Commentary

Heat still searching for answers

While Boston Celtics surge, Miami Heat still trying to figure out their rotations

Originally Published: April 9, 2012
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- It was the type of game where both teams could walk away with some sense of satisfaction.

The Celtics' fulfillment comes from a more obvious place. They had their best shooting night of the season on Miami's once-daunting home court, put up 115 points in a second straight win against the Heat and continue to make their climb up the playoff standings, now sitting just two games behind the Pacers for the third seed in the East.

The Heat? Well, their gratification is more manufactured.

You can look at the box score and see that, offensively at least, this was probably one of the better games the team has played this season -- certainly their best offensive performance in April.

The 44.8 percent shooting could be better, but Miami outscored Boston 52-24 in the paint, took two more free throws than Boston, hit a respectable 44.4 percent in making eight 3-pointers and committed only seven turnovers.

So naturally, the Heat can merely tip their collective caps to the Celtics for a red-hot shooting performance and assume it won't be like that every time the two teams play, and possibly never again.

But if that's where the Heat truly leave it -- if that's what the players actually believe as opposed to merely offering the words to soothe any potential outside panic -- then this group is deluding itself.

The truth is, the Heat are very much in experimental mode at the moment, with just 10 games remaining in their regular season.

Erik Spoelstra made some difficult decisions (or easy decisions, if you consider how the team had been playing) about his rotation after -- surprise! -- the Celtics destroyed his team on a very serious April Fools' Day in Boston.

It was after that game, when the Celtics dominated defensively, that Spoelstra changed his starting center from Joel Anthony to Ronny Turiaf.

It was soon after when it became painfully obvious that reserve point guard Norris Cole wasn't going to recover from his extended rookie slump, which had Spoelstra toying with playing another rookie, Terrel Harris.

Combine that with the return of Mike Miller from an ankle injury that cost him 14 games, and Spoelstra had something of a reconstruction on his hands.

Tuesday against the Celtics, it became perfectly clear that these significant adjustments this late in the season were going to be problematic.

The Heat are currently the anti-Spurs.

While San Antonio is so comfortable with its level of play that Gregg Popovich can rest one or all of his three best players in any given game, the Heat are in full figure-it-out mode and running out of time to do so.

In fact, even Boston is the picture of stability compared to the Heat right now, which is quite the statement considering how many lineup adjustments the Celtics have made all season.

Where it became painfully obvious that the Heat have plenty of work ahead is defensively against the ever-consistent Celtics execution.

Most of the combinations Spoelstra played were either entirely new -- like the all 6-foot-8 lineup of LeBron James, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller and James Jones -- or hadn't played together much of late.

One lineup in particular, which coincided with the only 2 minutes, 58 seconds Cole was given an opportunity to play, resulted in an 11-0 Celtics run that turned a tie game into a 33-22 Boston lead after one quarter. The Heat outscored the Celtics by three points the rest of the way.

And while the Celtics did hit a handful of difficult shots in what became a relatively tight game down the stretch, they warmed up by hitting wide-open jumper after wide-open jumper against a constantly confused and entirely unfamiliar Heat defense.

"All we kept saying was, 'take what they gave us,'" Doc Rivers said.

Well, the Heat gave the Celtics a lot. Pretty much anything Boston wanted, actually.

Granted, Rajon Rondo was uncharacteristically taking and making jump shots; he was left entirely uncovered, by design, and every time he took one of them. But too many other times the Heat was either communicating poorly or just not rotating the way we've grown accustomed to seeing one of the best defensive teams in the league rotate.

Among the most obvious mistakes was on a simple baseline pick-and-roll late in the third quarter, when both Miller and James ran to Rondo 22 feet from the basket while leaving Brandon Bass wide open for his pet 15-foot baseline shot.

And in what could've been considered the clinching basket, Chris Bosh switched onto Paul Pierce, which ideally would never happen, and Pierce drove past Bosh for a layup.

Spoelstra didn't want to go that route when explaining his team's struggles. Instead, he said his team is "being made to be uncomfortable right now."

"From what I know about this group, when we are uncomfortable ... that pushes us to make the necessary steps as a team," he said.

James had no sign of dejection on his face when he bounced out of the trainer's room and answered questions in surprisingly good spirits.

"I don't feel as bad tonight," James said in comparing Tuesday's loss to the April 1 loss in Boston. "Those guys were locked in. Not only did they make open shots, but they made all the contested shots. They are the best jump-shooting team in the league."

While it is true the Celtics, according to Synergy Sports, shoot the highest percentage in the league on jump shots, it has never been the Heat way to simply accept a team hitting shots -- especially when so many of them were uncontested.

Perhaps the more realistic way to look at the Heat's current position was offered by Jones.

"Right now we're in the mode where we're figuring out our depth," he said. "You have to get to your game."

The shifting lineups is not only affecting communication, but it forces James to defend power forwards more, and forces Dwyane Wade to defend point guards more often.

All of it has been done before by these guys, both this season and last.

But reintroducing all of these elements with such little time left in the season is forcing the Heat to adjust quickly.

It's unlikely their seeding means much to them, because falling to the No. 3 seed is a relative impossibility, and last year the Heat beat the Bulls despite lacking home-court advantage.

So figuring themselves out -- getting to the carefree place the Celtics are in at the moment -- is what matters to this group right now.

And that means admitting there's a problem, as opposed to simply patting the Celtics on the back on the way out of AmericanAirlines Arena.

"We'll be ready for the playoffs on the 28th," Wade said in a familiar, defiant tone. "Right now, just like we have been all year, we're preparing for the playoffs.

"This is a championship-caliber team. We went to the Finals last year so we know what it takes."

Israel Gutierrez covers the NBA for ESPN.com.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.