- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- Four seasons into the Miami Heat's Big Three era, there probably aren't many more books, motivational methods or clichés from coach Erik Spoelstra that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh haven't experienced.
They "held onto the rope" after a rough start during their first seasons together to get to the NBA Finals.
James, Wade and Bosh "owned it" a year later as the team overcame size limitations to win that 2011-12 title.
And they "keep the main thing the main thing" amid doubts about health and a 3-2 series deficit in the Finals last season to secure their second consecutive championship.
So following Saturday's embarrassing home loss to the Boston Celtics that again exposed the Heat's horrible defensive effort to start the season, Miami's marquee players could have shrugged off Spoelstra's hell-raising, chastising session to open Monday's practice in preparation for Tuesday's game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Instead, Spoelstra's voice resonated louder than ever.
“The best thing about Spo is he still gives it to us straight. He don't sugarcoat nothing, man,” James said. “If he feels like we're hot-dogging it or not giving our all, he's going to get on us. As a player, you respect that. And we take it.”
And the Heat took it to the Bucks in Tuesday's 118-95 victory, one that didn't resolve all of their recent defensive woes, but was at least a small step toward removing some of the bitterness and frustration that permeated the team.
After Saturday's 111-110 loss to Boston, James publicly used curse words to describe his team's recent defensive effort. The Heat entered Tuesday's game ranked No. 25 in the league in defensive efficiency, a standing that far overshadowed Miami's top-ranked offensive execution.
Tuesday's performance was hardly a cure-all for the Heat, who limited the short-handed Bucks to just 41.8 percent shooting from the field, forced 18 turnovers that led to 21 points and led by as many as 28 points late in the fourth quarter.
Even before the game, Heat guard Dwyane Wade suggested the team needed to string together more than one or two games of improved defensive execution to prove that they're showing more effort, addressing bad habits and reversing what has been a disturbing yet familiar early trend.
But for a night, the Heat were able to change the subject -- and the mood after some deep soul-searching on Monday.
“That's been a long 48 hours in this building, but at least we were able to respond with a better game,” Spoelstra said. “I think our guys felt better looking each other in the eyes in the locker room tonight.”
It was a recognizable unit.
James showed he's starting to emerge from the nagging back pain that's hampered him the past few weeks. He finished with 33 points through three quarters, including catching and dunking a sick over-the-shoulder lob pass from Mario Chalmers to complete first-half fastbreak.
Reserve forward Michael Beasley showed he can be a reliable option off the bench as he tries to convince Spoelstra he's ready for a steady rotation role. Beasley contributed a season-high 19 points in 20 minutes to help fill in during a game Ray Allen sat out with the flu and Udonis Haslem missed with back spasms.
Above anything else, the Heat showed they can provide the best of both worlds -- a highly efficient offensive effort in which they shot 58 percent from the field with 29 assists as well as shut down an opponent with swarming defense.
In other words, they were engaged on both ends, which has hardly been the case consistently so far this season.
Following Sunday's loss, Spoelstra bristled at his team's performance and rushed through his postgame news conference, cutting off questions before they were completely asked. It was as frustrated as Spoelstra had been in some time. In the big picture, the Boston loss was one game -- in November, no less.
But beneath the surface, Spoelstra's seething represented the difficult task of keeping a two-time defending champion from sleepwalking for extended stages through the season until the motivation arrives in the playoffs.
Scott Williams, a Bucks assistant coach, saw some of the same issues play out early as a reserve center with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls during their run to a third consecutive championship in the 1992-93 season.
“It was hard to get motivated, it absolutely was,” Williams said Tuesday. “The second year, you want to prove that the first one was no fluke, so you come out and you're up 10 on everybody at the end of the first quarter. A lot of our games then were decided after two-and-a-half quarters. It was kind of like the Heat did last year, when they put that [27-game winning streak] together like they had.”
For the Bulls, their first run at a three-peat came on the heels of the 1992 Summer Olympics, when Jordan and Scottie Pippen entered the season on little rest after playing for the Dream Team. The Bulls didn't have the best record in the Eastern Conference and fell behind by two games in the conference finals to the Knicks before rallying and eventually beating Phoenix in the Finals.
“They'll find it difficult this year,” Williams said of the Heat's bid. “They'll know exactly why. Some of it is human nature. But you develop some enemies and some rivalries over those 24 months from the first two. You feel there's nothing to prove during the regular season, and you understand how special playoff basketball is. You get that taste in your mouth and you look down the road to April.”
That's exactly the kind of mental condition Spoelstra is desperately trying to prevent from settling in with Miami.
“That's my job, to make us understand,” Spoelstra said. “You can't skip steps. You can't short cut. We don't know. We're not resident experts on how to win this year. No one knows. We have to go in with the mentality that we're trying to figure it out. We have to get better. Other teams have gotten better. Our experiences? Sure. That can help us. But they're not the answer. That's done. And what we did last year, that won't win us anything this year.”
So the Heat are back to rebuilding habits and committing to playing with the same passion and focus on defense they've shown on the offensive end of the court. Heat players insist Spoelstra's voice and methods haven't grown stale.
That's especially the case when it's time to hold players accountable for lapses in energy and effort on defense.
“We know what the deal is, and we know what he's going to say sometimes,” Bosh said. “When you hear it, and it's true -- he's going to always come with some numbers to blow you away. He showed us stuff [Monday], and we were like, 'Damn, our defense sucks right now. Here's why.' We looked at film and it was embarrassing. When we consistently do better, everything will take care of itself.”
The next step for the Heat is to follow up Tuesday's performance with more results Friday, when the Heat end a four-game homestand against the Dallas Mavericks.
And then continue to build from there.
“We can't think it's just going to happen,” Wade said. “When it happened before, we did something about it. We turned it around. It's not a lot to do. It's just more effort and more focus, and also respecting your opponents.”
Eventually, the calender flips from the dog days of fall and winter to the meaningful moments of spring and summer. By then, the motivation takes care of itself, too.
“It's more about action than it is about talk,” Spoelstra said. “Understand how important each step of the process is. Games, practices, shootarounds and film sessions are paramount in November just as much as in May or June.”