Commentary

Heat exposed in paint yet again

Overpowered Miami must find solution to its glaring weakness inside

Originally Published: January 4, 2013
By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- The long pause said it all.

Until then, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had sped through his postgame comments to reporters after Friday's 96-89 loss to the Chicago Bulls as if it were a fast-break drill.

"There's not a whole lot to say," Spoelstra said. "You guys could already write your stories. I could already have my talk. Everybody understands in both locker rooms what the overwhelming key to the game was ... they pounded us."

But then asked to further dissect that pounding, to perhaps find the root cause for the Heat's season-long rebounding woes that were grossly exposed again Friday and to ultimately suggest whether it's a result of scheme or personnel, Spoelstra folded his hands, sealed his lips, and thought long and hard for about four seconds before his terse response.

"If I'm not mistaken, the main players outside of Ray [Allen] that played in our rotation last year during the playoffs were the same as this year," Spoelstra said.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Boozer
Issac Baldizon/Getty ImagesCarlos Boozer poured in 27 points in Miami.

Translation: The same core group of players who were able to shine and -- at times -- dominate in the Heat's small-ball scheme on the way to a championship last season aren't quite holding up their end of the bargain this season.

In handing the Heat their third loss in the past five games, the Bulls won the rebounding battle 48-28 and outscored Miami 46-34 in the paint. Until Friday, the Heat had won the previous four games in which they were outrebounded by 15 or more boards.

This time, it caught up with them.

Not only did LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh & Co. come up small on the court, but they were short on answers when asked how they solve their biggest issue. Miami entered Friday ranked last among the league's 30 teams in total rebounds and 29th in rebounding average.

The Heat emerged taking inventory of the problem.

"It's killing us," Bosh said. "I'm out of recommendations. I'm trying to figure it out myself. It's not the first time we've been outrebounded by 20. Who says that and is in first place in the East? We just have to keep fighting."

For obvious reasons, this will continue to be an uphill battle for the Heat. The defending champs remain one of the most difficult teams to match up with in the league when James, Wade and Bosh have it rolling offensively, and are using their speed and quickness to disrupt opponents defensively.

The flip side of those amazing strengths is a weakness that can be overwhelming against certain opponents. The reality is the Heat are small. Yes, they win that way and the formula has produced a lot of success.

But it can catch up to you, too. Most nights, the Heat can get away with it. However, the reality is they are a team that made a heck of a playoff adjustment last season by going small, and spreading the floor with shooters around James, Wade and Bosh. It worked.

It's still a playoff adjustment. And it's not necessarily a scheme that is designed to hold up night in and night out for the duration of an 82-game regular season. There's a price to pay for playing this way, and the currency is rebounds.

"We're not going to get bigger overnight," Wade said. "We have to find a way to fix it or we are going to keep losing those games. 'Go get the ball' is all we can do."

Wade said it's easy to identify the problem. The solution, however, is another dilemma altogether.

"If I knew, it wouldn't be happening," Wade continued on the poor rebounding efforts. "I don't have the answer, and we don't have the answer as a team."

Spoelstra doesn't like to believe the answer is better offense. But that's exactly how the Heat have countered in the past when they've been pounded on the glass.

They overcame a 47-32 disadvantage against Denver on Nov. 3 by shooting 51.8 percent from the field, including 40 percent from 3-point range, in a 119-116 victory. And 3-point shooting bailed the Heat out again when the teams met Nov. 15. In that game, the Nuggets hammered the Heat 48-29 on the boards, but Miami shot 48 percent from beyond the arc in a 98-93 road win without Wade.

Against Minnesota on Dec. 18, the Heat were outrebounded by 29 but made up for it with 14 blocked shots, 12 steals and 25 points off turnovers for the win. And when Orlando roughed up the Heat on the boards Monday, James and Wade provided enough late offense to force overtime and then pull away in the extra period.

But those repeated blows have a tendency to take a tremendous toll. James has played heavy minutes the past three weeks, with Friday marking the third straight game -- and ninth time in the past 16 -- that he has surpassed 40 minutes. James also considered sitting out against the Bulls with a nagging right knee bruise but played through the injury.

The Heat couldn't rally their way out this time.

"It's a recurrence -- we got smashed on the boards," James said. "You're not going to win many basketball games like that. It's not like we're losing multiple games with one- or two-rebound [deficits]. It's been by 15. Tonight was 20."

James said Miami's ability to win despite its rebounding has been a facade more so than any magical formula.

Being first in the East standings yet last in the league in rebounding isn't a sustainable model for success.

That point was driven home by the Bulls. Now, the Heat must find a way -- or another player or two -- to respond.

Yes, rebounding has been their weakness all season.

But regrouping from adversity has been their strength.