Over the last few weeks, LeBron James has slowly been becoming perturbed about the Miami Heat’s overall effort level.
It has manifested itself in several ways: A postgame workout session he used, rather transparently, to set an example to teammates; a handful of statements in which he liberally used the word “urgency"; and some recent body language that has reeked of disappointment during lackadaisical stretches against what should be inferior opposition.
But here is the reality: Why should the Heat care all that much about playing well now?
Their motivation to play their best basketball is lacking and it is hard to fault them. The Eastern Conference is shaping up to be the weakest it has been in a decade. Although it's never easy to repeat as champion, there’s no mistaking that the Heat’s road back to the Finals this season could provide less resistance than in the past two seasons.
James and Dwyane Wade certainly remember the last time the East looked like this, back when they were rookies in the 2003-04 season. Each of their teams started 5-15 and still almost made the playoffs. Wade’s Heat, at 42-40 that season, were one of just four Eastern teams that had a winning record. James’ Cavs won just 35 games and were in the playoff race until the last week.
It’s not quite that bad in the East right now and there is some hope that it could improve. The Heat seem to be waiting for that.
One of the question marks is Friday’s opponent, as the Chicago Bulls come to Miami (ESPN, 8 ET). Maybe the Bulls will morph into the contender of the previous two seasons when Derrick Rose is able to return from his knee injury later this season. Or maybe the Boston Celtics will make a late-season push as they’ve been known to do. Or maybe the Brooklyn Nets will start playing the way they’re being paid to. Or maybe the New York Knicks’ two wins over the Heat in the regular season so far actually matter, even as they've started to show some serious flaws over the last month.
But these are all maybes. What is known is that the Heat can’t rebound very well, aren’t defending at near the same level they did last season and have settled into a routine of letting weaker teams take the lead for two or so quarters before they try to act like the hare catching the tortoise. And still they are the heavy favorites to win the conference again.
If the Heat were in the Western Conference and had to worry about going through teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs to reach the Finals again, then perspectives would certainly be different. Heck, right now you could make a case that the Golden State Warriors would be a contender to reach the conference finals if they were in the East.
Instead the Heat are sitting back, playing at about 80 percent many nights and still enjoying the East’s best record while waiting to see if a contender can pull itself together enough to challenge them.
“It’s the luck of the draw and it’s been that way for some time,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said this week when talking about the difference in depth and competitiveness between the East and West. “I can’t really explain it. The West is just tough.”
Ultimately, of course, to win four playoff series -- no matter the opponent -- the Heat will have to tighten up and start resembling the cohesive unit they became during last season’s playoffs. Coaches often talk about the importance of building good habits during the regular season so they carry over to the postseason. That’s something James has spoken about several times this season as well.
Human nature, however, is tough to fight. The Heat won’t be challenging any win records but they’re going along merrily, for the most part.
They’re one of the weakest rebounding teams in the league, ranking 23rd, and it looked bad when they were outrebounded by 19 against the Minnesota Timberwolves and by 17 against the Orlando Magic over the last few weeks. But they won both games.
Meanwhile, their most serious competitors in the East at this point, the Knicks, are actually a worse rebounding team, ranking 27th. The Indiana Pacers and Bulls both rebounding well but have stars with health issues that leave their overall threat level in question.
After being fourth in defense efficiency last season, the Heat are currently 16th. But as they enjoy the second-best offense in the league -- with James, Wade and Chris Bosh all having the best shooting seasons of their careers -- it’s not hard to understand why coach Erik Spoelstra is having trouble renewing that defensive focus.
“To know that we can be down by six with two minutes left and still have the confidence to overcome everything and get the job done, it works out great,” said Bosh, who was outrebounded 29-4 by the Magic’s Nikola Vucevic earlier this week. “We always know we can do it.”
That attitude would seem to be dangerous and probably will be if the Heat are taking the same approach in late March. Spoelstra has been flicking at the issue for weeks, and James has recently gotten on board as well. His minutes are up slightly over last season and he has already dealt with minor shoulder and knee injuries; he has had to work harder than he’d prefer in leading the Heat to some wins.
“We don’t look at games with entitlement, our guys want to win,” Spoelstra said. “We have to be realistic and objective, we have to get better. The next six weeks before the All-Star break we need to improve in several areas.”
That’s just it, though. The Heat want to improve, but they don’t really need to improve right now. A luxury they certainly are enjoying as they kill time before the playoffs.