And for that reason, Dwyane Wade tempers his enthusiasm and carefully measures his words when analyzing an encouraging start to his playoffs after missing 28 regular-season games for rest and recovery from chronic knee soreness and an assortment of other injuries.
“I’m not going to look too far ahead,” Wade said. “I’m just going to continue to take it day to day and game by game in these playoffs, knowing that things could change from each game. The playoff games are very hard on the body, so we'll see. I’m feeling good right now, and I just want it to continue.”
Considering what he’s been through, it’s easy to see why Wade isn't taking anything for granted these days. There still isn't a day that passes when the Heat’s star shooting guard doesn't feel soreness or some sense of pain in his body. But at least he’s not injured and forced out of action.
And there’s a lot the Heat will need to do to improve their overall performance through the first two games of the playoffs if they're serious about pursuing a third straight NBA championship. But Miami is also the only team in the postseason to hold serve at home with a 2-0 series lead entering Game 3, against Charlotte on Saturday.
Those factors essentially make Wade, 32, a microcosm of his team -- good enough to ultimately get the job done, despite some uncomfortable moments, yet still needing plenty of improvement to tackle what’s expected to be much tougher challenges ahead.
Through the first two games against the Bobcats, Wade is shooting 53.8 percent from the field and averaging 19 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 34 minutes. This comes on the heels of Wade using the final three games of the regular season to tune up for the playoffs after missing nine consecutive games with a strained left hamstring. The minutes restriction Wade had the final week of the season was lifted for the playoffs, and he seems to have handled additional playing time without any issues.
Two factors have helped to make this a seamless transition.
First, an accommodating schedule gave the Heat an extra day to start Game 1 last Sunday instead of Saturday, and there is a two-day gap between Games 2 and 3. It means Miami was among the teams to get the maximum amount of time off through the first full week of the playoffs. That’s huge for Wade and an older Heat team that relies on several players who were banged up at the end of the season.
Secondly, the Bobcats don't have many wing players at Wade’s position who pose a significant threat offensively, although Charlotte has shown plenty of resolve and toughness to threaten Miami in both games. While Bobcats center and leading scorer Al Jefferson has limped through a demoralizing plantar fascia foot injury to average 18 points and 11.5 rebounds, Wade has tried to stabilize his overall game and offer the balance the Heat will ultimately need to reach their full postseason potential.
Wade continues to preach patience, but the initial progress has been promising.
He made 10 of his 16 shots and had 23 points and five assists in Miami’s 99-88 victory in Game 1. On Wednesday, Wade struggled with his shot early but scored eight of his 15 points in the fourth quarter to help the Heat escape with a 101-97 win. His biggest play of the series came on the defensive end, with a steal and a made free throw in the final three seconds to secure the Game 2 win.
After Sunday’s game, Heat forward LeBron James was asked if Wade looked “right” so far.
“He couldn't look any righter,” James quipped. “He’s getting to the rim, working in transition. He’s had his step-back [jumper] on. He is feeling good.”
Aside from James, who is shooting 57.6 percent and averaging 29.5 points and 7.5 rebounds, there has been little consistency from other Heat players early in this series. But James pointed out that Wade has shown hints of getting every aspect of his game back in order. Wade has revealed the lift in his legs that has allowed him to finish drives with dunks. There has been the balance in the post-up game that has led to midrange scores or trips to the free throw line. And there was no hesitation from beyond the arc.
“Whatever the game calls for, I’m just playing,” Wade said. “I’m not really thinking. If I have a shot, I’ll shoot it. I put in a lot of work on my game overall. I've been putting some work in on my 3-point game. I like to have that weapon in the playoffs, even more than the regular season.”
This time a year ago, Wade was dragging two damaged knees through the Heat’s first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. A series of deep bone bruises on his right knee sustained during Miami’s 27-game winning streak last spring caused Wade to miss games down the stretch. He sat out of Game 4 against Milwaukee as the Heat completed the series sweep.
The Heat made it a high priority to preserve Wade’s health as much as possible this season, which led to him missing more than a third of the team’s games and 21 different starting lineups. Miami finished 54-28, which was its worst record of any season since James, Wade and Chris Bosh became teammates in 2010.
But if Wade can maintain the level of play he’s shown so far, few will remember the sacrifices, frustrations and fatigue the team endured to get to this moment.
Wade also has his personal trainer, Tim Grover, with him daily throughout the postseason to help him maintain the level of play he's shown from the start.
“This is a time of the year that I love,” Wade said. “Obviously, we talked all year about, ‘Are you feeling good, aren't you feeling good?’ Or whatever the case may be. Obviously, I'd love to be healthy at this time of the year so I could be the player and do the things I want to do in the playoffs that I wasn't able to do most of the playoffs last year. But this is just that time of the year where it’s time to step up and make things happen. And that’s what I love to do.”
It's only been two playoff games.
But if it works out for the Heat, it might be a sign of what's to come from Wade over the next two months.
MIAMI -- Under normal playoff circumstances, you’d want to say the two-time defending NBA champions shouldn’t need a game-saving defensive play from Dwyane Wade to beat a Charlotte Bobcats team with a hobbled star.
You’d want to say the Miami Heat, despite holding a 2-0 series lead heading to Charlotte for Game 3 on Saturday, have only some fine-tuning to do if this three-peat thing is going to happen.
But these aren’t your normal playoffs. At least not based on the early results.
To judge the Heat too harshly would be to ignore the nuttiness that’s happening in the seven other series.
So yes, Miami held a 14-point lead midway through the fourth quarter and still needed a Wade steal to avoid overtime. And yes, the Bobcats had 11 more offensive rebounds and 21 more shot attempts than the Heat to give what felt like a lopsided game an exciting finish.
