Friday, March 14, 2014
5-on-5: Why are the Miami Heat struggling?
King James and the defending champs have hit a rough patch recently. Is it time to be concerned?
Here are 25 takes on the Miami Heat, who have lost four of their past five games:
1. What's Miami's biggest issue right now?
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: The "other" guys just aren't in rhythm. The combination of Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Norris Cole shot a combined 33.7 percent in the Heat's four recent losses, with Battier's 15 percent shooting (2-of-13) being the worst of the group. That tells you they're not getting the same opportunities as usual, or at least not regularly enough to find a rhythm. That's resulted in the league's most efficient offense shooting 47.5, 43, 40.5 and 48.5 percent in those losses.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: The Heat are getting nothing from the supporting cast outside of Chris Andersen. Ray Allen and Shane Battier have both shown their age, and Michael Beasley hasn't been the same since they guaranteed his contract back in early January. Besides that, they've faced some tough defenses, so I'm not sure the slide is indicative of any major issues.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Ray Allen, legendary shooter and hero of Game 6. He's a glaring defensive minus, and he's missing shots that he typically hit in the past. It sounds crazy to say it, but in 2014, you trust Chris Bosh (.386 from deep this season) more to hit an open 3-pointer than Allen (.361 from deep this season). Miami already lost a great shooter when it amnestied Mike Miller; the Heat want Allen to return to form in the playoffs.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Supporting cast inconsistency. Early in the season, Ray Allen said this had the potential to be the deepest and most talented collection of role players of any team he's been with over 18 seasons. With 20 games left in the season, we're still waiting for that potential to translate into consistent production. Allen, Shane Battier and Norris Cole have been in prolonged slumps, Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley have been hit or miss all season, and Greg Oden appears no closer to being playoff ready than when he first saw action before the All-Star break.
Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: Execution, specifically late-game execution. Three of these four recent losses were the result of the Heat not being able to execute in the final moments of regulation. When they won 66 games last season, it seemed like they almost always sealed the deal at the end, for various reasons they have not been getting it done lately.
2. Fact or Fiction: LeBron has lost his MVP momentum.
Gutierrez: Fact. A hard crack to the nose will do that sometimes. Since the 61, LeBron has shot more than 50 percent just once in five tries. And it's no coincidence he shot zero free throws in back-to-back games after ditching his mask against the Spurs. Also, his team's struggles are now on the forefront, so the attention has drifted from MVP candidacy anyway.
Haberstroh: Fiction. Are we sure he had any momentum to begin with? I subscribe to Hall of Fame baseball manager Earl Weaver's ethos that "momentum is the next day's starting pitcher." It feels like there is no momentum in this MVP race, as every game seems to be a referendum on Durant's and LeBron's careers. I will say that for a guy who has shot 43 percent from downtown over his last 10 games, it's odd to hear that James has suddenly lost his jumper.
Strauss: Fact. LeBron's mortal stretch contributed to this Heat slump. He looked like a lesser player after ditching the mask, failing to reach the free throw line in consecutive games. LeBron could have taken the award if he and the Heat were customarily excellent as OKC struggled, but that window appears to have closed.
Wallace: Fact. The two strongest arguments in Kevin Durant's case have been that he's been more consistent with his elite-level production and that he's done it in a much stronger Western Conference. Since that career-high, 61-point night two weeks ago, LeBron has hit a relative wall. There's still time for LeBron to make another push, but Durant seems to have regained control of the MVP race.
Windhorst: Fact. He's played probably his four most "blah" games of the season since he put up his 61 points. It's a combination of things -- he's slumped a bit shooting, and he's also not been as aggressive as his plunging free throws and zero fourth-quarter shots in the loss to the Nets show.
3. Fact or Fiction: Brooklyn is Miami's second-biggest threat in East.
Gutierrez: Fiction. As much as a 3-0 record against Miami would suggest otherwise, the Nets aren't dominant in any particular area against Miami. The Bulls, on the other hand, can dominate both on the boards and defensively when playing the Heat. The Nets' specialty is simply interchangeable perimeter defenders and veteran-savvy scorers. But neither team has really emerged as a true threat to the Heat in a seven-game series.
