MIAMI -- The black papers with red lettering were carefully placed on every seat of the Miami Heat’s locker room before Tuesday night’s game against the Boston Celtics.
In big, bold type, the sheets read: Remember Who We Are.
In smaller type surrounding the main message were a series of what’s come to be known around the franchise as "Spo-isms." These are the sometimes corny but often inspiring one-liners Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra delivers on a daily basis to help hold his team accountable.
“He could have emailed it to us, save on the recycling," center Chris Bosh said. “I guess he wanted to make sure we got the message.”
The Heat have been caught up in an identity crisis lately. The two-time defending champions had split their previous 10 games since the start of the new year, and were coming off a 2-4 road trip that saw their defense get shredded in Washington and Atlanta. Rock bottom came when the Heat gave up 71 points in the first half of Monday’s 121-114 loss to Hawks.
That rendered Tuesday’s game against the struggling Celtics a much-needed pick-me-up for the Heat. Instead, what the Heat discovered in their 93-86 victory against Boston is that no team in the league is going to make it easy for the Heat to dig their way out of their relative doldrums this season.
Even after holding Boston to just 15 points in the first quarter and sub 40-percent shooting throughout the game, the Heat still squandered all of an 18-point lead down the stretch and need one final push to get past a Boston team that lost Avery Bradley to an ankle injury in the first half and saw Rajon Rondo miss all eight of his shots in his third game back from knee surgery.
With Dwyane Wade sitting out a third straight game with knee soreness, LeBron James scored 17 of his game-high 29 points in the second half and the Heat got a combined 29 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks from Bosh and Chris Andersen to hold off the Celtics.
“You never know what can change the momentum in a season,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t know if this is the striking point or not. It’s something to build on.”
Spoelstra commanded his team to stop buying into excuses about things like a schedule that had Miami playing 11 of 14 on the road prior to Tuesday’s game. He implored them to instead find reasons to make the extra effort in areas where they’ve struggled defensively.
Before the game, James spoke at length about the struggles the Heat have endured while trying to cope with injuries overall and, in particular, Wade’s frequent absences from the lineup. The Heat essentially haven’t been whole all season, and they opened the second half of their schedule Tuesday hoping to at some point develop the continuity they've been missing since the middle of training camp.
James pointed out how the Heat have struggled against teams with losing records, with nine of their 12 losses coming to teams with sub-.500 marks. He then scanned the crowd of 20 or so reporters and cameramen surrounding him at that moment.
“You guys can line up and play us and be motivated to play us,” James said. “It’s how it is. And we know that. We’ve have to be ready for that every night. We can’t take no team lightly, no matter what.”
Tuesday was about taking the initial steps to reclaiming some of the defensive identity the Heat have lost in recent weeks. Miami had ranked among the top five defenses in the league in efficiency over the past three seasons since James and Bosh arrived to play alongside Wade in Miami. But that hasn’t been the case in the month of January, with the Heat slipping to the bottom third in games played in 2014.
The Heat spent time in the White House last week to commemorate their 2012-13 championship, but they’ve strayed quite a ways from the habits and chemistry it took to secure that second straight title.
“It’s difficult doing what we do, but that’s why we’re the champs,” Bosh said. “We’re going to do the difficult thing and get the job done. The energy was good. Guys were communicating. We just can’t worry about the playoffs [now]. We have to live in the moment. Tonight was a good start. We just have to build off it.”
The win gave the Heat at least a bit of momentum to start a four-game homestand that continues with three consecutive nationally televised games, with visits from the Lakers on Thursday, Spurs on Sunday and Thunder on Jan. 29.
James said there’s no better time than now for the Heat to get back to being more like themselves.
“It’s a good test for us,” James said of the challenging days ahead. “The Lakers are a really good team, too. But they’re just in an unbelievable conference. Obviously, we know what the Spurs and OKC are all about. We’re looking forward to seeing them. We’re looking forward to playing these three teams.”