But this Heat team is more thankful than concerned. Thankful that a “tough hombre” like Al Jefferson and his torn plantar fascia didn’t do even more damage than 18 points and 13 rebounds in 40 painful minutes. Thankful that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s breakthrough game didn’t translate into more than 22 points and 10 boards. Thankful that LeBron James experienced little more than a scare after a midair collision with Josh McRoberts late in the contest.
This wasn’t about showing off a championship-level readiness in their second playoff game.
This was about exiting their home arena leading a best-of-seven series 2-0 -- something no other team in these playoffs can say.
“I mean, it’s good,” said Chris Bosh, who hit four 3-pointers en route to a 20-point night. “That’s what the playoffs are about, being in situations [like that]. No matter how we got there, no matter what happened, you have to get a stop. That’s what it’s about.”
The way this game started, it appeared the Cats couldn’t possibly make the game interesting. Unless, of course, you find bad basketball interesting.
In that case, it might’ve entertained you when McRoberts went between his legs on the dribble to skip through a double team, only to get swatted easily at the rim by Bosh. Or when Cody Zeller threw a simple inbounds pass kind of close to Luke Ridnour, but not close enough where he could actually catch it before it flew out of bounds. Or when Zeller tried two pump fakes under the rim, only to finally rise up and find Chris Andersen was fooled by none of it and was ready to collect one of his two blocks.
Charlotte committed 12 of its 15 turnovers in the first half, and all of it was happening while a damaged Jefferson was dragging his left foot and apparently turning a partially torn plantar fascia into a fully torn one.
“I just ran down the court and I felt it basically rip all the way through,” Jefferson said of his first-half visit to the locker room. “It came up midway through my foot and it was just pain. Doctor said there was nothing more I could do to hurt it, so I just had to play through it.”
He did, of course, for 40 minutes. And he managed 18 points on 23 shots and 13 rebounds (five offensive). It’s nowhere near the efficient production we’ve grown accustomed to from Jefferson in a Bobcats uniform. But it was more than most would offer in his position.
And it had Heat coach Erik Spoelstra breaking out the Spanglish to help describe Charlotte’s go-to guy.
“He’s a tough hombre,” Spoelstra said, recognizing the language switch would give his comment a little more je ne sais quoi.
But describing how Jefferson was able to produce despite his coach, Steve Clifford, saying “he has no mobility, basically,” might even be easier than explaining how the Bobcats nearly stole the game anyway.
Kidd-Gilchrist was 9-of-13 from the floor without any discernible offensive skill. Kemba Walker needed 18 shots for his 16 points. Gary Neal came off the bench to miss seven of eight shots in 14 minutes.
Really, this Charlotte performance was pretty much the embodiment of grinding away.
“We just played five-man basketball, in which we were getting multiple pick-and-rolls,” Clifford said. “That’s how we tried to play when [Jefferson] was injured earlier in the year. It gives Kemba good chances to attack, and it gets McRoberts in a decision-making role a lot.”
One of McRoberts’ final decisions brought more of a scare to Miami than any of his eight points or four assists.
It was his choice to meet an attacking LeBron in midair with 50 seconds remaining in a one-possession game.
James had a relatively clear path to the basket, took off for what would’ve been an angry finish, but was met by a McRoberts elbow and forearm that sent him to the floor in discomfort.
There was no flagrant foul called, but the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd responded angrily when a replay showed the contact on replay.
“We just kind of got caught up in the air there,” McRoberts said. “I have to see it, but for me, real time, he was coming pretty fast down the lane. He’s a real strong guy and I was just trying to stop him from first getting the shot up. I think I just got caught up in the air. It looked worse than it was.”
He was right about how it looked. And frankly, there really wasn’t a good option for McRoberts at that point. He couldn’t let LeBron finish easily, given that his team was down only three.
He couldn’t extend his arms outward, because it could’ve been even worse. And he couldn’t really put his arms straight up because (A) it all happened too quickly, and (B) he would’ve been run over, and there had to be some sense of self-preservation there.
So his instincts said bend both his arms and try to absorb the contact while keeping LeBron from finishing.
It’s possible the league reviews that, however, and assesses a flagrant foul after the fact if the contact was deemed unnecessary.
“An elbow to the throat, that was the contact,” James said when asked where he was hit. “It’s not a very good feeling. I was just trying to catch my breath and hopefully it wasn’t too bad. I was concentrating on trying to hit free throws.”
Now, the concentration shifts to taking a game in Charlotte. Because predictability, which usually defines the first couple rounds of the NBA playoffs, was apparently left behind in the David Stern era.
And the Heat would prefer to leave the surprising results to the rest of the playoff bracket.
LeBron didn't spend as much time trying to settle into his comfort zone as he did in Game 1. Instead, James was aggressive from the start on both ends. He attacked Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the paint and shot through passing lanes for steals. He bailed Miami out of a sluggish overall performance.
Wade anticipated there would be some up-and-down moments throughout these playoffs. Two games in, he's experienced both ends of the spectrum. After scoring 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting in the opener, he struggled with his shot most of Game 2. A few solid plays, including a game-sealing steal in the final seconds, boosted his night.
After seeing his production dip each month since January, Bosh vowed to follow up his lackluster output in Game 1 with a bit more punch on Wednesday. Early foul trouble led to a slow start, but Bosh maintained his steady hand from 3-point range. His jumper, in addition to some timely blocks on defense got the Heat through.
The box score won't quite reveal the kind of impact Birdman had on this game. Charlotte made matters much tougher than expected on the Heat. And Andersen provided the source of what little energy his team played with Wednesday. Banging with Big Al Jefferson, rebounding and protecting the paint were all in a night's work.
