Miami Heat Index: Brian Windhorst
He was furious that he'd just lost an NBA Finals game because of a stupid case of cramps. Of all the things that could cost his team a game, all the mistakes and decisions and bad luck that have cost him past Finals games, how in the world could he be derailed by cramps triggered by an air conditioning failure? This went through his mind again and again.
How in the world, James raged, could something as common as an HVAC unit on the fritz in sweltering San Antonio break and not be fixed? Everyone heard a report on the ABC broadcast that the arena temperature reached 90 degrees in Game 1. The reality was that one of the gauges fetched midgame showed a reading of more than 100 degrees in the fourth quarter when James was carried off the floor.
You did not want to be around James that night. Or, for that matter, the next day.
When he first played in the Finals in San Antonio back with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, his team made the mistake of staying in downtown along the Riverwalk. He was kept up half the night after losing Game 1 that June because of Spurs fans' long-running tradition of stalking the streets and honking their horns deep into the night after playoff victories.
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INDIANAPOLIS – Are the Miami Heat in trouble or not? Is this going to finally be the time where an Eastern Conference team beats them? Do the Indiana Pacers, on their third try, truly have the mental toughness to deny the Heat when it really matters?
This conference finals series is either going to be different or it’s not, and that message will be established during Tuesday night’s Game 2.
Unless you’re an intense follower of the Heat, you probably can’t even name the five times the Heat have lost Game 1 in a playoff series over the past four years. That is because the Heat have made them irrelevant in history, as they have repeatedly thwarted upset attempts and almost always pushed back after losing a playoff game.
Being up 1-0 on the Heat has been borderline meaningless; they've won Game 2 all four times it’s happened in the Big Three era and won the series each time. They have won the next game 10 straight times after a playoff loss. In the past 15 series, they are 19-3 after a loss overall. Three times when they lost Game 1, they came back to win the next four games, including the 2012 Finals.
They have only once been down two games in a series, and that was in the 2011 Finals when they lost Game 6 to end it by a 4-2 count against the Dallas Mavericks, the only series they have lost since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh signed up in 2010.
So, as impressive as the Pacers' strong overall performance was coming out of the gate Sunday with a comfortable win, its value is uncertain. If they allow the Heat to storm back and win Game 2 on the road, which the Heat have done twice in the past few years, it’s a very strong signal of how this series will end up playing out. The history detailed, even in brief, above is rather daunting.
In their review of Game 1 mistakes, the Heat were appalled at some of their efforts and felt they were totally fixable.
“Our defense sucked,” Bosh said. “We have to do what we have to do, we like to keep it simple and do the things we can control.”
The Pacers win, however, and now you have the Heat in an unprecedented situation with three days off to stew before Game 3 in Miami. That’s 72 hours for the world to pick at them and speculate about their downfall. The James, Wade and Bosh free agency stories that have been largely buried all season -- see how that topic explodes during the middle of the week’s news cycle if the Heat go down 0-2. The emotionally violate Pacers are most dangerous when they have confidence and most hollow when they're unsettled, going to Miami as the latter would not bode well based on recent results.
Game 2 decides nothing permanent, but it sure will explain where this series is headed.
“We know what they're capable of,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We know they've lost Game 1s before and won series before, it’s well-documented. They're the champs. We need to get Game 2.”
The Pacers have been up on the Heat in the past, taking a 2-1 lead with Game 4 at home. The result was James pounding the Pacers for 40 points, Wade scoring 30 and the Heat taking control of the series by humbling the Pacers on their home floor.
Last year, after losing Game 1 at the buzzer and then winning Game 2 in Miami, the Pacers came home for Game 3 thinking they were in great position to gain a foothold in the series. Then, wham, the Heat totally physically dominated the Pacers in a demoralizing 17-point win in Indianapolis in Game 3. The series went seven, but after that night, the Heat never doubted they could win a game they had to against that Indiana team.
