SAN ANTONIO -- In the minutes after a jagged defeat Thursday night in Miami, Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra sat in the coach’s office in silence. The Heat had just lost a third consecutive game to a contender by failing to execute in the fourth quarter, an unexpected spinning of wheels.
“Both of us were trying to think of what we can do next,” Spoelstra said.
When they finally started speaking, they came to a decision, apparently, to be constructive and then to challenge. Adversity is good. Turbulence now will help steel everyone for later, and the like.
First there would be a long, quiet flight deep into Texas, then sleep and then breakfast to be followed by the standard mid-day meeting when thoughts would turn to recovery.
That is indeed what Spoelstra did Friday as he prepped the Heat for a rugged back-to-back ending against the Spurs. Spoelstra fired away with his agenda shaped with Riley, aiming to pick the team up and get it looking at the big picture again. It included a reminder that there were only 43 days until the playoffs begin, six weeks to get the ship tight and right.
Enough with the talk of processes and getting to know each other; it’s time for a new thought.
“We’re trying to fast-track this right now,” Spoelstra said.
“We don’t want to hear anything about it is not going to happen this year or that it takes a long time for championship games to get built, go through the battles. We went through some abnormal adversity early on, a lot of it created from the media, which was good; it banded us together. Now we’re going through a tough stretch. ... Those events in this league, as long as they don’t break you, can fast-track what you do.”
Not bad. An admission that the hype surrounding this team wasn’t only justified, but, in a way, embraced as realistic by the franchise. A reaffirmation that the recent struggles can indeed be for the best. Plus a tidy shot at the clearly misguided media for good measure.
To reinforce the positive thinking, team leaders LeBron James and Dwyane Wade also took turns speaking to the group and, they said, sticking with the positive angle.
A few hours later at the AT&T Center, the Heat’s greaseboard inside the visitors locker room fell in line with the consciousness of the situation, as the phrases “Challenge controversy” and “Where do we stand” were listed high and in bright marker.
James joked around with teammates to lighten the mood, even mocking Orlando's Gilbert Arenas for using the “can’t feel my face” move after hitting a few 3-pointers in the Heat's stunning loss to the Magic the night before. Mike Miller bantered about the “El Heat” jerseys the team was wearing for the first time to recognize Latin American fans with “Los Spurs.”
So why is any of this important? Because the Heat took that mood and motivation and went out and got blown off the floor by the Spurs. The 125-95 loss was their most lopsided of the season, and featured some unforeseen and unexplainable lackluster play considering the situation.
In frankness and fairness, there’s no embarrassment when losing in San Antonio. The Spurs haven’t lost at home since November, the vanquishing this night being their 22nd straight home win. They were historically good Friday, too, making a franchise-record 17 3-pointers on just 28 tries to quickly and completely break the Heat’s resolve.
Making it more complex was Tony Parker’s surprising return to the floor. He was supposed to miss two weeks with a calf injury; instead he missed two games. And his wizardry breaking down the Heat’s defense led to an array of 3-pointers early in the game that knocked the Heat out.
Since they entered the league in 1988, the Heat have won only twice in San Antonio. Losing was not an unexpected outcome, especially with the Spurs, now 51-11, playing beautifully at the moment.
But Miami’s effort level in such a big game when it supposedly was refocusing was uninspiring. After the way things have been going, losing honorably could have been sold as progress. Instead the Heat have to hope they are at rock bottom and actually convince themselves they are thankful they get a chance to play the Bulls on Sunday afternoon so they can try to put this stretch behind them.
“We’ve been through losing before, so it’s not anything new,” Wade said after the loss, in which the Heat gave up 56 percent shooting. “In this league, you can turn it around fast or you can stay in it for awhile.”
Wade is right. The issue is, he and the rest of his teammates don’t know which side of the “or” they are going to be on. Friday’s display did not indicate the Heat were of the mind to be turning things around fast.
The result is now there's a new element to deal with. Just as was the case in November when things got rough, there will be a fresh round of speculation about Spoelstra’s future. It probably isn’t fair; the Heat have lost four of five games, and that still belongs in the hiccup stage, not the danger zone.
But failing against their peers in the standings over and over, and falling flat while the coach is urging them to the opposite isn’t a great way to dodge such things. With the stakes and the date on the calendar, it is unavoidable.
“We understand that the only people that matter to us are the people in the locker room,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve got to stay connected, which we are, and bounce back.
"Things can change quickly in this league as long as you stay the course and don’t let it turn into something bigger than it is.”
It is getting bigger by the day and with each underwhelming performance, though, and everyone in the locker room knows that.