The Bobcats head home down 0-2 in the series, but they've shown tremendous heart and resolve. Jefferson pushed through a debilitating foot injury for a second game to give Miami headaches. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had a confidence-boosting performance against James. They're overmatched but certainly far from overwhelmed.
Eager to take advantage of Al Jefferson hobbling on an injured foot, Bosh rocked Charlotte’s big man off balance with a shot fake on the perimeter, then zipped into the lane for an uncontested dunk midway through the Heat’s playoff opener Sunday against the Bobcats.
There was only one problem: Doink.
The ball banged off the back of the rim and bounced 20 feet into the air.
“I tried to tear the rim off and dunked it too hard,” Bosh recalled Tuesday as he summed up the latest mind-boggling moment of what’s personally been a difficult stretch. “I’m like, ‘Damn, how in the world did I miss that?’”
Bosh has asked himself that question a lot recently. And he’s hoping those sorts of inquiries start to come less frequently when the Heat try to take a 2-0 lead in the series Wednesday. Below the surface of the Heat’s 99-88 victory in Game 1 was another lackluster performance from the Heat’s starting center.
With what appeared to be a clear opportunity to take advantage of a Charlotte front line weakened by a severely limited Jefferson, who injured his left foot in the first quarter, Bosh instead blew a dunk attempt and squandered a chance to establish himself as a consistent force for the Heat.
Bosh missed nine of 13 shots, attempted four free throws, and finished with 13 points and four rebounds in 34 minutes. It was the continuation of what’s been a disturbing dip in production for the Heat’s third-leading scorer and most dynamic big man. Bosh has seen his scoring and shooting percentage drop each month since January, falling from a season-high 18.6 points on 55.1 percent shooting for the month of January to 14.1 points on 48.2 percent shooting in April (not counting the two-game month of October).
The biggest difference has been Bosh’s 3-point shooting, which was at a season-low 25.9 percent this month entering the playoffs. And his near season-low 5.3 rebounds in April (regular season) haven’t strengthened his case.
The two-time defending champion Heat will most likely be able to survive the first round of the playoffs even if Bosh doesn’t reverse his recent trend in this series. But Bosh, a nine-time All-Star, is aware of his predicament and spent extra time after Tuesday’s practice working on several aspects of his game with assistant coach David Fizdale.
“When you’re losing and you’re not playing well, it’s a little tougher,” Bosh said. “When you’re winning and you’re not playing as well, it’s like I don’t have to change anything drastically. I just have to make sure I really look at what I’m doing and see what I can do. When you’re losing, you’re just balling up the piece of paper [stat sheet] and throwing it in the trash, going back to the drawing board.”
Overall in the regular season, Bosh averaged 16.2 points, his lowest scoring average since his rookie season, and his 6.6 rebounds were also the fewest of his 11-year career. One stunning aspect of Bosh’s numbers this season is that it seems he was unable to take better advantage of the 28 games Dwyane Wade missed to rest or recover from various injuries.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra suggested there are a number of factors that have contributed to the inconsistent play, ranging from the team having to use 21 different starting lineups to Bosh taking on more defensive responsibilities on the perimeter this season than he’s been accustomed to in the past. But Spoelstra also said he refuses to get too caught up in the numbers game with Bosh.
Spoelstra pointed to the defensive versatility Bosh showed in Game 1 by defending speedy Bobcats guard Kemba Walker and then switching back to Jefferson on pick-and-roll sets.
“I know everybody wants to just look at the points and the shots and the field goal percentage, but he was an incredible anchor for us defensively,” Spoelstra said of Bosh. “They run 40-plus pick-and-rolls with Walker. Chris is going to be involved in 25 of those or more. You have to have bigs who can be able to cover ground and then get back and battle with Jefferson. It’s not a one-on-one battle. So he was outstanding with his multiple efforts. Offensively, yes, he has to continue to strike that balance to be able to facilitate for us, space the floor for us and be aggressive. He’ll figure it out. I’m not concerned.”
Spoelstra said he believes Bosh will settle back into a comfortable rhythm offensively as the Heat get to a more standard and consistent rotation in the playoffs. But that wasn’t necessarily the case in Game 1, because Miami extended its rotation and used 10 players by the midway point of the second quarter. Continuity and consistency have been obstacles for both Bosh and the Heat the past two months.
Miami went 11-14 over its final 25 games of the regular season, with Wade missing nearly half those contests and both Bosh and James sitting out the final week of the season to regroup for the playoffs. During that stretch, Bosh had just one game since Feb. 23 of at least 10 rebounds, and just one game of 20 or more points since March 18.
LeBron James isn't worried too much about Bosh. James, who had 27 points and nine rebounds Sunday, said it took some time to work himself back into a rhythm after missing a week of games. James also said it was encouraging to see Wade, who had 23 points in 34 minutes, respond with his best game in nearly a month after recently overcoming a hamstring injury.
Now, it’s only a matter of time for Bosh.
“He’s missed some pretty good looks the last couple of games and we look forward to getting him back in rhythm,” James said Tuesday after standing courtside to watch Bosh put in the extra work after practice. “Obviously, when C.B. is playing on top of his game -- D-Wade has looked like he’s back and I’m going to try to do my part to help us win -- then we’ll be even more dynamic and even more dangerous.”
Or at least dangerous enough to complete an uncontested dunk.
“I think I’m in a good place,” Bosh said. “I’m getting the shots that I want. I’m involved in the offense. It’s just on me to make them. Our last game, I had some misses. I missed a dunk, missed a couple of easy ones. But that’s going to happen with the change of pace a little bit. I won’t worry about that. But like I say, balance is balance. So there will be a [stretch] where I can’t miss.”
