MIAMI -- Amid the noise, frustrating losses and seemingly relentless scrutiny they’ve endured recently, leave it to the Miami Heat to find solace and a much-needed diversion in a trip to the circus.
Well, it wasn’t actually the circus.
Instead, it was Chris Bosh’s circus-themed, outdoor 30th birthday party.
That’s where the Heat players and coaches found themselves in Miami on Sunday, a day after they returned from New Orleans with their seventh loss in a stretch of 11 games. The raw emotion and stinging critiques that left LeBron James frustrated with his teammates’ excuses and Bosh ripping everything from the Heat’s shoddy defense to their lack of meaningful communication had eased.
Nothing tends to let off a bit of steam from a difficult few days of work quite like adult-beverage-flavored snowcones, gift-giving clowns, carnival-style games and a dunk tank. Especially when the opportunity presents itself to go from dumping on the coach’s system to actually dunking the coach into a tub of water with a perfectly thrown strike.
Monday’s 93-91 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers provided the kind of result the struggling Heat (48-21) desperately needed on the court. But the team’s get-together Sunday night at Bosh’s bash offered them the sort of release and reprieve they needed to blow off some steam.
There are at least three things that can be said with certainty about the Heat since James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade joined forces as teammates four years ago.
They are two-time defending champions.
They are like Teflon when it comes to handling adversity.
And they know how to party under any circumstances –- even when the season has hit rock bottom.
“It’s always good to have something like [Bosh’s party] in the middle of the season, whether you’re winning or losing,” James said Monday, when he finished with 32 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals against Portland. “It definitely helps with losing, to get your mind off it.”
"It" is what James also described as “the elephant in the room” that had been gradually suffocating the Heat over the past three weeks as the losses piled up. "It" was multiple headaches for Miami. And "it" included a collection of issues that ranged from atrocious play on defense, a lack of accountability among players that left the locker room fractured to an extent and a missing sense of urgency about anything.
“We were able to get it out the last couple of days,” James said about the proverbial elephant.
At some point between Bosh’s circus and Monday’s game, perhaps the elephant vanished.
But a festive time Sunday and a close win Monday hardly suggest the Heat’s problems and concerns are completely behind them. Miami won without playing particularly well. A 17-point lead in the fourth quarter was completely squandered, the offense bogged down and contributions from the supporting cast were minimal beyond the 13 points and 11 rebounds Chris Andersen provided off the bench.
But the Heat had two things going for them Monday: a good vibe among players and coaches that carried over from Bosh’s party and a visit from a team struggling just as mightily as Miami had been.
Like the Heat, the Blazers had come in losers of seven of their previous 11 games. And also like Miami, which saw Dwyane Wade sit out with ankle and knee soreness, Portland was missing an All-Star as LaMarcus Aldridge sat out with a back injury.
Still, the Blazers were right there at the end.
But that’s when the strong rhetoric from James and Bosh from Saturday’s postgame locker room in New Orleans was transformed into game-winning plays to avert another demoralizing setback.
It was James, playing despite a sore back and sprained ankle, who scored on a lefty layup over Robin Lopez with 11.4 seconds left to put the Heat ahead. And it was Bosh, two days after saying the Heat’s defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed, who blocked Damian Lillard’s layup attempt on the final play.
Those two plays from two of Miami’s three leaders were examples of the kind of results coach Erik Spoelstra was looking for to back up the rhetoric that rang out from the locker room in New Orleans.
“Nobody’s happy about the way we’re playing,” Spoelstra said. “And the only way to fix it -- sure, emotions can motivate. But change has to come with action. What I really want is action. That’s what this game does to you. It takes you to the brink. And if you’re passionate and care about winning, there’s going to be emotion. But that alone doesn’t take care of anything. There has to be action behind it.”
Spoelstra said he welcomed some of the “insanity” that has surrounded the team the past few days. He believes the comments James and Bosh made after the loss to the Pelicans were well-intentioned and came from a good place. But he also knew it made them only bigger targets if the losses kept coming.
“If you’re going to go out there and put it on your shoulders, you have to make those plays,” Spoelstra said of James’ go-ahead basket and Bosh’s ensuing defensive stop. “Our enthusiasm, our energy. That was contagious, and guys were really feeding off each other. I wanted LeBron to be aggressive and everybody else would follow.”
At one stage midway through the game, Spoelstra showed his appreciation for James’ aggression by running onto the court with a celebratory shove of the four-time league MVP during a break in play. Maybe it was a bit of payback for Spoelstra being dunked into the tank by his players a night earlier.
“I saw him coming toward me, but I didn’t know he was going to shove me,” James said. “But I loved it. I loved the enthusiasm. We had it back tonight.”
The mission is now to maintain that energy heading into Wednesday’s marquee showdown with the Indiana Pacers, who hold a two-game lead over the Heat for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Both teams have been on a slide recently, but they’ve split the first two meetings of the season.
“I miss them,” Bosh said of facing the Pacers. “It’s coming down to a photo finish. We have a unique opportunity, no matter what happened this whole season. We were struggling; they were struggling. We had our chances. We still have our chance. Everybody was trying to make the games important back in December. Well, now they’re important. Everybody’s getting what they want.”