MEMPHIS -- It’s practically impossible to assess the Miami Heat at this point of the season, even with less than two weeks remaining until the postseason.
You could focus on the 10-11 record since March 4 and consider this three-peat run all but over.
Or you could look at Miami as a team simply waiting for health to work in its favor and return to the group that was 16-3 in the previous 19 games.
Even on the individual level, you could say LeBron James is mentally and physically fatigued at the tail end of a regular season in which he’s done much of the heavy lifting on his own.
Or you could say LeBron looked pretty fresh while scoring 37 points against a variety of physical Grizzlies defenders Wednesday night at FedEx Forum.
“Wearing on me?” James repeated when asked the question. “I mean, I played pretty well. Besides the [five] turnovers, I think I played pretty well.”
You could look at Chris Bosh’s 15.6 scoring average on 48 percent shooting in the eight games since Wade last played and say he’s not going to be a reliable contributor come the postseason.
Or, you could recognize that in the Heat’s “rhythm, flow, momentum” offense, Bosh misses Wade badly because the chemistry they developed gets Bosh more quality opportunities to score. It’s never as easy as saying, “Give the ball to Bosh more” when Wade’s out, because Bosh doesn’t have many plays called for him, even without Wade on the floor.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra acknowledges that it would “make sense” to simply turn to Bosh more often, but that would disrupt the natural flow of an offense that has taken years to develop, and Spoelstra doesn’t want to “build those habits going into the playoffs.”
So while we would all love to have a firm grasp of what exactly the Heat are as the playoffs approach (last year, a 37-2 finish made it pretty obvious how the Heat were playing heading into the postseason), the best anyone can do is assess each game Miami plays and try to determine which parts are truly telling and what else is merely a function of having critical players regularly unavailable.
Wednesday, against a Grizzlies team whose level of desperation rates significantly higher than the Heat’s (to miss the playoffs coming off a conference finals appearance and seemingly unnecessary coaching change would be somewhat devastating for Memphis), Miami did display a couple of disconcerting signs, particularly in the second half.
First, there were the turnovers. Not just that the Heat turned the ball over 15 times, which isn’t that big a number, but that those 15 turnovers turned into 29 points for Memphis.
“The turnovers, they were pick-sixes,” Spoelstra said, using a football term to perfectly describe the Heat’s more costly miscues. “They had more than a handful of those.”
While a few of those were of the unforced variety, that’s probably where Memphis’ desperation made itself most evident. The normally aggressive defense cranked it up after halftime, making its most significant push late in the third quarter, when the Grizzlies erased a seven-point deficit in the final 1:47 of the period, including a buzzer-beating 3 from Courtney Lee following a Norris Cole turnover.
Still, to consider turnovers a major issue for Miami based on this performance is probably unfair given the circumstances.
The other somewhat troubling sign Wednesday was how quickly the offense went from free-flowing with great ball movement in the first half to a stagnant, LeBron-or-nothing affair that played very much into Memphis’ hands.
James happened to keep Miami in the game because he had his jumper going. But the entire offense came to a standstill on several possessions, leading to forced drives into traffic and easily convertible turnovers.
“It’s something you always have to stay conscious of,” Spoelstra said. “Even as beautifully as we move the ball sometimes, it’s a game you have to work at. You have to do it under duress, when the defense steps up their pressure, which they did.”
LeBron says he would rather play the ball-movement game and keep his teammates involved. But when he’s got it going, he can also take the offense out of rhythm when calling his own number.
“But that can’t be your offense, and we understand that.”
Again, though, that could be a product of James realizing how much more he’s needed with so many regulars injured.
Fact is until we actually see the playoffs play out, and how quickly the Heat regains a rhythm once they’re whole, we won’t know if these were merely expected struggles from a fatigued and injured team or signs we should’ve recognized all along.