Bosh said it’s in times like these when he relishes the off days and moments away from the court, when he takes his mind completely off the game and focuses on family and other important aspects of his life. He plays games with his young children or sneaks away to a movie for a much-needed diversion.
Then, it’s back to work. He understands and accepts the highs and lows that come with his existence in Miami. One such high came in last year’s NBA Finals, when he grabbed the most important rebound of the season and passed to Ray Allen for a miraculous 3-pointer that helped win Game 6 against the Spurs. But in Game 7, Bosh went scoreless, though the Heat still won and claimed their second straight title. His rough night on offense didn’t exactly ruin the taste of postgame champagne in the Heat’s locker room.
Having dealt with his own case of plantar fasciitis that knocked him out of the 2007 USA team training camp, Bosh knows what Jefferson is feeling right now as he battles through his injury. The plan for Bosh is to take advantage of Jefferson’s limited mobility and continue to attack. But the challenge is to do so without disrupting the team’s system. Bosh must find the balance between establishing himself and getting into a comfort zone, while also being patient for those opportunities.
“That’s always been my job, and it’s been difficult,” Bosh said. “But I find a way to get it done. I’m going to pick and choose my spots, get to those spots, and try to make Al work as much as possible when I’m at [center]. And when I’m at [power forward], just try to make sure we get the spacing and get to the second and third situations. And if I’m open, be aggressive and take my shots. Hopefully in Game 2, I can come out the gates swinging a little more if the ball finds me. And really establish myself early.”
MIAMI -- Arguably the biggest underdog in any series of these NBA playoffs, the Charlotte Bobcats knew they had to make the most of their shots in their first-round matchup against LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
Those shots came midway through Sunday’s game.
But they certainly weren’t the variety the Bobcats had in mind.
Instead, Charlotte big man Al Jefferson needed two injections to numb the excruciating pain in his left foot just to get his team through a 99-88 Game 1 loss to the Heat. Jefferson made his first four shots and led the Bobcats to a surprisingly comfortable lead against the sluggish Heat before he planted his foot on a cut to the basket late in the first quarter, heard something pop and felt sharp pain shoot through his leg.
Jefferson took the first of two injections immediately after he was helped to the locker room once he left the game late in the first quarter. He came back to play nine minutes in the second quarter and received another shot to kill the pain at halftime.
By the time the game was over, Jefferson had stumbled his way through a contribution of 18 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes. Then, the 6-foot-11, 290-pound franchise cornerstone limped his way out of AmericanAirlines Arena in a walking boot that was a bit too small for his size-18 foot.
Jefferson said he has been through enough injuries and recoveries in his 10-year career to accept that there are some things he’s had “to suck it up and play through” and some other times when he’s had to “just be a man and say you can’t go.”
Considering how Charlotte finished 20-9 since the All-Star break just to get to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, this qualifies as more of a case of the former than the latter for Jefferson.
“I really don’t know all the details, but it’s just something I’ve got to play through,” Jefferson said. “I don’t like needles, so it was very uncomfortable for me. I got one right when it happened. From a scale from 1-to-10, it [the pain] was probably a 6. Then I got one at halftime and it felt a lot better in the third quarter. We’re just hoping to keep it at that level going into Wednesday.”
Even with the Heat entering the postseason as vulnerable as they’ve ever been since James and Chris Bosh arrived to join Dwyane Wade in 2010, the Bobcats needed a near-perfect brand of basketball with uncharacteristically strong balance just to extend this best-of-seven series to the "if necessary" stage.
Now, they’re a team with a star player who barely has a leg on which to stand.
Jefferson will be treated through the start of Game 2 on Wednesday night for what the team believes is a case of plantar fasciitis. Between now and then, coach Steve Clifford’s job is to convince his young and feisty team that its chances to stun the Heat haven’t been downgraded from improbable to impossible.
That process started the moment he adjusted the microphone to start his postgame news conference after Charlotte dropped its 17th consecutive game to the Heat, a streak that coincides with the arrivals of James and Bosh to Miami to join Wade.
“We’re a totally different team,” Clifford said of the prospects of dealing with an ailing or diminished Jefferson for what’s left of this series. “I think if any team loses their best offensive player, they become a different team. I don’t know if there is one team in the league that is more dependent on one guy than how we are dependent on him.”
A strong case can be made that not even James has that level of burden to carry for the Heat. During a game in which James was able to pick his spots and ease his way into a 27-point performance, Wade was there to provide 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting along with five assists. The Heat went deeper than expected into a rotation that was never truly established this season. Miami used 10 players against Charlotte and got a surprising boost from seldom-used James Jones, who scored 12 off the bench.
With Jefferson barely able to change ends of the court at times during the game, the Heat used a 23-8 run that started with a 3-pointer from James at the end of the third quarter to open a 20-point lead. The Heat didn’t necessarily play well, especially early.
James and Bosh were playing for the first time in a week after sitting out the final two games of the regular season. And it was only the second time Wade shared the court with those two in nearly a month after dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that forced him out of nine consecutive games before he returned for the final three games of the season.
“I think we were all gassed in the opening minute; it felt like we hadn’t played in two weeks,” James said. “It felt like we hadn’t been out there in a long time, but the playoffs are back. We didn’t have any rhythm when we started the game, but we got it back.”
This first-round series was likely never going to be much more than a tuneup for the Heat as they begin their quest to become the first team since the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers to win three straight titles. For a half Sunday, the Bobcats proved capable of pushing the Heat for a few days.
They were on the verge of giving themselves a shot against the Heat in Game 1.
