NEW ORLEANS -- The fact that LeBron James took his normal window seat in the left corner, alone in his own thoughts, at the very back of the team bus late Saturday night wasn't the least bit surprising.
It was when and how he did it that told the story of another frustrating night for the Miami Heat.
Even on a freshly sprained right ankle to go with his lingering sore back, James was the first player to leave the Heat’s postgame locker room, head through security checkout and onto the transport waiting in the docks of the Smoothie King Center.
His head buried beneath the hood of his sweatshirt, James sat for what would be about a 30-minute wait as the last members of the team dragged themselves out of the arena after the Heat stumbled through a 105-95 loss to the lottery-bound New Orleans Pelicans.
The scene was symbolic.
James is hurt, tired and frustrated as he waits on this team to get its act back together. And after seeing the two-time defending champion Heat lose for the seventh time in their past 11 games at a time when they’re supposed to be gearing up for another postseason run, enough was enough.
“It’s too many excuses; everything is an excuse,” James bristled as he rushed through his postgame session with reporters before fleeing the locker-room scene as other Miami players were still showering. “We do something wrong, it’s an excuse. We don’t get a stop, it’s an excuse. We turn the ball over, it’s an excuse. What we’re doing right now ain’t good enough.”
For the second time this week, and 12th time this season, the Heat (47-21) found themselves staggering back to their feet after being decked by a team with a losing record. After scoring 43 points and tweaking his back during Monday’s four-point win in Cleveland, James figured he could take a rare night off and rest for just the third time this season.
The Heat then lost the next night for the second time this season to Boston, another lottery-bound team in the midst of a rebuilding process. After that setback, Dwyane Wade said the “jury’s still out” on this Miami team; Chris Bosh told reporters “it’s not troubling, it’s upsetting” how the Heat were playing -- and that they were running out of time to get things turned around before the playoffs.
Miami retreated home and caught a huge break against Memphis when center Marc Gasol left the game in the second half with an ankle injury. The Heat ended up escaping with a 91-86 victory before catching a plane to New Orleans for their fourth game in five nights.
Yes, that represents a particularly tough stretch for any team trying to conserve what it can for the postseason. And that’s especially the case for the Heat, who have played the equivalent of four NBA seasons over a three-year span that has included three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals.
But as James repeated over and over in short-burst answers Saturday ...
“That’s an excuse, too."
He was then asked about the Heat’s constantly changing lineups; Saturday's was Miami's 18th different starting group this season as Wade and Greg Oden sat out to rest their knees.
“We’ve always had lineup changes,” James said of the Heat, which went through 15 different sets of starters during last season’s 66-win campaign. “Guys who are on the floor need to produce. It’s that simple. It’s very frustrating. We’re all frustrated. We just got to all get on the same page. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’ve got to figure it out.”
The Heat aren’t accustomed to these desperate and surly searches for answers. The locker room Saturday had a unique feel to it, something along the lines of frustration this team hadn’t experienced since early in the first season of the James, Wade and Bosh experience, in 2010-11.
New Orleans on Saturday night felt a lot like Dallas that night in November 2010 -- Bumpgate night -- when James and coach Erik Spoelstra forcefully ran into one another during a heated timeout on the way to a loss to the Mavericks dropped the Heat to 9-8. That meltdown led to an extended, closed-door session among players. Even the coaching staff was locked out of the postgame locker room that night.
But there’s one key difference this time around: communication.
It flowed freely and intensely that night in Dallas.
According to Bosh, that’s hardly been the case during this current tumultuous stretch.
“I haven’t heard nothing, just nothing,” said Bosh, who took his routinely constructive criticism to a new depth Saturday. “We just show up and do whatever. [After] a loss, nobody’s upset. [After] a win, nobody’s happy. There’s no passion. There’s nothing. If you’re frustrated, say you’re frustrated. Give reasons for that. We just need some dialogue around here. We’ve been keeping things in for a whole season now. And we’re running out of time. We need to let it out and have some urgency.”
Bosh responded to his own challenge.
“We’re going to have to draw the line in the sand somewhere,” he said. “We don’t talk about it. We’re not expressing ourselves in the locker room or on the court. So I figure I’ll be the first one to say it. We suck. And if we don’t play better, we’ll be watching the championship at home.”
If the Heat were as defensive and emotionally charged on the court Saturday as they were in the locker room, the result might have been different. Instead, second-year star Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans took a bunch of random Pelicans -- players many casual fans likely don’t know or might have forgotten were in the league -- and hammered Miami. And New Orleans (29-40) did it with three of their best teammates -- Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson -- sidelined by injuries.
Davis finished with 30 points and 11 rebounds -- both game highs -- plus three steals and two franchise records. He became the first New Orleans player to score at least 28 points in eight consecutive games, and also the first to post at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in three straight contests.
Some of Bosh’s words might ring hollow because Davis was largely the responsibility of the Heat’s front-line players. But Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen had no answers for his youth, athleticism and skill level. And Davis’ versatility would have created a matchup nightmare for the unavailable Oden.
About 90 minutes before the game, Spoelstra said Davis would soon be a league MVP candidate.
“I probably shouldn’t have said that,” Spoelstra quipped after watching Davis underline the endorsement with his performance. “He’s a very good, young player that can do virtually everything on the basketball court. His age belies his game.”
When Davis wasn’t outworking the Heat’s big men, Evans was driving past Miami’s guards and either scoring in the lane or setting up teammates for easy baskets. Tack on another team that shot at least 50 percent from the field against Miami’s once-vaunted defense.
Seven of Miami’s past 11 opponents have shot between 49 and 52 percent from the field. And add another opponent that shot well above its season average from the 3-point line -- the Pelicans shot 51.2 percent from the field overall, and 41.2 from beyond the arc.
James was long gone from the locker room by the time those numbers were presented. Bosh, at least, wasn’t done with his assessment.
“No offense to the Pelicans, but we’ve been losing to sub-.500 teams for a month now,” Bosh said. “Defensively, we can’t stop a nosebleed. This team got everything they wanted. The only person that’s going to help us out of this is the person staring back in the mirror. Until we recognize that ... we’ll keep getting the same result. We need that competitive drive back. We don’t have it.”
Somewhere between Bosh’s extensive, brutally honest evaluation and the triteness from James that spoke volumes stands a stinging, sobering reality for the Heat.
With 14 games remaining, they’re a team headed toward the playoffs playing their worst basketball of the season. The communication and accountability have slipped. The losses have piled up. The excuses, as James points out, are many.
The productive reactions are few.
The Heat headed home for Monday’s game against Portland, and a marquee showdown awaits Wednesday in Indiana against the Pacers, who hold a three-game lead over Miami for the No. 1 seed in the East.
James didn’t want to address the extent of the ankle injury he suffered in the game when he inadvertently stepped on Andersen's foot while driving to the basket. James crumpled to the court near the baseline and had to be helped back to the Heat bench.
He refused to come out of the game and closed with 25 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.
“Put another injury on my list ... it is what it is,” James said dismissively. “I’m not using it as an excuse. I don’t have time to take off. We don’t have time to take off.”
James then took off in a different way.
Straight toward the bus.