MIAMI -- A fifth loss in six games has the two-time defending champion Miami Heat internally questioning everything from their effort and execution on the court to their sense of urgency heading into the final weeks of the regular season.
“We’ve been here before,” Heat star LeBron James said. “And this moment will either define our season or end our season. Obviously, it won’t end right now, but if it carries on into the playoffs it will. We always have one defining moment. This is it right here for us.”
James’ comments came after the Heat’s 111-107 loss at home to the struggling Denver Nuggets in what arguably was Miami’s most stunning setback of the season. The Heat (44-19) have lost consecutive games at home for the first time this season and are in the midst of their worst stretch since they endured a five-game losing streak in the spring of 2011.
The Nuggets (29-36) had lost 13 of their previous 17 games and hadn’t won on the road against a team with a winning record since Jan. 15. But after overcoming an early 14-point deficit, the Nuggets led by as many as 16 points in the fourth quarter before holding on to knock Miami deeper into its recent funk.
After Wednesday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Heat players expressed frustration with their offense and vowed to come out with a better response Friday. But by the time their latest defeat settled in, there was a sense of numbness and doubt seeping into the locker room as the search for answers continues.
“In three years, we haven’t had this,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “So it has kind of come out of nowhere. We’ve been playing well for a very long time. And even when we’ve lost, we’ve always been able to get it back. No one said it would be perfect. No one said it would be smooth sailing. It’s a challenge and we have to step up to the challenge and not let it go.”
For the second consecutive game, James has suggested he hasn’t been pleased with his level of involvement in the offense, particularly late in games. James has struggled in the fourth quarter during many of the recent losses, a stretch that began the night after he scored a career-high 61 points in a March 3 home win against Charlotte.
Coincidentally, Wade missed that game as part of his season-long program to rehabilitate his knees. But Wade has played well each of the past six games and has had many of the offensive sets run through him, especially during the fourth quarter of close games.
James did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter of the 96-95 loss to the Nets, but missed three of his four field goal attempts in the final period against the Nuggets. Wade, meanwhile, only attempted one shot in the fourth quarter of Friday’s game.
Before Friday’s game, James said that the way the offense had been running in recent games “hasn't worked for me, especially with us losing four out of five.”
Now, it’s five out of six.
The source of James’ dissatisfaction this time was how the Heat got away from what was working in the first quarter. James made all five of his shots in the opening period while Wade was 5-of-10 from the field, and the Heat led 30-20 going into the second quarter.
James would finish with 21 point on 17 shots and Wade had 19 points on 18 shots. From an opportunistic standpoint, there was balance between James and Wade on the court Friday.
But there wasn’t necessarily much chemistry.
“The first half, I felt pretty good,” James said. “We didn’t go back to some of the sets that we had in the first half ... and got out of rhythm. It’s been that way as of late. It’s just sets we were calling.”
Wade insisted Friday that there were no issues among players within the locker room.
“It’s never in here,” Wade said. “What we do in this locker room is totally 100 percent together. On the court, that’s where we’re winning and losing basketball games. We have to figure it out out there. And I’m very confident this team will. We’ve got to do it sooner than later.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra points to the recent rash of turnovers as the biggest problem affecting the offense and disrupting rhythm. In the past two games, Miami has given up 44 points on 37 turnovers. A lack of consistent effort defensively has been another source of frustration.
At one point in the third quarter Friday, Nuggets guard Ty Lawson cut in front of James and stole a poorly-thrown pass that resulted in a turnover and layup. James, the closest player to Lawson, didn’t bother to cross midcourt to even attempt to chase down the play.
It’s unlikely James would have caught the speedy playmaker, but the gesture spoke volumes about the Heat’s overall effort during key stages of the game. More defensive blunders came in the fourth quarter, when the Miami defenders twice fouled Denver players as they attempted 3-pointers.
The more costly of those miscues resulted in Wilson Chandler converting both the 3-pointer and free throw to give the Nuggets a 12-point lead with 3:47 remaining in the game.
“We just have to figure it out,” Spoelstra said. “Sometimes, it just happens to you in this league where things turn and the momentum changes and you find yourself in a hole where you don’t feel like you can get out. Obviously, we’ll be able to get out of it. When? We don’t know.”
It’s a level of uncertainty the Heat haven’t shown since James and Bosh arrived in Miami to join Wade as free agents in the summer of 2010. The Heat opened that 2010-11 season with a 9-8 record, then dropped five in a row in March before losing to Dallas in the NBA Finals.
They’ve since overcome that early adversity to win consecutive championships.
Denver coach Brian Shaw, who was a member of the Lakers teams that won three consecutive titles on teams led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, is familiar with the late-season malaise he currently sees from the Heat as they head toward the playoffs.
“They’re in a period where they’re struggling,” Shaw said after Friday’s game. “It’s just natural boredom that happens because in this whole scheme of things -- the slate is going to be wiped clean. They’ll be refreshed and recharged and come with a second wind when the playoffs start. That’s what they’re going through right now, almost a championship hangover, just waiting for the good part to start.”
The Heat have 19 games remaining to get themselves into postseason gear.
Right now, Bosh only sees a team that’s been dangerously stuck in neutral a bit too long.
“I think it’s dire consequence now,” Bosh said. “When you get to four out of five [losses] and five out of six, to our standards, that’s unacceptable. We know we’re better than this. We have to have better urgency. That’s all it is. That’s all it’s about. When we come with the urgency ... we can’t be beaten. But if we don’t, you know, these past couple of weeks, that’s what happens.”
There is no shortage of things to fix.
“It’s nothing complicated,” Bosh continued. “We’re making mistakes in transition [defense], transition offense, half-court offense, half-court defense, boxing out, contesting shots, plays. They’re running simple plays down our throats. We’re a better defensive team than this. It’s just how it is right now. It [stinks]. The only people who are going to dig ourselves out is us. We just have to make it happen.”
The Heat wrap up their four-game homestand Sunday against the Rockets, the same team that started them on their recent slide with a 106-103 loss March 4 in Houston.
That was the night after James scored 61 points. He was held scoreless in the fourth quarter in Houston.
In a way, the Heat will have come full circle on Sunday.
“We’re just not playing well,” James said. “And this is a league where it can turn to quicksand quick. We have to figure it out, continue to get better. And it doesn’t get any easier for us, having Houston come into our building Sunday. We have to right the ship.”