Then, amid the promise and progress, their best player took two injections to cope with the pain.
The Heat endured with balance against an underdog that will struggle this series to regain its footing.
MIAMI -- LeBron James has little interest in knowing the official human odometer reading.
But the physical and psychological wear and tear accumulated from his championship journeys with the Miami Heat certainly have added up over the years. Considering three straight runs to the NBA Finals through June, which produced consecutive titles the past two seasons, James and the Heat essentially have played the equivalent of four basketball seasons in the span of three years.
James has the championship hardware to prove it.
The scars, too.
“Obviously, I’m not 26 going into the playoffs like I was three years ago,” James said. “So as far as miles, we’ve got a lot more miles on our bodies because of how much basketball we’ve played. But I don’t feel more weight going into these playoffs than I felt last year or the year before, or the year before that.”
The Heat open their first-round playoff series against the Charlotte Bobcats in Miami on Sunday. But James and his teammates have already advanced deep into their toughest battle of the postseason.
As James suggested, the Heat are fighting off any notion they are weighed down by the task of trying to become the first team in nearly 30 years to reach the Finals four straight seasons and only the fourth franchise to win three consecutive championships.
Having finished 54-28, the Heat endured their lowest winning percentage of any season since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together in 2010. They’ve survived a seven-month grind during which nagging injuries forced Wade out of the lineup for 28 games and coach Erik Spoelstra to sort through 21 different starting lineups to fill the voids.
Now, the two-time defending champions enter the playoffs older -- six of their top nine players are in their 30s -- and arguably more vulnerable than they’ve been at any point. In addition to those factors, Miami limped into the postseason having lost 14 of their final 25 regular-season games and failed to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, which proved to be essential last season.
Yet as defiant as they’ve ever been, the Heat insist none of those potential warning signs matter.
“On the outside, there’s more doubt,” said forward Udonis Haslem, who along with Wade are the lone players who have been with the Heat since their first championship season in 2006. “Within here, we're still confident in one another. We still know what we can do. We still understand what needs to be done and we know how to get it done. From the outside looking in, people might have a different opinion.”
Those opinions range from former Chicago Bulls guard Steve Kerr suggesting earlier in the season the mental and physical fatigue from the past three years would be too much for the Heat to overcome this season to win a third straight title the way his Bulls did twice in the 1990s with Michael Jordan.
Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who starred on the last team that reached the Finals four straight years in Boston, said last month that the Heat have the perfect combination of talent and postseason experience to fight through all of the issues they’ll face along the way to their ultimate goal.
Standing between those two vantage points is a Heat team trying to maintain perspective.
Following a regular season where every decision was focused on the bigger picture, they now reach the postseason in which the collective mindset is all about taking care of the small details along the way.
“The regular season, the last part, was pretty rough on us with injuries, different lineups and just playing every other day for two months,” said Bosh, amid his least productive month of the season in April. “It was turning into a real difficult grind. But this is what you play 82 games for, and we have another opportunity to defend our title. There will be a lot more urgency. We're out of time. We can't really make many excuses or mistakes anymore. It’s easier to hold each other accountable in the playoffs.”
Having watched his team sputter down the stretch, Spoelstra was asked Saturday if he felt his team was capable of shaking off the recent struggles and reaching a consistently dominant level of play.
“There better be another level for us,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t talk about a [flipping a] switch or anything. We're grinding through the last six weeks, we were trying to figure it out and we couldn't get over that hump. But we have a clean slate right now. Our guys have a good perspective about it. They love this time of year. And that’s what I hope. I hope the competition will bring out another level in us.”
Wade subscribes to the switch-flipping theory, but only in the sense that each player should raise his individual levels of intensity and sacrifice to address the team’s larger priorities.
“It is a switch, but it ain't the switch everyone thinks it is and … flip the switch to be champions in the first game of the first round,” Wade said. “That’s impossible. Obviously, the bigger picture, we understand what we're playing for. But we have to play for today. And we have to focus on Game 1 versus the Bobcats. It’s the first team to 16 wins, and that’s a long, long way away.”
Both Wade and Bosh said there’s no reason the team should be focused on trying to “three-peat” right now, because it won't happen in the first game or series of the playoffs. But as the Heat get closer to their goal, they only expect the challenges to get tougher and the adversity to grow.
But that’s when players say they'll rely on the perseverance shown in previous tough spots in the playoffs. Since losing to Dallas in the 2011 Finals, the Heat have fought back from the brink of elimination to win titles in each of the last two postseasons. That resume includes winning Game 6 of the 2012 conference finals in Boston after trailing 3-2. Last summer, Miami won Games 6 and 7 at home after falling behind 3-2 to San Antonio in the Finals.
“The NBA is getting tougher, but I think every year, this team has, as well,” Wade said. “For what we've been able to overcome as a group, we've gotten mentally tough. We've built that. We've built those habits. And they will be there. We've got to pull from them at times, but hopefully not too many times.”
James has drawn a bit of additional inspiration entering the postseason from watching an ESPN documentary on the Detroit Pistons’ "Bad Boys" teams that won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. As James watched how the Pistons went to the Finals three straight seasons but struggled to get there a fourth time, he turned to his wife, Savannah, and nodded toward the television.
“Who does that sound like?” James asked. “Sounds just like us. I know exactly what they're going through. We've been through so many battles, and every year is different.”
Meanwhile, Wade spent that same recent night watching the season finale of "Scandal," a hit TV series predicated on thriving through extreme measures of crisis management.
Sounds a bit like the Heat, too.
In the end, the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Miami Heat 100-87 on the home floor of the defending champions. But both teams got what they wanted in the season finale.
