MIAMI – Apparently, the Miami Heat found at least a temporary solution for their early connection issues.
All it took was rediscovering how to share the ball.
Amid a 1-2 start which led coach Erik Spoelstra to suggest the team wasn't ideally connected, which caused Dwyane Wade to compare relationships to a marriage gone stale and prompted LeBron James to fend off any panic mode prognosis, the Heat were already taking inventory of a season less than a week removed from their ring ceremony.
Adversity is knocking a bit early – even for a two-time defending championship team that's grown accustomed to weekly doses of discomfort these past four seasons.
Enter the Washington Wizards.
The Heat's 103-93 victory Sunday not only brought the Heat back to the .500 mark after their first two-game losing streak since January, it also returned James and his teammates to some familiar habits that were benchmarks during their more dominant nights the past few seasons.
Simply put: They reconnected.
Miami had 32 assists on their 37 made baskets in Sunday's game, meaning that all but five of the shots they knocked down were courtesy of an extra pass and an unselfish play that set up a teammate for a open look from the field.
It's hardly a novel concept, especially for a team that has been preaching and practicing sacrifice since James, Wade and Chris Bosh came together in the summer of 2010 to set out on what has become three straight trips to the Finals.
But the Heat apparently needed a not-so-subtle reminder of what brought them this far after a pair of lethargic starts and stretches of selfish play in consecutive losses to Philadelphia and Brooklyn heading into Sunday's game.
“A lot of guys made sacrifices to be here, and it only works if we play together,” Bosh said after combining with James and Wade to account for 69 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists against the Wizards. “It is everything for us. We want to make the game easier for everybody and moving the ball is how we play together and how we take advantage of all the talent that we have.”
Pursuing a third straight NBA title is difficult enough on its own, with each of Miami's top challengers having made significant improvements. But that quest becomes 10 times tougher when there are potential cracks within the foundation of a team that has always prided itself on never buckling under pressure of lofty expectations.
But just three games into the season, a routine pregame meeting on Sunday took the form of a counseling session. Spoelstra forced his players to own up to some bad habits, worse on-court body language and questionable decisions that have contributed to the Heat's shaky start.
“The [previous] two games have been like filling holes in a dam,” Spoelstra said before Sunday's win. “There have been so many things we have not done well in the beginning of the game. Connected basketball is doing it where all five guys are on the same page. There are times in the last two games where we have played as well as we possibly can. Then there are other possessions where we are running into each other.”
A few hours later, there was a familiar flow to Miami's offense. There was James dishing a no-look passes to Wade as he was cutting to the basket for easy scores. There were the extra passes swinging around the perimeter, with one guy passing up an open 3-point look to whip the ball to another player who was absolutely lonely spotting up.
The result was 52.9 percent shooting from the field that included 11 made 3-pointers. The sharing was contagious, as nine of the 10 players Miami used had at least one assist.
Spoelstra offered a different assessment after the game.
“We had moments we talked about the last couple of games where it's looked good, then we fall into some poor habits,” Spoelstra said. “We can fall into a habit of letting that ball stick, trying to will it and isolate it. That's not our game. Our game is with movement to create action. It wasn't sticking with one guy. Guys were making easy plays and finding open shooters. That part of it was better.”
Spoelstra is a master of the methodical approach. He rarely – if ever – directs criticism or concerns at a specific player. But what he's saying, without directly saying, is that he doesn't want James trying to will himself back into prime game condition by taking hostage of the offense. What Spoelstra is also saying is that he can't have feast or famine episodes from Wade, who is already frustrated and, at times, growing impatient with the slow-healing process with his long-troublesome knees. Four years into this experiment, it shouldn't be necessary for James and Wade to continue to have to grow comfortable and cohesive.
Yet even in great marriages, relationships get a bit stale. That was the point Wade was trying to make before Sunday's game when he used an eye-catching analogy to describe some of the symptoms of the Heat's sluggish start.
“If you're in a relationship with a woman for a long time, you start getting comfortable,” Wade said. “You stop doing the little things that you should do, that you did in the beginning. It's just like a relationship. We got a little comfortable. Now we have to get back that edge a bit.”
Wade then laughed when asked if someone in the locker room needed to go out and get someone else some flowers. Instead, the Heat opted to go with the gift of assists.
“It's just getting back into it - not taking what we have for granted,” James said. “We've been together so long, you start to think we can go out and make it happen instead of talking through it. We lacked that the last few games. We got a handle on it today, and we know what the issue is.”
Issues like these don't linger long with the Heat.
Their biggest challenge this season will be to stay healthy. The next one is to avoid growing bored with success. Even the most productive relationships need steady doses of appreciation and affection to maintain the vibe.
After a brief rough patch, the Heat made time Sunday to seal their union with assists.