Two years, two series, two defining moments on the Pacers’ court. It would be foolish to emphatically state that Game 2 has that type of potential, but the way history repeats itself often with the Heat, there is no missing the recipe. Especially after the way Miami was uncharacteristically dominated in Game 1, the type of effort that usually creates a wake-up call.
“I remember what happened here in Game 3 last year,” Pacers star Paul George said. “I expect that again [in Game 2], where they come out and make a huge emphasis of being physical. We have to be ready for that this time.”
The Heat, for their part, have attempted to be reverential to realities of the past being that. Of their talking points leading into their attempt to even the series, many of them have referred to the trap of assuming they will recover, because they have so often in the past. But there is also a clear message that they expect to bounce back as they always have.
“We lean on the history of playing together, but we also know that, just because of that doesn't mean that you're going to correct it,” Wade said. “You've got to come out and do something about it.”
Throughout the season, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has tried to enforce the point that this season is a different journey than their back-to-back titles. Not only is this an intelligent coaching technique to ward off complacency, it also has been true because the Heat are playing with less depth and less consistency than the past few seasons.
Generally, this Heat team is a little more fragile than the past two seasons. It has shown up in their record, and it is because of the record that they are not at home for this game and they will not have home-court advantage if they reach the Finals. However, their varying amounts of slippage from last season has yet to significantly hurt them this season.
If they storm back to win Game 2, then it still won’t. That is clearly what the Heat expect to do, even if Spoelstra continues to raise the alarm about assumption.
“We don't really care about what's happened in the past,” Spoelstra said. “We have to understand the urgency of the response for Game 2.”
NEW YORK -- It’s not usual for LeBron James to question Erik Spoelstra’s coaching decisions, at least not publicly. James has built up tremendous respect for the Miami Heat coach and consistently credits him for his strategies.
But James did send a little message to his coach heading into the Heat’s Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets. James wants to play more with James Jones, the Heat’s little-used but valuable sweet shooting wing.
James and Jones have been the Heat’s most productive tandem in the playoffs when looking at plus/minus data. But after playing a significant role in the first round against the Charlotte Bobcats, Jones has been out of the rotation in the three games so far against the Nets.
“We have to find some minutes for him, I don’t see why he shouldn’t play,” James said. “He’s huge for our team when he’s in the lineup.”
Jones is 10-of-20 on 3-pointers in the playoffs and he and James complement each other well on the floor. Because Jones is an elite spot-up shooter, James likes to play on the same side of the floor and force defenses to choose between the two. When playing together in the playoffs, Jones and James have combined to shoot 56 percent from the field.
Spoelstra has not used Jones much over the past two seasons, mostly for defensive reasons as he sometimes struggles on that end. James, though, always is more comfortable when playing with shooters, one of the reasons Ray Allen has been such a good fit with the Heat over the past two seasons.
“The space James provides and his ability to shoot the ball is great for us,” James said. “You can’t do both when he’s out on the floor. You can’t help on my drives and contest 3-pointers on him. They have to keep an eye on him.”
Jones came in for nine minutes in garbage time in the fourth quarter of the Nets’ Game 3 victory on Saturday after the Heat were down by double digits, his first extended time in the series. He drilled three 3-pointers in that stretch, two of them off feeds from James.
James’ hints that he wants more of that suggests he’s taken his pleas for Jones to play more meaningful minutes directly to Spoelstra. But the Heat coaches were playing coy when asked about lineup changes before Game 4.
“We’ll find out,” Spoelstra said.
The Heat coach is more concerned about his defense than his offensive-based lineups. The Heat gave up more than 100 points for the first time in the playoffs in Game 3, mostly because the Nets set a franchise playoff record by hitting 15 3-pointers. That is what Spoelstra focused on Monday, trying to get the Heat to not write that off as a fluke shooting performance.
“It’s always an easy crutch in this league [to blame lucky shooting],” Spoelstra said. “You have to decipher what can you do better and harder and then within a seven-game series, what can you adjust. It was tough to figure out what adjustments you need to make in Game 3 when you don’t bring other things that are necessary to our defense first."
