On Christmas Day, the Lakers were being written off as old and unmotivated. Things change quickly in the NBA.
MIAMI -- In the NBA, there is always time.
It’s true in games, in seasons, even careers.
Usually it doesn’t seem that way, as the eyes can make things seem absolute. Games appear over at halftime; teams look cooked midway through March; players look surely headed for the pasture. It is true that often perception does become reality.
But history shows that the league is so fragile, sometimes remarkably so, and it guarantees drama. Without falling into a Yogi Berra routine, assuming things are final without their actually being final in such a fluid game can make us look silly. There are 48-minute games, six-month regular seasons and best-of-seven playoff series.
Nothing but time.
That's why the veteran-laden Miami Heat, who know this truth as well as anyone, aren’t freaking out about their recent struggles. Having lost six of eight games since the All-Star break going into tonight’s faceoff with the Los Angeles Lakers, things obviously aren’t bright.
At this very moment in the flow of the season, the Heat don’t look like contenders and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh don’t look like the dynamic trio many assumed they would be. Picking them to make a title run after seeing them getting repeatedly beaten by the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics and recently vanquished by the San Antonio Spurs seems foolish.
But here's the thing: There is always time.
“Things can change very quickly in this league,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “There’s countless examples of teams struggling and moving on to having strong postseason.”
From a coach leading a currently embattled team, that sounds like a plea, and it is tempting to quickly dismiss it. But Spoelstra has the NBA axiom on his side. Even if the Heat don’t turn things around, he’ll still be right.
The Heat’s opponent in their latest challenge game, the Lakers, are proof enough. At several points this season the Lakers have looked like they were doomed themselves. After a weak December, Kobe Bryant, who wasn’t even able to practice regularly, and the king of mellow Phil Jackson were raising red flags.
The Heat hammered the Lakers on Christmas, prompting a postgame tongue-lashing from Bryant aimed at his teammates. Miami was in the midst of winning 22 of 23 games, a stretch that sent the Heat to the top of everyone's scientific and subjective power rankings. The Lakers were looking old, slow and uninspired.
Then, during a shaky February and a miserable end to a road trip, they were being beaten by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Some in the Lakers organization wondered whether breaking things up by trading for Carmelo Anthony could be a needed elixir.
Now they’ve hit Miami as the hottest team in the NBA and the three-peat is looking like more than a dream. It is the Heat, now, who have absorbed the title of dysfunctional, overrated squad.
Of course, this can all turn again for the Lakers within days or weeks. It’s because ankles and knees are delicate, a slump is always only a week away, and because there is always time.
In their case, the Heat own one of the past decade’s greatest examples of how tenuous things can be. In 2006, they were down 0-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals and staring at a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 3. As Mark Cuban was celebrating big Mavericks baskets behind the bench, the series and the race for a title could easily have been called over. But there was still time -- there’s always time -- and the rest is history.
That is an extreme case; one of the sides might call it a “fluke,” but it illustrates the point. Especially at this time of the season when the playoffs are coming into focus and it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming how things will play out.
Doing that will let you down. History says so, no matter how sure things look. There is always time.
“We could probably lose every game for the rest of the season and make the playoffs,” James said. “The playoffs are what matters.”
Again, this seems like a copout and a defense mechanism for a player on a team in a slump. But James is also correct, literally and theoretically. The Heat’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot is one. A win over the Lakers or anyone else means they’re going to be in the postseason. No one thought the Heat would want to just be a “dangerous” team in the postseason, and taking an underdog role is hardly what is expected from them. It doesn’t change the fact that the playoffs just bring more time.
The Celtics proved it last season. After limping into the playoffs by taking it easy and saving themselves in the final weeks of the regular season -- coach Doc Rivers’ strategy basically being “There’s always time” -- they were ready for the second season and came within a game of winning another title.
As he tried to explain the stress the Heat are going through right now, Spoelstra said every game feels like it is a playoff game with all the scrutiny and the pressure on the team. With five losses in a row to potential playoff teams, the Heat might look like a team that's cooked.
But they aren't. It's only March. There is time left to work things out, make changes, get momentum and forget about the current situation. There is always time. Which is why figuring the Heat are done and have no chance isn’t in the spirit of the game.
“We won’t lose confidence in ourselves,” James said. “We’ve got to make sure no one else loses confidence.”