For the Heat, walking away from the regular season unscathed was the ultimate objective at the end of the 82-game slog. The chase for the No. 1 seed never materialized into much of a chase. Even with the door still open to get the East’s top seed over the Indiana Pacers earlier in the week, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra elected to rest LeBron James and Chris Bosh for the final two games of the regular season.
One door closes, another opens. After finishing the regular season with a 54-28 record -- the worst final record of Miami’s Big Three era -- Heat’s three-peat quest continues with the seventh-seeded Charlotte Bobcats coming into town for Game 1 on Sunday afternoon.
The Heat probably could have ended on a higher note, but James and Bosh did not play on Wednesday night in the name of rest. Dwyane Wade gave it a go for the third consecutive game after a nine-game layoff dealing with a sore hamstring. And after 23 uneven minutes, Wade came away pleased with not just his Wednesday performance, but the team’s months-long maintenance program.
“I did what I wanted to do,” Wade said. “I’m happy going into the postseason. [My health] is a lot better than going into the playoffs last season.”
Getting Wade some playing time without aggravating an injury? That was atop the Heat’s priority list on Wednesday; the game result did not matter. Next on the priority list was making sure that Greg Oden could return to the floor without any hiccups after missing two and a half weeks with back issues and a stomach bug. After 13 minutes of action, they checked that off the list as well.
The third objective was less serious: allowing Shane Battier to reach a career milestone of 30,000 regular-season minutes. Battier joked with Spoelstra at the morning shootaround that he needed to play a season-high 36 minutes in his final regular season game in order to reach 30,000 for his career.
Spoelstra laughed it off in the morning, but by the evening, he ran out of bodies at the end of the bench. James, Bosh, Rashard Lewis and Chris Andersen all got the night off and Michael Beasley turned his right ankle in the third quarter and had to leave the game.
At that point, Battier checked in with the scorer’s table to see how many minutes he needed until 30,000.
“Only six?” Battier laughed as he turned to walk onto the court. “I’ve come this far, can’t turn back now.”
Battier ended up playing 39 minutes -- three more than he needed -- and finished with a trio of 3-pointers.
“Once I sniffed it, it was like a dog to a T-bone,” Battier said. “I had to go get it.”
After the loss, Battier, who’s expected to retire this summer, marched into the locker room, fully-equipped with jokes.
“I came in the league averaging about 40 minutes a game,” Battier announced to his teammates, “And in my last game I played about 40 minutes.”
Wade finished with 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting, but never really got into the flow against a surprisingly pesky 76ers defense. Actually, the 76ers never trailed after midway through the second quarter and oddly enough ended up taking the season-series 2-1 over the Heat.
The 76ers could have mailed it in and no one would have blamed them with nothing tangible in the standings to gain. But instead, the 76ers gave everything they had after an arduous season that saw them tie an NBA record for most losses in a row (26). It was just one win, but it provided a morsel of redemption.
Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Carter-Williams drained three 3-pointers after struggling from deep for weeks. After drilling one of the threes, first-year head coach Brett Brown smiled ear-to-ear on the sidelines and clapped in encouragement as if he had just watched his own child steer his bike without training wheels for the first time.
The 76ers’ positivity continued. After a slew of Philadelphia plays that forced a frustrated Spoelstra to call a timeout, Brown bear-hugged his giggling guard Tony Wroten out at midcourt. The 19-win team pushed the Heat around all game and forced multiple 24-second shot-clock violations.
This, coming from the team that boasts one of the NBA’s worst defensive efficiencies.
The Heat understand Wednesday’s effort won’t cut it on Sunday.
“We’ll be tested,” Spoelstra said. “Our guys understand that.”
The Heat are fully aware with how well the Bobcats have played lately, finishing the season on a 9-3 run. The Bobcats ended up with the sixth-ranked defense, something nobody saw coming after they ranked dead-last in the NBA last season and added the offensive-minded Al Jefferson to anchor their back line.
“They deserve the respect of how they’ve played the last six weeks,” Spoelstra said. “They’ve been one of the better teams in the league. Jefferson since January has been one of the top players in this league. They’re a worthy, worthy opponent.”
Though the Heat swept the season-series against the Bobcats, Wade shared Spoelstra’s respect for coach Steve Clifford’s club.
“That team competes very hard,” Wade said. “They’re comfortable in their game. They’ve got a great one-two punch with Kemba Walker and Big Al. We have to come with our hard hats on and stay focused throughout.”
The Heat stumbled into the postseason with three losses in a row. James, Wade and Bosh have only played one game together this month and it came in a double-digit loss to Atlanta.
But despite the lack of playing time together, Wade didn’t foresee any issues getting on the same page with James.
“I’m not worried about continuity with him at all,” Wade said after the game. “The biggest thing is that we both know what we need to do. We just have to do it. We’ve been playing together for four years. That’s enough continuity right there.”
AmericanAirlines Arena had been a harrowing place for Brown, who was an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich for the San Antonio Spurs last season, his seventh in that capacity. Interestingly enough, Brown made plans to travel to San Antonio on Thursday after the regular season wrapped up.
The plan? To catch up with a close friend and mentor Popovich.
“Popovich is the single greatest basketball influence I’ve had outside my father,” Brown said. “Popovich’s skill package is off the charts. One, he’s a good person. Second, he’s highly intelligent, and third, he’s a hell of a coach.”
On Thursday, Brown will make a trip to San Antonio to see old friends. Somewhere down the line in the next couple months, the Alamo may be in the Heat’s plans as well. The three-peat quest is officially on.
With the second seed in the Eastern Conference locked up, Miami Heat forward LeBron James and center Chris Bosh will sit out Wednesday's season finale as they host the Philadelphia 76ers.