James got off to a monster start with 16 points on just seven shots in the first quarter. But when he came back into the game he didn't seem to have much of a desire to keep plunging the knife. He put up just two shots in the second quarter, getting fouled on one of them. He ended up with a nice line but didn't sustain the momentum that was required to win this type of game.
Wade had a decent game and was really trying to carry the scoring load in the second half when the supporting cast was giving no help. He came up with some steals and was generally active defensively. Took more jumpers than you'd like to see but he was not at fault for how this game played out.
Bosh had been excellent in the first two games of this series, especially rebounding the ball. That ended in this one as he was outplayed by the Brooklyn front line. The Heat were heavily outrebounded and that is not totally his fault because that's not his sole role but he sagged back to the mean in that area for sure in Game 3.
After the season there's a good chance we'll hear about how much pain Williams had to play through in his ankles. He keeps getting injections and his play keeps going up and down. But he did everything he could in this one, serving as a pivotal factor in getting the offense going as he was able to get penetration and kick out to shooters.
This is an area where the deeper Nets need to dominate to have a chance in this series. They didn't in the games in Miami but did once they felt more comfortable at home in Game 3. This is where the game was won especially the 15 points and 10 rebounds from Andray Blatche and the 12 points from Mirza Teletovic.
1. What has been the most encouraging part of Miami’s season?
Tom Haberstroh: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh enter the playoffs healthier than they were this time a year ago. Really, the regular season was just an 82-game preseason for the Heat and little mattered outside of the trainer’s room. The maintenance program for Wade, as taxing as it was for Bosh and James, seemed to work. For now.
Brian Windhorst: The playoffs are starting and all 15 players on the roster are available and reasonably healthy. LeBron and Bosh will go in with at least a week off and Wade certainly hasn't been overworked. They have won a road game in all 12 series they've played in the past three years, so not having home court has a limited disadvantage.
2. What has been the most disappointing part of Miami’s season?
Gutierrez: The inconsistency all around. From the defensive play to the shooting of Ray Allen and Shane Battier to the appearances from Wade. All of it has translated into a level of play that has created more questions than the Heat have faced at this time over the past three seasons.
Haberstroh: The supporting cast. The Michael Beasley experiment has come up empty. Ray Allen has finally shown he’s not immune to age. Greg Oden may be sidelined for the remainder of the season. Norris Cole has not developed. Shane Battier for months looked like a shell of himself. If it weren’t for Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem’s recent revival, this would be a disaster.
Windhorst: This is the least imposing team of the past four seasons. Some of that is because of depth, some is because of in-season injuries, some is because of fatigue and motivation issues. Instead of ramping up for the playoffs like last year (which the Spurs are doing this year), the Heat have gone into the postseason in a relative tailspin.
3. What is the biggest threat to Miami’s quest to three-peat?
Gutierrez: Well, there are any number of things, including health, lack of size now that it appears Greg Oden might not be a factor, or the loss of home court against either the Pacers or any number of Western Conference teams. But if I'm picking one "threat" to the Heat three-peating, it's the same threat that nearly cost them last year's title: the Spurs.
Haberstroh: Their bodies. That has always been the case. They have more than enough talent to go around, but they will only go as far as their aging bodies take them. The only key players under 30 years old are LeBron James (who turns 30 in December) and Mario Chalmers. Do they have another championship run in them?
Windhorst: Over the past two seasons, they have had to win three Game 7s to win their titles. All three were at home. The Heat will enter the postseason with the fifth-best record, and that means if they play any of the four teams ahead of them, they will have to play Game 7 on the road. The Spurs are itching for a chance to take advantage of that this year.
1. Fact or Fiction: Brooklyn is Miami's biggest potential East threat in playoffs.
Michael Wallace: Fiction. Despite how horrible they've been these past couple of weeks, I still believe in the Indiana Pacers and what their track record has revealed over the long haul. Silly me. But their combination of stingy defense, coupled with the nightmare matchup that is Roy Hibbert and the Lance Stephenson wildcard, the Pacers are still the team that causes the Heat more concerns over a seven-game series.
