistency; that’s our issue right now,” Battier said after losing to the 23-46 Celtics. “When we’ve been on, we’ve been very good. And we’ve been inconsistent, we’ve been very beatable. We’re searching for a consistency that will allow us to go to the next level.”
Battier has won two titles in his two seasons in Miami, so he knows how that next level of play should feel and look for this team. What he’s unfamiliar with is the search process this deep into the season.
The constant tinkering hasn’t made it easy.
Among the Heat’s recent changes has been Greg Oden move into the starting lineup at center, although the team still isn’t comfortable playing him extended minutes or on consecutive nights because of his long history of knee issues. Because Oden played in Cleveland on Tuesday, he was ruled out in Boston, which led to another lineup shift beyond Michael Beasley stepping in at small forward for James.
There was a time earlier this season when James expressed frustration with the team’s constant rotation shuffling. Now, as coach Erik Spoelstra looks to manage rest for some veterans while also trying to build some semblance of momentum, those previous issues have resurfaced.
In essence, Miami is juggling big-picture playoff perspective with the desire to develop some urgency and rhythm over the final weeks of the regular season.
“We’re not there yet,” Spoelstra said of the level of play necessary for a third consecutive championship finish. “We know what our game is. At this point, we’ve been through so many games and playoffs and everything, we know what our identity is. We know when we’re not getting to it. We know what a successful formula for us is, and we know what it’s not. We also know there is a higher ceiling we can get to. And it’s a necessary ceiling we have to get to before we get to the playoffs.”
That means there are about 16 games left to re-establish a routine. There’s a strong notion that suggests the Heat are simply coasting and conserving energy for the playoffs, that they’ll flip the switch when the time comes and the games really matter.
That’s been the Heat’s track record the past two seasons.
They’ve done it before.
They’ll do it again.
The counter to that logic is that this Heat team is a year older, now relying on a handful of role players in their mid-to-late 30s. Meanwhile, teams like Brooklyn, Indiana, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston all have discovered how to adjust to the Heat’s championship lineups from past years.
“There have been pressure moments in this year,” said James, who missed his third game of the season but will likely be available for Friday’s home game against Memphis. “Because we were last year’s champs, don’t mean we’ll be this year’s champs. The following year is always the hardest year. This is the hardest year, just because it’s the next year. We look forward to the challenge.”
One loss to Boston in the middle of March is no reason to sound the alarms in Miami.
But it’s also getting too late in the season to keep shrugging off some nagging concerns.
“We’re not used to playing this unstable,” center Chris Bosh said. “I think we’re still trying to figure it out -- what our style is, what our rotations are, what our consistent plays are. We’re still just in this gray area right now. We need to pick it up, man. We’re running out of time. We still have time. But there’s no urgency in anything that we’re doing.”
Bosh was then asked how troubling these times are for the Heat.
“It’s not troubling, it’s just upsetting,” Bosh said, shifting his focus to defensive lapses. “We should all be upset right now. Every team we’re playing is shooting 50 percent, every single night. If we think we’re going to win a championship doing that, we’re kidding ourselves.”