Heat guard Dwyane Wade, however, will play in his third consecutive game after being sidelined for his previous nine games as part of the team's season-long maintenance program. Wade has missed a total of 28 games this season. Heat backup center Greg Oden is also expected to be activated after sitting out with back soreness and a stomach virus following his last appearance on March 26 against the Indiana Pacers.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also said that he would rest Heat backup center Chris Andersen and point guard Mario Chalmers on Wednesday.
The NBA announced on Wednesday night that the Heat will open the playoffs against either the Washington Wizards or the Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET. The Sunday start would give James and Bosh each a full week of rest before the postseason begins.
Because of the Heat's maintenance schedules, the team's star trio of James, Wade and Bosh have played only one game together since March 27.
The 76ers are trying to wrap up a woeful season on a high note. Beating the Heat on Wednesday would give them their first pair of consecutive victories since early January.
The Heat will likely play the opening round against the seventh-seeded Bobcats on Sunday. The Heat would play the Wizards only if the Wizards lose to the Boston Celtics on the road and the Bobcats beat the Chicago Bulls in Charlotte.
1. What has been the most encouraging part of Miami’s season?
Tom Haberstroh: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh enter the playoffs healthier than they were this time a year ago. Really, the regular season was just an 82-game preseason for the Heat and little mattered outside of the trainer’s room. The maintenance program for Wade, as taxing as it was for Bosh and James, seemed to work. For now.
Brian Windhorst: The playoffs are starting and all 15 players on the roster are available and reasonably healthy. LeBron and Bosh will go in with at least a week off and Wade certainly hasn't been overworked. They have won a road game in all 12 series they've played in the past three years, so not having home court has a limited disadvantage.
2. What has been the most disappointing part of Miami’s season?
Gutierrez: The inconsistency all around. From the defensive play to the shooting of Ray Allen and Shane Battier to the appearances from Wade. All of it has translated into a level of play that has created more questions than the Heat have faced at this time over the past three seasons.
Haberstroh: The supporting cast. The Michael Beasley experiment has come up empty. Ray Allen has finally shown he’s not immune to age. Greg Oden may be sidelined for the remainder of the season. Norris Cole has not developed. Shane Battier for months looked like a shell of himself. If it weren’t for Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem’s recent revival, this would be a disaster.
Windhorst: This is the least imposing team of the past four seasons. Some of that is because of depth, some is because of in-season injuries, some is because of fatigue and motivation issues. Instead of ramping up for the playoffs like last year (which the Spurs are doing this year), the Heat have gone into the postseason in a relative tailspin.
3. What is the biggest threat to Miami’s quest to three-peat?
Gutierrez: Well, there are any number of things, including health, lack of size now that it appears Greg Oden might not be a factor, or the loss of home court against either the Pacers or any number of Western Conference teams. But if I'm picking one "threat" to the Heat three-peating, it's the same threat that nearly cost them last year's title: the Spurs.
Haberstroh: Their bodies. That has always been the case. They have more than enough talent to go around, but they will only go as far as their aging bodies take them. The only key players under 30 years old are LeBron James (who turns 30 in December) and Mario Chalmers. Do they have another championship run in them?
Windhorst: Over the past two seasons, they have had to win three Game 7s to win their titles. All three were at home. The Heat will enter the postseason with the fifth-best record, and that means if they play any of the four teams ahead of them, they will have to play Game 7 on the road. The Spurs are itching for a chance to take advantage of that this year.
WASHINGTON -- For Miami Heat fans looking for something to feel good about at the moment, consider this: it’s almost over.
The relentless, restless regular season, that is.
The cover-your-eyes and pinch-your-nose portion in this stretch of the schedule is nearing an end. Only a harmless, meaningless home game Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers remains before the Heat close out the most listless, lifeless regular season of the Big Three era.
With LeBron James and Chris Bosh opting out of Monday’s game to squeeze in what little rest they can get before this weekend’s start of the playoffs, the Heat formally abandoned their quest for the No. 1 seed with a brutal 114-93 loss to the Wizards.
With the Heat’s loss, the Indiana Pacers (55-26) clinched the best record in the East and will enter the postseason with home-court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. After winning Game 7 of the conference and NBA Finals to capture their second straight title last season, the comforts of home won’t be a luxury the Heat will enjoy if they end up meeting the Pacers again this postseason.
The Heat will either play Washington or Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs, with the bracket decided Wednesday on the final night of the regular season. Miami (54-27) was already in a second-seeded state of mind before the start of Monday’s game.
“Some years, you know, as a team you’re a way better home team than you are a road team,” said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who had nine points and four turnovers in 18 minutes during his second game back from a hamstring injury. “And sometimes, we’ve been a pretty good road team as well. Seeding is always something that’s important. People love playing at home. So it’s never going to be anything where you say, ‘Aw, we don’t care at all.’ But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee you anything, either.”
For the past few weeks, it was clear that where the Heat finished in the standings meant much more to the media than the men in the basketball uniforms. But the reality had always been that coach Erik Spoelstra was never going to do anything to jeopardize his team’s health or go against the preferences of his top three players.
What transpired Monday in Washington was already set in motion two nights earlier in Atlanta, where the Hawks sprinted away in the second half of a 98-85 victory against the Heat. It was Wade’s first game back after missing the previous nine with a left hamstring injury, and he responded with 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting in 23 minutes.
There was progress amid the team’s overall setback.
After the game, when James and Bosh both strongly suggested they were wearing down and could use some rest, there was never a question as to whether Spoelstra would oblige and sit them out. Saturday’s loss assured the Heat of their lowest winning percentage for season since James, Wade and Bosh came together in the summer of 2010.