Brian Windhorst: Fiction. I still think it's the Pacers, though I admit my case is not strong. The Nets are a team that is built for a playoff setting but I'm not assuming they're getting past the Bulls if that series ends up taking shape.
2. Fact or Fiction: Dwyane Wade should sit out the rest of the regular season.Haberstroh: Fiction. I'd probably get him a game or two just to get his timing and in-game conditioning calibrated. We're learning rest is critical to success so I would still hold him out for the majority of the games down the stretch, but a month off seems drastic.
Wallace: Fact. I totally don't subscribe to this theory under normal circumstances, considering it's been obvious the past few weeks that Wade's teammates want to get in at least a couple of games with him on the court before the playoffs. But the bottom line is that the Heat could essentially use a likely first-round matchup against either the Bobcats or the Hawks to work off the rust. If taking another week off gets Wade even 10-percent healthier, then it's worth the risk at this point, all things considered.
Windhorst: Fact, if that hamstring isn't right. Do you know how often the phrase "I made a mistake coming back too early from that hamstring" has been uttered in NBA history? Well, it's a lot. The whole season has been aimed to keep Wade from being banged up. That said, it does seem like he's making progress and he could be back before the postseason.
3. Fact or Fiction: LeBron will score at least 34 for a third consecutive game.Haberstroh: Fiction. Paul Pierce never takes it easy on James. I see the reigning MVP regressing to the mean and racking up points closer to his scoring average. Last time out, James scored just 19 points against his arch rival so I'll split the difference and say he scores 27 on Tuesday.
Wallace: Fact. If Wade isn't available, LeBron won't have any problem picking up the slack. He's scored 34 and 38 points, respectively, in his past two games. If he pours in at least 34 against Brooklyn, it would be the first time this season he's reached that total in three straight contests. LeBron certainly has been more aggressive of late, having launched at least 20 field goal attempts and 10 free throws in three of the past four games. It seems as if he's totally adjusted to the heavier burden and now thrives on it.
Windhorst: Fiction. LeBron's averaged 27 points, roughly his career average, against the Nets this season (though he did have a 36-point game). So I'll play the averages and predict about that total for him. Also, the Nets defense and especially Paul Pierce -- Google Pierceitis -- have been performing well at that end.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The Miami Heat really needed a win Friday night, and the Detroit Pistons really needed a loss and, in a nice harmony, they both got one.
The Heat were 7-8 in March heading into a road weekend against the Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks and are dealing with a rash of injuries that had them dusting off the end of the bench just to field a starting lineup. They were missing three starters and their top sub as Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Greg Oden and Ray Allen were all out.
But they are not yet in the territory in which they can blow off games. They didn't on Friday, playing with great energy to rip the Pistons 110-78. LeBron James made sure to set the tone for it, racking up seven assists in the first few minutes of the game on his way to his first triple-double of the season in just three quarters of work.
Despite a damaging loss to the Indiana Pacers earlier in the week, the Heat are right back in the game for the top seed in the Eastern Conference after the Pacers went down in Washington by failing to score 80 points for the third time in four games.
The Heat are back to just a game behind the Pacers in the loss column -- though they’re pretty much assured to lose the tiebreaker based on their record against conference opponents -- and Indiana hosts the red-hot San Antonio Spurs on Monday.
"We can’t worry about what Indiana is doing. We’ve got to focus on ourselves," James said. "If we take care of business, we’ll see what happens."
The Pistons were not trying to lose, at least theoretically, but it really was the best outcome for them. The only intrigue left in the regular season is whether Detroit can finish with at least the eighth-worst record in the league. If so, they will not have to send their first-round draft pick to the Charlotte Bobcats as part of a deal to rid themselves of Ben Gordon two years ago.
If they end up with the ninth pick or lower, the pick conveys and they’re out of the first round in what is generally considered a deep draft. They slipped firmly into eighth earlier in the week when the Cleveland Cavaliers passed them by hitting a buzzer-beater on their floor.
