Wake-up call blares for Miami Heat

Defending champs can get serious after losing to Brooklyn's 3-point party

Originally Published: May 11, 2014
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The Miami Heat finally joined the rest of their peers in the playoffs.

Of the other seven teams still alive in the postseason, all have trailed in a series at one time or another. Five of them have already survived a Game 7. All have endured a few doses of self-doubt, at least a few days of criticism and, in some cases, even some booing by the home crowd.

The Heat have lived three weeks outside that reality, happily aware of, but still enjoying, their bubble, going along without a loss or even a hint of adversity.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce and LeBron James
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonIt was just a matter of time before Paul Pierce and the Nets pulled LeBron into playoff reality.

Almost predictably, it burst on Saturday night when the Brooklyn Nets faced a quasi-elimination game on their home floor and responded by shoving back with a 104-90 victory. No NBA team in history has ever come back from down 0-3 to win a series, so the Nets knew if they didn't win Game 3 they were done.

As for the Heat, well, they figured they'd lose eventually and it would lead to them getting serious. It's sort of standard operating procedure: Since the 2012 NBA Finals, the Heat have followed all eight of their playoff losses with victories.

"It has felt like the playoffs and it hasn't," Chris Bosh said of the past few weeks. "We didn't have that desperation in this game, but usually, a loss will do that and you'll come back with it."

Brooklyn did play with some desperation, getting the sort of excellent shooting and role-player breakouts that most teams can expect in a home game at least once in every series. As is also expected, the word "aggressive" was bandied around afterward, the winners congratulating themselves for being it and the defeated lamenting its absence.

To aid in the escalation toward the series actually gaining legitimacy, there was a little shoving between Ray Allen and Alan Anderson after a minor tangle. LeBron James and Paul Pierce had some postgame barking from across the floor.

"It's a typical playoff game where a team down 0-2 comes and plays very inspired basketball and the team up 2-0 does not match that effort," the Heat's Shane Battier said in his typical way of summing up situations with nice perspective. "That's typical."

There was some expectation this would be an edgy series because of the long history between James and Pierce and Kevin Garnett and because the Nets were 4-0 against Miami during the regular season. Whether it ends up playing out in this fashion likely won't be known until after Monday's Game 4, in which the assumption is the Heat will retaliate and the Nets' true staying power will be revealed.

It seems only then will it be known whether this series will shake the "typical" tag -- typical being just fine with the Heat because they typically win a series. They've won seven consecutive playoff series against Eastern Conference teams over the past four seasons, for example.

Saturday, the Nets took advantage of the Heat's game plan to stick close to the paint on defense by drilling a playoff franchise-record 15 3-pointers on 25 attempts. They were also treated to the best playoff game of Andray Blatche's career, a tidy double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. Overall, the Nets' role players outplayed the Heat's, and that was the difference in the game.

James had 28 points -- his most in the series thus far -- but to illustrate where his mind was, he took just six shots combined in the second and third quarters after scoring 16 points on seven shots in the first quarter.

"Obviously, I felt great in the first quarter," James said, "Obviously, [the ball] didn't tend to find my hand after that."

Had this been a truly meaningful game, you can safely assume James would had made sure it found his hands and it wouldn't come down to role players. But he was perhaps a little too content to let the game play out instead of imposing his preference. Same went for Dwyane Wade, who didn't play poorly and scored 20 points, but he, too, didn't show much willingness to wrest control away from the Nets.

There are times when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra surely wants to stomp around to make a point during the long season, especially when he can sniff a loss coming, as he did leading into Game 3. But he learned long ago that isn't the best way to go with this team.

He sounded the alarm that the Heat had gotten away with languishing a little in Game 2 and then bailing themselves out with a great fourth quarter. The best method with the Heat is often to just let them have a short-term failure and then reprise the approach to more willing ears.

"We said coming in if we played a similar game that we did in Game 2, we wouldn't be able to win it on the road. "It was not a consistent effort in Game 2. It was very similar tonight, and the shots didn't go in and you see the results change."

It's a hard sell when it's been 11 months since a team has tasted a playoff defeat. The Heat had been living on an eight-game playoff winning streak dating back to last postseason's Finals. That can dull the warnings.

Naturally, there will be some modifications before Game 4. From the Heat's perspective, they might want to keep a closer eye on Mirza Teletovic. He's 14-of-24 on 3-pointers in his past four games against the Heat, dating to the final regular-season meeting in Miami in April. After making six 3-pointers in Game 2, he came back with four more in Game 3.

Spoelstra might also encourage his players to better mentally prepare for the environment in Brooklyn, which doesn't have a great playoff reputation yet, but the Heat have made four visits to the building, including the preseason, and have lost all four times.

More than anything, though, the time has come for the Heat to stop living the outlier life and join the playoff party. They've been putting this off for months now. Some delaying circumstances have worked out nicely for them -- some earned on their own and some just fortune -- but they must get into the truly hard work of trying to repeat as champs again. Their playoffs have started.

"This is a series now," James said. "I've been part of a lot of series. I understand it's never won in two games."

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