Late-game struggles still linger over Heat

LOS ANGELES -- This is where LeBron James and, by natural extension, the rest of the Miami Heat have found themselves: taking satisfaction in just giving themselves a chance to win a close game in the fourth quarter.

Further still, they’re actually right. They did make progress.

For the second consecutive night the Heat lost an overtime game on the West Coast, with the Los Angeles Clippers getting them this time, 95-89. For the second consecutive night there was a way to spin it as a failure for James, who missed four free throws in the fourth quarter and two in the last 30 seconds of regulation when one more point would have won it.

Of course, it wasn’t all about James. Dwyane Wade missed two free throws in the fourth quarter and Chris Bosh missed one. Wade had just six points in the second half and Bosh missed 10 shots on the night and had one rebound after halftime.

But it has gotten to the point where James’ play usually decides whether the Heat win close games. When that game is on national television, there is no way to hide from it. Whatever James or his coach or his teammates might say, this reality hangs over the entire team.

They have been living with it since June, hearing about it from fans, media, pundits and probably their own family members and friends, with no signs that it will end anytime soon. The Heat have a lot of things going for them, but this is the back side of the blade and it continues to cut them.

James led the Heat with 23 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. He scored eight points in the fourth quarter, more than anyone in the game, and did so with the sort of aggressive play he’s expected to show. But those missed free throws put him right back on the hook and put the Heat right back searching for a defense mechanism.

Perhaps due to the tone set by coach Erik Spoelstra -- who was so frustrated by the way the game played out that he got ejected when the outcome was decided on a rather innocent mistake by the officials, a clear sign he’d just boiled over -- the Heat decided to spin this one positively. Whatever Spoelstra said to the players when they joined him in the locker room, there were smiles and laughter as the team collectively shrugged it off.

“We gave ourselves a chance to win and we can be satisfied -- you don’t like to lose -- but we’re not going to hang our heads about this one,” James said, his eyes bright and his tone upbeat at his locker. “I need to concentrate a little bit more out there and knock [the free throws] down.”

The night before, in Oakland, James and his teammates were downtrodden after losing to the Warriors. There was barely a sound to be heard in that locker room. After this game, James was shouting rap lyrics and Wade was sharing private giggles with teammates as he iced his still sore foot.

“You never want to lose, but no team ever goes undefeated,” Wade said. “We just move on from the frustration we have. We haven’t missed this many free throws as a team probably ever ... you know it will average out.”

In fairness, the Heat have already won two games on their final possession. Wade made the shots and got the credit, but James played well in those fourth quarters in Charlotte and Minnesota. James also played well at the end of close games against the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls in the playoffs last season. And that was ultimately overshadowed by his woeful play in the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.

It was sure to happen again after Wednesday night's loss. The Heat may have pretended not to notice all the attention James’ shot-less fourth quarter got after they blew a huge lead to the Warriors, but it absolutely was on their minds.

There was no question it was on James’ mind when the fourth quarter arrived against the Clippers. He was a different player, burrowing his way to the basket as he normally does for the first three quarters. He drew five shooting fouls in the fourth quarter mostly by brute force, as if he was trying to make up for Tuesday night’s indifference by working double time a day later.

Had he made one more free throw -- and by all accounts the one area where James has always been strong under pressure is at the foul line -- he would’ve pulled it off. But he didn’t, so there was a new narrative to manage.

“I felt good and I was able to get back to attacking again,” James said. “I was able to get fouls and at least give us a chance to win. It was just one of those games where you don’t have rhythm from the free throw line.”

It was indeed a positive step compared to the night before. Had James played the same way in that game, the Heat certainly would’ve beaten the Warriors. Had he played that way against the Mavericks, he might have a ring, too.

Bringing that up now, months later and on a back-to-back in the middle of January, sure may seem excessive. But it is also what James and his teammates are thinking deep down. And it is almost certainly what many fans and James’ own peers were thinking as they watched on television.

That’s the way it is. And that’s why the Heat were calling this latest setback a positive. It’s going to be a long, hard fight to get past it. Right now, they’re looking for baby steps by trying to reward James for his improved attempts even if they still failed.

“He’s an aggressive player, come on,” Spoelstra said. “Let’s not forget who this guy is, a two-time MVP, and he’s done enough to prove himself and what he’s done.”

Not enough yet, though.