Heat back to square one vs. Celtics

MIAMI -- Game No. 1 was a lifetime ago.

Remember that Miami Heat debacle in Boston, when Dwyane Wade zipped around like a nervous, overzealous rookie, Chris Bosh roamed the court like a transplanted Canadian who'd lost his passport (and his jump shot), and LeBron James, a self-proclaimed "facilitator,'' forgot to pass the ball?

You knew it was foolish to issue proclamations following Miami's underwhelming 88-80 loss on opening night. You also knew that two weeks later, when the Celtics took their talents to South Beach, the Heat would be, if nothing else, a bit more cohesive -- yet no less scrutinized.

On Tuesday, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra perused his notes on the Celtics and noted that first game "felt like last summer.''

"The strides we have made in the last two weeks have been notable,'' he declared.

But that was two hours before Miami blew a 22-point lead on its own court and lost to the Utah Jazz in overtime. The damage was implemented by predictable foils: an elite point guard (Deron Williams) and a physical power forward (Paul Millsap) who shredded Bosh, Udonis Haslem and the boys with 46 points and 9 rebounds.

So the Heat host Boston on Thursday with a fresh batch of questions regarding their poise, their toughness and their compatibility.

Millsap joins a growing list of big men who have exposed a toothless Heat front line that has no shot-blockers.

The numbers don't lie. Before Millsap it was Brook Lopez (16 points, 8 boards), Kevin Love (20 points, 6 rebounds) and even KG (10 points, 10 boards). Center Emeka Okafor dropped 26 (on 12-of-13 shooting) and 13 rebounds on the Heat in a 96-93 Hornets win last week.

Notable strides? There have been some, but not enough since Boston thumped its glittery Eastern Conference opponent on Oct. 26. Until Miami figures out how to establish a defensive presence in the paint (its championship mantra, after all, is predicated on defense), the Heat's title hopes will be on hiatus and their willingness to play physical basketball will be questioned.

Bosh, the target of the majority of those barbs, conceded he's still seeking a comfort level on his new team, but he will receive no sympathy from a Celtics nucleus that, like the Heat, learned each other's tendencies on the fly after a major overhaul. Point guard Rajon Rondo waves off suggestions that Bosh is ill-suited to tackle the big boys -- especially in brief stints with Bosh at center when the Heat go small.

"Maybe it's a role you have to take on,'' Rondo said. "That's what KG did when he came to Boston. I wasn't watching much basketball when he was playing in Minnesota, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't a 'defensive stopper' for them. He was an MVP.

"But then he came here and was asked to do something different. Sometimes you've got to be willing to do that.''

Defining those roles takes time. It's convenient to forget that in 2008, before Boston won the championship, the Celtics were one loss away from being eliminated by Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs.

Spoelstra said he expected it to take "20 to 30'' games before it becomes second nature for his team to make good basketball decisions.

In the wake of the implausible defeat to Utah, a solemn Wade preached patience too, but added, "It hurts to take time.'' LeBron, who on the surface appears emotionally detached from the wildly changing mood of his team, offered, "From Game 1 to Game 8 the learning curve is going in the right direction.''

And so the Heat continue to refine their rotation and their responsibilities. Carlos Arroyo is the starting point guard in name only; even when he's on the floor LeBron and Wade dominate the ball. Yet who is willing to guard the elite point guards like Williams and Rondo? Arroyo simply can't. If LeBron takes Rondo, then who chases around Pierce? Or Ray Allen?

Amid such dilemmas, the pressure is palpable. It is etched into the face of Spoelstra, who cannot escape the long shadow of his mentor, Pat Riley, even though Riley has purposely (and wisely) remained mute regarding his coach, his team, his underachieving $110 million power forward. That hasn't deterred the pollsters from taking odds on when (not if) the master replaces the apprentice.

The pressure also is creased into the brow of Bosh, whose daily confessionals reveal a player wounded and perplexed by the criticism that has been leveled at him for Miami's uneven start.

"I just sit back and watch,'' he said. "It's unfortunate sometimes, but it is what it is. We have to keep moving, keep building our credibility back up.''

Perhaps the most stunning development of the loss to Utah was Wade's admission that his own team panicked in the face of a furious Jazz comeback. Lack of execution is one thing; lack of composure and/or confidence is quite another.

"You could tell in the fourth quarter they started getting tight,'' said Jazz guard Raja Bell. "We started rolling and they started looking at each other and questioning -- and that's when they started firing up jumpers.''

Just a few short days ago, after the Heat buried the Nets, they were lauded as the real deal. Now, on the heels of an implosion that Bosh termed "a huge mistake,'' the South Beach Roller Coaster is pointing straight down again. This is what "The Decision" has wrought. This is the price of extraordinary expectations amid an impatient sports world that wants results now.

"People have short memories,'' said Spoelstra, who on Wednesday treated his team to a lengthy film session of its mistakes against the Jazz.

"There are pieces to this team we haven't even gotten to yet,'' reminded veteran Jerry Stackhouse, who presumably is referring to the injured Mike Miller.

The Heat are not the only team that's adjusting to new personnel, although their changes were so dramatic they invited the most headlines. Utah is implementing new players of its own, although none happens to be the reigning league MVP. In fact, argued Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, it's unfair to compare the situations of the two teams.

"They just have so much more talent,'' said Sloan. "Each one of their players, they can ad-lib.

"We don't have that. We've got to do it together, as a group.''

Perhaps for Game No. 9, the Heat will give that strategy a try.

Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.