- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- As a four-time league MVP and the catalyst for the NBA's defending champions, LeBron James isn't accustomed to having his rhythm disrupted these days.
Good defenders rarely bother him.
Great schemes do little to knock him off his game.
But the only thing to stop James in his tracks recently has been a self-inflicted wound of sorts: His team's dominance so far this postseason. The Miami Heat are 8-1 through two rounds of their best-of-seven playoff series.
And that kind of success requires patience. Plenty of it.
For the second time during these playoffs, the Heat find themselves uncomfortably idle as they await the start of their next series after making quick work of an opponent.
After sweeping Milwaukee in the first round, Miami dispatched short-handed Chicago in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the third straight season. But after enduring a seven-day break between facing the Bucks and the Bulls, the Heat now have a six-day hiatus before they play Game 1 of the conference finals Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Miami could learn its next opponent as early as Saturday, when the Indiana Pacers look to close out the New York Knicks in Game 6 at home. With a win Saturday, the Knicks will force Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Monday.
After saying he needed at least 24 hours to decompress after a mentally and physically taxing series against Chicago, James declared Friday his body was recharged and ready to play again. But he can only be a spectator.
“I'm not where I need to be as far as getting ready because I don't know who we play,” an already-restless James said Friday. “As far as physically, I could play a game tonight if we had one. I'm ready to go. But mentally, I'm not there yet because I can't hone in on who we're playing just yet.”
The only preference the Heat had in this ordeal was to have been playing on Monday instead of waiting another two days. But the Wednesday start was locked in by the league once the Knicks beat the Pacers in Game 5 on Thursday.
For now, the Heat's priority is to avoid a repeat of the rusty play they carried into their opening game against the Bulls following the previous layoff. Miami's players and coaches on Friday still credited Chicago for playing tough defense and riding momentum to a 93-86 upset in Game 1 of the series.
But there was also an acknowledgment in hindsight that rust and a lack of offensive rhythm also played a much larger role in the loss than the Heat initially let on before rolling off four consecutive wins to put away the Bulls.
Miami scored just 35 points in the first half and shot just 39 percent in that loss to Chicago, but responded two days later with a 37-point win in Game 2 that accounted for both the largest postseason victory in Heat history and the most lopsided loss the Bulls were ever handed in the postseason.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said his staff has examined every step the team took during the previous layoff between playoff games, from how frequently and long practices were held over the break, to what sets were run and how the team executed early in Game 1 against the Bulls. Spoelstra didn't say what exact changes might be made, but the Heat spent Friday's practice on shooting and timing drills.
“It's conditioning, shooting, rhythm, timing, sweating,” said Spoelstra, who gave the team the day off Saturday. “We're day-to-day right now in terms of our planning. You can't cheat the game, so you have to work at it. You're almost a week out from competing again, coming off a very intense series, your natural reaction is to not to want to come in here and get after it and sweat. But you can't shortcut it.”
There aren't any shortcuts to better health, either. Conventional wisdom would suggest that another extended dose of rest would be a good thing for Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who has struggled at times to play through a bruised right knee that's given him problems for two months.
But Wade, who bounced back with his second-best game of the playoffs to help close out the Bulls Wednesday, said he was resigned to the fact that his knee won't get much better regardless of the time off until after the season.
“I'm (still) dealing with this,” Wade said Friday. “I had 10 days off last time, so it really doesn't matter. At this point, we have a month (left) in the season. That's all I'm focusing on. I deal with stuff. I'm mentally strong enough to come out and still be effective, still be able to do what I do.”
Although Miami has shown a propensity to recover from early deficits to win playoff series the past two seasons, Wade doesn't want to keep playing from the same script. The Heat have trailed at some point in six playoff series since 2010 and have rallied to win five of them. The lone exception was the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas.
In three of those six series, Miami dropped Game 1 and came back to win four straight, which was also the case in the Finals last season on the way to beating Oklahoma City.
“We'll continue to rise to the occasion, no matter who we're playing,” James said. “The stakes are higher now, being in the Eastern Conference finals. Our game will continue to rise, and we have a lot of room for improvement. We had a lot of mental breakdowns the last round we can improve. That's the best thing about our team. We don't really dwell on things we did well. We hate the things we did bad.”
The Heat have a bit more time to nitpick as they wait, and center Chris Bosh can think of a few adjustments.
“You just feel a little off,” Bosh said of initial challenges after a long layoff. “I wouldn't say rusty. You're rusty when you're coming back from the offseason. It's just a mental aspect of dealing with some shots that won't fall that usually go in. We were a step slow on defense, our awareness just wasn't where it was supposed to be. We want to hit the ground running and have a good rhythm this time. We're just going to have to continue to tinker with some things (the next few days) and just figure it out.”
No team has figured out how to get through playoff series faster than the Heat these days. But there's only one problem: They hate to wait.
This rapid postseason progress is really testing their patience.