On a night when they got a sellout crowd because they were honoring the Bad Boy teams’ back-to-back championships 25 years ago, the Pistons showed little to no fight as the Heat blitzed them. It was a summary of the season after an offseason investment in the roster built up a false hope for this underachieving Pistons team.
Coming off a five-game run during which they failed to crack 100 points, the Heat piled up 18 assists in the first half before the Pistons forced a single turnover and rolled to 92 points in just first three quarters.
Pistons owner Tom Gores stayed in his courtside seat until the bitter end, though at some point his thoughts had to be turning toward his alma mater, Michigan State, and its concurrent Sweet 16 game. Gores has already fired his head coach and hinted he’ll make changes at the end of the season to his front office.
Gores warmly greeted team president Joe Dumars as he was introduced alongside Isiah Thomas as part of a proud halftime ceremony in which the two-time champions were honored, though many expect Dumars to either lose his job or lose his decision-making powers within a month or so.
Thomas took the microphone to speak for the group and did so eloquently. Thomas is brilliant at two things, for sure: playing point guard and turning on the charm. As a basketball executive -- as his time with the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks showed -- he’s not as successful.
He spent long minutes embracing his former teammates as well as Heat players and coaches, including James. Thomas gave Heat forward Shane Battier a special shout out, calling the former Pistons ball boy an honorary Bad Boy.
It was a special moment for Battier, who played what he believes will be his final game in his hometown on Friday. He plans to retire at the end of the season, and, as a tribute, the Heat held their morning walk-through at Country Day School, at which Battier starred as a teenager.
"That was an all-time moment, and this was an all-time day," Battier said. "I was giving out a lot of his fist bumps, winks and kisses [to the crowd]. If I had some roses, I would’ve thrown them."
Thomas has officially been out of the NBA since 2008, though he not-so-secretly was an adviser to Knicks owner Jim Dolan for years. With Phil Jackson taking over in New York and Thomas' influence there essentially at an end, sources say that Thomas has been campaigning to find a role with the Pistons or Cavaliers, who fired their general manager in February.
Whether those feelings will be returned is yet to be seen, as both Gores and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, both Detroit natives, have a relationship with Thomas, but the Pistons and the Cavs really have their eye on another soon-to-be former Piston.
Chauncey Billups, who is likely headed toward his own retirement after knee surgery ended his season, is the apple of both the Cavs' and Pistons' eye for a role in their respective franchise's leadership. While there might be some interest in getting Billups to follow in contemporary Jason Kidd’s footsteps and go right from player to coach, Billups has been hinting openly for years he’d rather graduate to the front office at the end of his career.
All that is for later. For now, the Pistons might need to worry about avoiding embarrassment Saturday in Philadelphia, where the 76ers are poised to set the NBA record with their 27th consecutive loss as the Pistons come to town. If they play with the same effort they did in front of their largest home crowd of the season and the most decorated players in their franchise history, that record might not get set.
Meanwhile, the combination of the Heat win and Pacers loss had Miami feeling good about itself after what’s been a rough month.
"You have to move on in this league," James said. "As much as we wanted that game [in Indiana], you have to move on from it and learn from it, and we did that."
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James had the hammer raised on his former team Tuesday night, the chance to inflict another lasting scar with the sort of record-setting performance that would hang on the books for years.
Maybe it was mercy, maybe it was maturity and maybe there was just some pride from the injury-ravaged Cleveland Cavaliers. It was hard to figure exactly what happened, but James uncharacteristically stood down and perhaps allowed a chance at a record to pass and left satisfied that his Miami Heat took a 100-96 victory.
Everything was set for James to make a run at his recently established career record of 61 points that he set just two weeks ago. He was having one of his classic shooting nights, where his in-rhythm shots slice through the net with precision and his forced shots bank in off the glass or catch the side of the rim and curve through.
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1. What's Miami's biggest issue right now?