Monday’s loss meant the Heat won’t finish with the best record in the East for the third time in four seasons. The first time Miami carried the No. 2 seed into the playoffs resulted in a five-game series win over Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals but a six-game loss to Dallas in the 2011 Finals.
Spoelstra said the Heat falling behind the Pacers again in the standings, with Indiana owning the tiebreaker heading into the final game of the season, factored in his decision to rest James and Bosh.
“It was out of our control at some point, and those guys have put [on] a lot of mileage,” Spoesltra said. “Our schedule was fairly extreme down the stretch run. It’s not an excuse. We just want to make sure our guys are feeling right, that they’re sharp, that they’re feeling healthy. They have minor ailments that a couple of days will do wonders for them.”
Wade admitted the season didn’t quite work out as expected, considering injuries and illness forced the Heat to use 20 different starting lineups this season. Managing a roster that primarily features older rotation players was a priority at the start of the season and remains one headed toward the finish.
“When you want to put together a veteran team, you better pack a little more ice,” Wade said. “You better have a few more people on the staff, because you’re going to have a lot of guys in and out. We’re a team that’s been there [to the Finals] three years in a row, trying to go there four years in a row. We’ve done OK. Could we do better? You always could do better. But I think we’ve done a pretty decent job up to this point.”
Soon, the rest will be over for the Heat.
And so will the restlessness for a team longing to get through Wednesday and into the postseason. The Heat insist they’ll be their normal, fighting selves again real soon.
Considering how they’ve approached the past two games, that push might not come until it’s time to hit the reset button for the playoffs.
“It’s not finished,” James said entering the final week of the regular season. “I see the standings. I see the teams that are trying to make the postseason or that are out. But I can’t wrap myself around it right now. There are still a couple of games left and the seedings change every day.”
Sorting through the scenarios for James and the Miami Heat is now a very simple process.
The Indiana Pacers’ victory against Oklahoma City on Sunday left the Heat in an improbable position in the race for the No. 1 seed in the East. The Pacers (55-26) can wrap up home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs with a victory in their final regular-season game Wednesday in Orlando. It could be decided Monday if the Heat (54-26) lose to Washington.
Anticipating the likelihood of being the No. 2 seed after Sunday’s developments in Indiana, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is expected to shift some primary rotation players into rest mode for Monday’s game and Wednesday’s season finale against Philadelphia.
After playing five games in seven nights, culminating with Saturday’s loss in Atlanta, the Heat were given the day off in Washington on Sunday. Both James and Chris Bosh, who has been in his worst offensive slump of the season in recent weeks, have said they could use some time off before the Heat open their first-round playoff series against either Washington, Charlotte or Atlanta this coming weekend.
The Heat’s rotation has been in flux much of the season, with the team starting 20 different lineups because of injuries or illness. So it comes as no surprise that there continues to be a revolving door with the lineup with two games remaining. The quest for rest from James and Bosh coincides with Dwyane Wade’s impressive return Saturday in Atlanta after missing nine games with a strained left hamstring.
So while Wade, who scored 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting in 23 minutes, hopes to continue to work up a lather heading into the postseason, James and Bosh are looking for a bit of relief while they can get it.
“Some of my teammates, obviously, they look at me and say, ‘You may need to get a couple of games [off], man,” said James, who has played 77 of the Heat’s 80 games this season and typically sat out the final week of the regular season in previous years.
Bosh also acknowledged the burden this season has been. That has especially been the case in April for Bosh, who is averaging 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 turnovers so far in his least productive month of the season. He is shooting below 50 percent from the field for the first time in any month this season, and that number dips to just 25.9 percent from 3-point range in the past seven games.
In the past two games, Bosh has totaled just 21 points and nine rebounds. He didn’t attempt a free throw in two of the past three contests and has committed at least four turnovers in three of the last six.
“It’s been a hell of a grind this year,” Bosh said. “You just have to hang in there and do what you’re supposed to do. It’s been relentless and brutal. You take the wins you can get. When you lose, you just move on. I don’t know, man [about taking games off]. Every time you think you know, something changes. So I’m not going to try to act like I know what’s going on tomorrow or the day after. I’m just going to take it as it goes.”
Considering his recent struggles, Bosh was asked in Atlanta to gauge his level of fatigue from 1 to 10.
“With 10 being like really fatigued? It’s zero. I feel fantastic,” Bosh sarcastically shot back.
The Heat’s chances of claiming the No. 1 seed aren’t that low, but it’s close. The team’s coaches and players know they’ve squandered plenty of opportunities to overtake the Pacers and possibly create some distance between the two in the conference standings. But Wade was among those who refused to look back and nitpick more than a dozen losses this season to teams that had a sub-.500 record.
There were too many issues to address moving forward and not much time to get it done.
“I don’t care about that. I just care about us continuing to come together as a team, continuing to build on the floor,” Wade said of squandered opportunities. “We’re going to play these last two games to win. Our main focus is to make sure we get everybody healthy and everybody into a rhythm going into the playoffs. I want to get to a point where I get [back to normal minutes]. But for now, it will be the same thing moving forward. There will be a minutes restriction. But when I’m in there, make sure I go hard.”
The Heat insist their priorities are in the right place entering the season’s final week.
“I’m not saying we’re not trying,” Bosh said of making one more push for the top seed. “But if you play the games and you come up short, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve been the 2-seed before and got to the Finals. And we’ve been a 1-seed and made it to the Finals. We just have to take it challenge by challenge as it comes.”
Regardless of the seeds, James said all playoff teams are guaranteed at least one thing by week’s end.
“Everyone has life going into the postseason,” James said. “No matter what your regular-season record is, everyone starts zero-zero.”