<
>

Inconsistent Heat's problems start at home

MIAMI -- There are just some things about this Miami Heat team Dwyane Wade isn't ready to admit.

Ask Wade where this team stands in terms of its identity at the midway point of the season, and he'll tell you he needs another five or so games to offer a valid and honest assessment.

Ask the Heat's leading scorer how well the team has handled the injuries and adversity that has made the initial stages of this post-LeBron era a mixture of headache and heartache so far, and Wade will say it's too soon to know for sure because there are always issues on the horizon.

But probe the prideful Wade about whether the Heat have enough this season, and he'll perk up just as he did Tuesday night when that subject was broached.

"Enough for what?" Wade shot back.

Enough to make the playoffs this season.

"Yeah, we have enough for the playoffs."

The Heat haven't done much to consistently instill confidence this season. But Wade offered that bit of assurance without feeling the need or the desire to elaborate beyond those assertive seven words he spoke before Tuesday's game against Oklahoma City.

And then his team went out and suffered two more losses. First, the Heat lost promising center Hassan Whiteside in the first half to a sprained ankle that prevented the 7-foot dunker and shot-blocking extraordinaire from traveling with the team for Wednesday's game in Charlotte. Then, the Heat continued a disturbing trend of faltering at home in a 94-86 loss to the Thunder.

Tuesday's setback at least temporarily halted the small strides and momentum Miami returned with from a surprising 3-2 trip out west that included wins against the Clippers, Lakers and Kings. The Heat (18-23) are the only team in the league that has a winning record on the road and a losing one at home, now having dropped 13 of their 20 games at AmericanAirlines Arena.

For the past four seasons with LeBron James, the Heat stood alone as the first team in 30 years to reach the NBA Finals four consecutive seasons on the way to winning two titles. But the Heat are now flirting with a far less flattering distinction if they continue these helter-skelter ways. They could become the first team in 10 years to miss the playoffs the season after making it to the Finals.

The last team to sink that low that quickly was the 2004-05 Lakers, who missed the playoffs a year after losing to the Pistons in the Finals. The Heat benefited from that falloff by the Lakers, who traded Shaquille O'Neal to Miami after the season. That move launched a rebuilding job in Los Angeles and propelled the Heat to the No. 1 seed in the East that next season and made them champions in 2006.

The Heat are potentially staring at the other side of that dilemma now. Even in a forgiving Eastern Conference this season, there are no guarantees of a spot in the postseason. Approaching the stretch run of the season, Miami is seventh in the East and lumped with Brooklyn, Charlotte, Detroit, Indiana, Orlando and Boston as a group of seven teams separated by 4½ games for the final two playoff spots.

That was one reason why Wade, who returned Tuesday from a two-game absence to recover from a strained muscle in his left leg, cautioned he needed to take a wait-and-see approach before taking a full midseason inventory of his team. This rest of this week could reveal plenty about Miami.

On Wednesday, the Heat face a Hornets team that has won seven of their past 10 games and appear on the verge of overtaking Brooklyn for the eight spot in the East. On Friday, Miami returns home to play an Indiana team that is already 2-0 in the season series. And Sunday, a trip to Chicago looms to visit the desperate Bulls, who have had their own home struggles through a 12-10 record at the United Center.

After that, Milwaukee, Dallas, Boston and Detroit await.

"It's just [about] trying to get a comfort level with each other, understanding each other and playing our game," Wade said of the challenges still facing the Heat. "We just can't be a team that plays basketball. We're not that talented to just play basketball. We have to play with an edge. We have to mess things up a bit. We just can't be comfortable on the floor. If we get comfortable, we get beat most nights."

The Heat certainly haven't gotten comfortable at home, and Tuesday was the latest example. Another round of flu-like bug is going around the team and left Luol Deng's status as a game-time decision. He pushed through a sluggish performance to finish with eight points and four rebounds in 28 minutes while having to defend Kevin Durant most of the night. Deng was too ill to travel after the game, meaning Heat will be without two starters against the Hornets.

Deng didn’t travel with the team to Charlotte, meaning the Heat will be without two starters Wednesday against the Hornets.

And just as Wade comes back from an injury, Whiteside exits the rotation with another. The last thing the Heat should have as they limp through this season is a sense of postseason entitlement.

"I'm not above this and we're not above it," coach Erik Spoelstra recently said of the harsh realities amid this transition from so much success the past four seasons to so many obstacles so far this season. "We have to go through it and get through it. We're not above having to fight for this, fight through this."

The Heat have enough.

Enough talent if Wade, Bosh, Deng and Whiteside can get -- and stay -- relatively healthy.

And also enough time, with 41 games remaining to sort out the kinks entering the season's stretch run.

"It's a long season," Bosh said Tuesday. "There are still things that we have to work on."

They can start by fixing the problems at home before things get any worse.

Otherwise, they'll be home for the season much earlier than expected.