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: The "other" guys just aren't in rhythm. The combination of Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Norris Cole shot a combined 33.7 percent in the Heat's four recent losses, with Battier's 15 percent shooting (2-of-13) being the worst of the group. That tells you they're not getting the same opportunities as usual, or at least not regularly enough to find a rhythm. That's resulted in the league's most efficient offense shooting 47.5, 43, 40.5 and 48.5 percent in those losses.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: The Heat are getting nothing from the supporting cast outside of Chris Andersen. Ray Allen and Shane Battier have both shown their age, and Michael Beasley hasn't been the same since they guaranteed his contract back in early January. Besides that, they've faced some tough defenses, so I'm not sure the slide is indicative of any major issues.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Ray Allen, legendary shooter and hero of Game 6. He's a glaring defensive minus, and he's missing shots that he typically hit in the past. It sounds crazy to say it, but in 2014, you trust Chris Bosh (.386 from deep this season) more to hit an open 3-pointer than Allen (.361 from deep this season). Miami already lost a great shooter when it amnestied Mike Miller; the Heat want Allen to return to form in the playoffs.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Supporting cast inconsistency. Early in the season, Ray Allen said this had the potential to be the deepest and most talented collection of role players of any team he's been with over 18 seasons. With 20 games left in the season, we're still waiting for that potential to translate into consistent production. Allen, Shane Battier and Norris Cole have been in prolonged slumps, Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley have been hit or miss all season, and Greg Oden appears no closer to being playoff ready than when he first saw action before the All-Star break.
Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: Execution, specifically late-game execution. Three of these four recent losses were the result of the Heat not being able to execute in the final moments of regulation. When they won 66 games last season, it seemed like they almost always sealed the deal at the end, for various reasons they have not been getting it done lately.
2. Fact or Fiction: LeBron has lost his MVP momentum.
Gutierrez: Fact. A hard crack to the nose will do that sometimes. Since the 61, LeBron has shot more than 50 percent just once in five tries. And it's no coincidence he shot zero free throws in back-to-back games after ditching his mask against the Spurs. Also, his team's struggles are now on the forefront, so the attention has drifted from MVP candidacy anyway.
Haberstroh: Fiction. Are we sure he had any momentum to begin with? I subscribe to Hall of Fame baseball manager Earl Weaver's ethos that "momentum is the next day's starting pitcher." It feels like there is no momentum in this MVP race, as every game seems to be a referendum on Durant's and LeBron's careers. I will say that for a guy who has shot 43 percent from downtown over his last 10 games, it's odd to hear that James has suddenly lost his jumper.
Strauss: Fact. LeBron's mortal stretch contributed to this Heat slump. He looked like a lesser player after ditching the mask, failing to reach the free throw line in consecutive games. LeBron could have taken the award if he and the Heat were customarily excellent as OKC struggled, but that window appears to have closed.
Wallace: Fact. The two strongest arguments in Kevin Durant's case have been that he's been more consistent with his elite-level production and that he's done it in a much stronger Western Conference. Since that career-high, 61-point night two weeks ago, LeBron has hit a relative wall. There's still time for LeBron to make another push, but Durant seems to have regained control of the MVP race.
Windhorst: Fact. He's played probably his four most "blah" games of the season since he put up his 61 points. It's a combination of things -- he's slumped a bit shooting, and he's also not been as aggressive as his plunging free throws and zero fourth-quarter shots in the loss to the Nets show.
3. Fact or Fiction: Brooklyn is Miami's second-biggest threat in East.
Gutierrez: Fiction. As much as a 3-0 record against Miami would suggest otherwise, the Nets aren't dominant in any particular area against Miami. The Bulls, on the other hand, can dominate both on the boards and defensively when playing the Heat. The Nets' specialty is simply interchangeable perimeter defenders and veteran-savvy scorers. But neither team has really emerged as a true threat to the Heat in a seven-game series.
Haberstroh: Fiction. The Chicago Bulls are still that team for me. Even after all these years, the Heat haven't cracked the Tom Thibodeau defense yet. The Heat have defended well enough against the Bulls' feeble offense that they've gotten by. The Nets have done an impressive job against the Heat, but if Bosh makes that pass to LeBron at the end, we aren't even asking this question.
