Saturday, January 11, 2014
Heat lacking motivation during rough patch
By Brian Windhorst
NEW YORK -- Let’s count the number of things that LeBron James was upset about as midnight approached Friday night in Brooklyn.
He was upset he’d fouled out of a regular-season game for the first time in nearly six years. It happened in the first overtime and probably was the bottom line of the Miami Heat’s 104-95 double-overtime loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
“How do you think I felt about it?” James said.
He was upset that he felt he was called for a couple of his fouls when Andrei Kirilenko exaggerated contact.
“I thought Kirilenko flopped a few times to be honest about it and he got the call,” said James, who had 36 points before his first regular-season DQ since 2008.
“He definitely flopped a few times.”
In fairness, James appeared to get away with a couple more offensive fouls that were not called, but this was not the time to bring up that issue.
He was upset because Nets forward Mirza Teletovic had wrapped his arms around James' neck and committed a flagrant foul in the fourth quarter, which spurred James to mock charge him in one of those classic “hold me back” moments that occurs in the league every now and then.
“He went around the neck,” James said. “That was not a basketball play.”
He was upset that he missed a free throw in the final minute of regulation.
He was upset the Heat had dropped two games in New York in a span of two days.
He was upset because he was tired. He’d played 199 minutes over the past week as the Heat went through a stretch of playing five games in seven days, one of the busiest weeks of their season.
He was upset that the Heat are banged up. Shane Battier missed the game with a quad injury, Mario Chalmers was out with an Achilles issue and Dwyane Wade sat out because the heavy schedule required him to rest his knees as the Heat have been doing for most of the season.
“We had three starters who didn’t play,” James said. “We have depth but it’s hard to make up for three starters.”
All James wanted to do was go to sleep, but he had a bus ride to Newark Airport and then a three-hour flight to Miami ahead of him. Coach Erik Spoelstra took a look at his locker room and declared the team would be getting the next two days off, which is unusual even for veteran teams in midseason.
At least the thought of uninterrupted viewing of the NFL playoff games might’ve at least brightened James’ mood for a moment.
Miami is playing just average basketball, despite the team's overall strong record, and the Heat are having moderate motivation issues.
Miami didn't really start showing energy until that Teletovic flagrant foul on James about three minutes into the fourth quarter. That was almost a costly misstep for the Nets, who had a 14-point lead and should've been content to ease their way to a fifth consecutive victory.
James and the rest of his team played the rest of the game like they really wanted to win and they almost did. If not for that James missed free throw and a vital rebound by Shaun Livingston (one of his career-high 11) in the last 15 seconds, the Heat might’ve taken it anyway.
The Heat have 10 losses in 37 games this season. They have now lost twice in Brooklyn and eight of Miami's losses have been to teams with losing records.
“I don’t know (what it means),” Spoelstra said. “But I don’t like it.”
Taking a step back, the Heat are actually two games ahead of their pace a year ago when they racked up 66 wins. But their schedule has been relatively soft thus far. Over the past 10 games, they’ve played the 17th toughest schedule in the league and they’re just 6-4.
Their schedule is about to take a turn in the middle of the month as they go through a six-week stretch with some real meat on it. Don’t assume they’ll have another 27-game win streak.
Here is the thing, what are the consequences? If you want to know why the Heat sort of look like they’re going through the motions recently, answer this:
What is the downside?
The Heat are seven games ahead of the team closest to them in the East, the Atlanta Hawks. They are supposedly fighting with the Indiana Pacers (Indiana has a three-game lead in the loss column) for the top seed. But it’s quite obvious that Miami's interest in the East's top seed comes and goes. Deep down the Heat may care about it, but their everyday routine right now speaks otherwise.
The Heat are 4-5 when Wade rests his knees and he’s going to keep resting his knees because keeping him fresh is more important than getting home-court advantage against Indiana. This has been an organizational decision and it’s one that seems to be working because when he's played Wade has looked healthy. But it does set the tone of where the regular season ranks for the Heat.
The Heat have shown fire -- real fire -- twice in the past month. Once when they beat the Pacers at home to avenge a loss from a week earlier. And once when they had a quality comeback victory in Portland when James sat out with a groin injury.
National television games in New York against teams with losing records don’t cut it for them right now, that was quite clear these past few days. Here a coach could give a speech about the importance of building habits, but just try selling that to the two-time defending champs playing in a conference where only three of the 15 teams have a winning record.
Where are the consequences? Not at the front of Miami's mind. And Spoelstra, who has become an expert at massaging this group of veterans knows quite well that going to the whip now will do no good. So he will give them time off.
The Heat are going to the White House next week to celebrate their 2012-13 title and hang with the president. Good luck telling them they should be worrying about playoff seeding.
There are a lot of reasons it’s hard to win three straight championships or make it to the Finals four straight years, which the Heat are trying to do for the first time since the 1984-87 Celtics.
Right now, that is the only opponent they’re truly fighting.
“It’s a long and grueling season for all of us,” James said. “We’ve played a lot of basketball in our four years together and it’s taken a lot of wear and tear on our bodies. Mentally it is fatiguing. We’re trying to find the motivation the best way we can as a group.”