MIAMI -- Emotionally shaken and unable to eat or sleep the night after his team was bullied and battered at home by the Utah Jazz, Udonis Haslem barged into Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's office before Wednesday's practice with a strong suggestion.
No, make that a demand.
“He had some things to say to the guys,” Spoelstra said of Halsem, the Heat's co-captain, emotional leader and resident enforcer. “We have to hold each other accountable to the standard of how we want to play, and that wasn't it.”
Spoelstra was referring to the Heat's lackluster effort in blowing a 22-point lead in Tuesday's 116-114 overtime loss to the Jazz. It was a setback that brought out national critics and raised questions from some circles about everything from Spoelstra's ability to lead to the Heat's focus, commitment and toughness.
Of all the things that got under Haslem's skin -- issues that left him tossing and turning in his bed after the loss -- it was the growing perception that Miami is soft and lacks toughness that ticks him off most. Those are the damning labels the Heat carry into Thursday as they look to avenge the season-opening loss to Boston when the teams meet at AmericanAirlines Arena
“Yeah, that bothers me,” Haslem said of the stinging disappointment that drove him into Spoelstra's office. “I wanted to know what I could do to help bring that edge back. That's the question. It wasn't about pointing figures at anybody. But I wanted (Spoelstra) to criticize me, and tell me what I can do as the captain. Part of my fabric is to bring that defensive intensity, that toughness. And it hasn't been quite where I want it to be, or where it should be. Sometimes we have it and sometimes we don't.”
By not even the players and coaches could flat-out deny that the description sort of fits, especially with the much-hyped Heat sitting at a near-mediocre 5-3, with only one of those victories against a team with a winning record. In each of the losses, there was a moment when Miami was smacked in the mouth. And each time the Heat were hit, they buckled, stumbled and ultimately tapped out.
What followed Haslem's meeting with Spoelstra was a plea for each player to “find something to get (ticked) off about” every time they step on the court. No more laid-back, nonchalant attitudes. No more deferring. No more excuses. No more talk about how chemistry will surface 20 into the season. Instead, there should be an expectation of urgency.
Not later. Now.
Toughness and tenacity typically haven't been optional accessories for teams molded by Pat Riley. They've been as mandatory as marathon practice sessions and blood stains on team workout gear. Those Showtime Lakers in the 1980s didn't back down from scrums. Kurt Rambis and Michael Cooper wouldn't allow it. And Riley's New York Knicks of the 1990s operated on hard fouls and an opponent's healthy fear of driving the lane. Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason were linebackers masquerading as forwards. And even Riley's early Heat teams were anchored by Alonzo Mourning's intimidating defensive presence and Tim Hardaway's mental toughness.
But this current Heat team is clearly built on talent. Toughness might be an acquired taste. The Heat never had a bigger collection of stars than they have now with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The question amid this early adversity is whether this star-studded team will develop a sting.
“You have to anticipate that teams are going to be physical with us … are going to try to make the game ugly,” Bosh said. “We have to be ready for that. Sometimes you get hard fouls. I'm not saying play dirty and get flagrant fouls and lose your money. But you can foul hard. You can have a no-layup mentality sometimes. Nothing wrong with that. We can look for more opportunities to get that done.”
James said opponents have been intent on roughing up the Heat in recent games. Some of the evidence has been obvious. During the Miami's 96-93 loss at New Orleans on Friday, James drove for a dunk late in the second quarter. After the play, point guard Chris Paul pointed at his forearm and shouted for reserve center Jason Smith to aggressively foul James the next time he swooped in to attempt a dunk.
“Teams are being a little chippy with us,” James said. “We have to see how the game is being played and maybe do the same. We know what our identity is. Mentally prepared is how we are.”
In the Heat's next game at home a night later, New Jersey Nets coach Avery Johnson chastised his team during timeouts for being too soft on the Heat. Later in the game, forward Terrence Williams was assessed a flagrant foul when he hip-checked James four rows into the stands on a fast break attempt.
And during Tuesday's loss to Utah, Heat forward James Jones was flung to ground on of a flagrant foul by Ronnie Price as the Jazz were rallying from the 22-point deficit.
“I think we get the message,” Spoelstra said. “They're aware of that right now. That's the way we're being played and we welcome that. We're a physical team as well. Our guys understand what it takes.”
No team in the league will test the Heat's mettle and toughness more than the Celtics, who got 17 assists from point guard Rajon Rondo and a combined 49 points from Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on Oct. 26 in an 88-80 win against the Heat.
Wade doesn't believe a perceived lack of toughness is Miami's biggest issue. The more pressing matter is the inconsistency in carrying out defensive assignments. Repeated breakdowns allowed Rondo to carve up Miami for 17 assists. Against New Orleans, the Heat seemed helpless as Paul racked up 19 assists and center Emeka Okafor dominated inside with 26 points and 13 rebounds. Then Utah's Paul Millsap launched his campaign for the Most Improved Player honors with a career-high 46 against the Heat.
The common theme in all three losses was an inability to stop the opposing point guard and primary low-post scoring option. Spoelstra and Haslem have preached accountability. But Wade said some players are still adjusting to both receiving and doling out criticism on a new team.
“We'd love to be way better at it,” Wade said. “It's times where, when you play and you're a championship contending team, you've got guys who would get in guys' face, or tell a guy when he's doing right or wrong. We're still early in the process. So it's still not that comfort zone, all the way there. Hopefully, eventually, it'll continue to grow.”
“Eventually” needs to get here in a hurry, Haslem said.
“We can't have the slippage like that when you're talking about championship habits,” Haslem said. “Obviously, we're the favorites on most nights. But I still try to carry an underdog mentality. That's how I keep my edge. I just tried to say we all need to find a way to get that edge back, and stay on it.”