Haberstroh: Fiction. The Chicago Bulls are still that team for me. Even after all these years, the Heat haven't cracked the Tom Thibodeau defense yet. The Heat have defended well enough against the Bulls' feeble offense that they've gotten by. The Nets have done an impressive job against the Heat, but if Bosh makes that pass to LeBron at the end, we aren't even asking this question.
Strauss: Fiction. Regular-season records mean little as far as playoff outcomes go, in most instances. I don't buy that Brooklyn has some magic quality that, say, Toronto lacks. Also, I'd hazard that Chicago's a bigger threat on account of having a defense that makes LeBron less efficient.
Wallace: Fact. The Heat have had regular-season struggles against Chicago, Boston and even New York in the past, only to beat up on those foes in the postseason. But these difficulties with Brooklyn feel different. The Nets have shown during a 3-0 mark against Miami that they can create serious, sustainable matchup problems for the Heat because of their combination of length, skill, perimeter shooting, balance and experience. If healthy, Brooklyn can almost rival Indiana as a potential postseason headache for Miami.
Windhorst: Fact. But this has been the case for a while now, even before they got hot. The Nets have a team that is built for the playoffs because they play at their best when the game is slow, and have postseason experience. However, there's a good chance the Nets will be on the other side of the bracket if the Heat stay in the No. 2 seed, because Toronto has a far easier schedule than the Nets and currently has the No. 3 seed.
4. Fact or Fiction: Three-peat fatigue is a legit concern for Miami.
Gutierrez: Fact, at least currently. It won't continue into the playoffs, but it's real right now and being acknowledged. Perhaps this losing stretch is enough to shake them out of it.
Haberstroh: Fiction. The Heat's last six opponents all rank in the top-10 in defense with the exception of the Nets, who have been a top-5 defense since the new year. OK, and the Wizards rank 11th. Still, I'm blaming the schedule more than fatigue. If Wade, LeBron and Bosh don't get some rest down the stretch run, let's revisit this question.
Strauss: Fiction. Actual, literal fatigue might be a problem for older veterans such as Ray Allen and Shane Battier (and yes, Dwyane Wade), but I don't buy the notion that they're tired of the title-winning process. This seems more like a preemptive excuse than an explanation for why failure might occur.
Wallace: Faction. It's fact in the sense that three straight years of reaching the Finals has been an emotional and psychological grind that LeBron and Chris Bosh are now acknowledging publicly after tough losses. But it's fiction in the sense that you never hear that excuse -- or logical explanation -- used after big wins. There's a burden that comes with being a two-time defending champion. And there's a reason why only three franchises have won three titles in a row.
Windhorst: Fiction. It's really hard to win three consecutive playoff series and reach the Finals -- you need skill, strategy and luck. Doing it four years in a row hasn't happened in 25 years for a reason, because you need those things to align. But the reason the Heat are struggling a little right now has nothing to do with how they'll perform in the postseason, they know what they're doing.
5. Fact or Fiction: Wade's recent play has eased concerns about his health.
Gutierrez: Fact. He looked great Wednesday while the rest of his team was somewhat lethargic, which compounded his frustrations that night. And he played in a Sunday-Monday back-to-back set without any setbacks. At this point it appears if he can avoid a freakish injury, he'll be able to maintain this level of play the rest of the season.
Haberstroh: Fact. Eased is the right word. But there is still some concern because, well, there's three months of basketball before the Finals come around. A lot can happen between now and then, but Wade's strong play as of late -- especially getting to the line -- has given the Heat much validation for their maintenance program.
Strauss: Fact. I say "fact," because wouldn't we all be worried if he was playing badly? Those health concerns will persist, but his stellar recent play has certainly eased some worries.
Wallace: Fact. The steady progress Wade has shown with his game and his knee rehab since the All-Star break has been the most encouraging aspect of the past month for Miami. Despite four losses in the past five games, the silver lining has been Wade's steady and reliable play heading down the stretch as the Heat gear up for the playoffs. One key measure of Miami's success in the regular season was whether the team could get Wade to this point feeling relatively healthy and confident. So far, so good.
Windhorst: Fact. Wade's entire season has been a smashing success. The issue, however, is that Wade seems to have setbacks that last days or weeks without warning and without regard to how careful the team is with him. There hasn't been one since January, but it's hard to know if that's good or bad news since the setbacks have been unforeseen in the past.