Strauss: Fiction. Regular-season records mean little as far as playoff outcomes go, in most instances. I don't buy that Brooklyn has some magic quality that, say, Toronto lacks. Also, I'd hazard that Chicago's a bigger threat on account of having a defense that makes LeBron less efficient.
Wallace: Fact. The Heat have had regular-season struggles against Chicago, Boston and even New York in the past, only to beat up on those foes in the postseason. But these difficulties with Brooklyn feel different. The Nets have shown during a 3-0 mark against Miami that they can create serious, sustainable matchup problems for the Heat because of their combination of length, skill, perimeter shooting, balance and experience. If healthy, Brooklyn can almost rival Indiana as a potential postseason headache for Miami.
Windhorst: Fact. But this has been the case for a while now, even before they got hot. The Nets have a team that is built for the playoffs because they play at their best when the game is slow, and have postseason experience. However, there's a good chance the Nets will be on the other side of the bracket if the Heat stay in the No. 2 seed, because Toronto has a far easier schedule than the Nets and currently has the No. 3 seed.
4. Fact or Fiction: Three-peat fatigue is a legit concern for Miami.
Gutierrez: Fact, at least currently. It won't continue into the playoffs, but it's real right now and being acknowledged. Perhaps this losing stretch is enough to shake them out of it.
Haberstroh: Fiction. The Heat's last six opponents all rank in the top-10 in defense with the exception of the Nets, who have been a top-5 defense since the new year. OK, and the Wizards rank 11th. Still, I'm blaming the schedule more than fatigue. If Wade, LeBron and Bosh don't get some rest down the stretch run, let's revisit this question.
Strauss: Fiction. Actual, literal fatigue might be a problem for older veterans such as Ray Allen and Shane Battier (and yes, Dwyane Wade), but I don't buy the notion that they're tired of the title-winning process. This seems more like a preemptive excuse than an explanation for why failure might occur.
Wallace: Faction. It's fact in the sense that three straight years of reaching the Finals has been an emotional and psychological grind that LeBron and Chris Bosh are now acknowledging publicly after tough losses. But it's fiction in the sense that you never hear that excuse -- or logical explanation -- used after big wins. There's a burden that comes with being a two-time defending champion. And there's a reason why only three franchises have won three titles in a row.
Windhorst: Fiction. It's really hard to win three consecutive playoff series and reach the Finals -- you need skill, strategy and luck. Doing it four years in a row hasn't happened in 25 years for a reason, because you need those things to align. But the reason the Heat are struggling a little right now has nothing to do with how they'll perform in the postseason, they know what they're doing.
5. Fact or Fiction: Wade's recent play has eased concerns about his health.
Gutierrez: Fact. He looked great Wednesday while the rest of his team was somewhat lethargic, which compounded his frustrations that night. And he played in a Sunday-Monday back-to-back set without any setbacks. At this point it appears if he can avoid a freakish injury, he'll be able to maintain this level of play the rest of the season.
Haberstroh: Fact. Eased is the right word. But there is still some concern because, well, there's three months of basketball before the Finals come around. A lot can happen between now and then, but Wade's strong play as of late -- especially getting to the line -- has given the Heat much validation for their maintenance program.
Strauss: Fact. I say "fact," because wouldn't we all be worried if he was playing badly? Those health concerns will persist, but his stellar recent play has certainly eased some worries.
Wallace: Fact. The steady progress Wade has shown with his game and his knee rehab since the All-Star break has been the most encouraging aspect of the past month for Miami. Despite four losses in the past five games, the silver lining has been Wade's steady and reliable play heading down the stretch as the Heat gear up for the playoffs. One key measure of Miami's success in the regular season was whether the team could get Wade to this point feeling relatively healthy and confident. So far, so good.
Windhorst: Fact. Wade's entire season has been a smashing success. The issue, however, is that Wade seems to have setbacks that last days or weeks without warning and without regard to how careful the team is with him. There hasn't been one since January, but it's hard to know if that's good or bad news since the setbacks have been unforeseen in the past.