Sagging, Cranky Miami Heat Need Real Gut Check to Get Back on Track

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2013

Jan 14, 2013; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra reacts to a call during the second half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. The Jazz won 104-97. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat are as close to hitting the panic button as any conference-leading defending champion I can ever remember.

Following their most recent contest, a 104-97 loss to the Utah Jazz that wouldn't have been much worse save for a furious 21-5 run late in the game, Miami has now dropped three of its past four and six of its past 10.

Away from the friendly confines of American Airlines Arena, the Heat have fared even worse. The loss in Salt Lake City saw Miami's road record dip below .500 (8-9). Just two of its past seven away games have resulted in wins, including a 112-110 overtime victory over the 13-24 Orlando Magic.

The Utah loss highlighted a familiar problem that has plagued the franchise all season long.

The Jazz outrebounded the Heat 40-23, and managed a 13-5 advantage on the offensive glass. 

Miami's 38.6 rebounds per game are the league's worst, and its minus-3.2 rebounding differential isn't that much better (25th).

Coach Erik Spoelstra's positionless system has left Miami vulnerable on the interior. No player other than MVP candidate LeBron James (8.2) averages better than 7.2 rebounds per game.

But another, far more sinister predicament reared its ugly head during that Utah loss.

With his starters reeling from what blossomed into a 21-point deficit, Spoelstra summoned two-thirds of his mighty trio (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) to the sideline to open the fourth quarter.

Behind another dazzling performance from James (32 points and six assists), Miami eventually trimmed the lead to just a two-point margin. And all of this occurred while Wade and Bosh looked on from the sidelines.

Bosh eventually returned to the action (albeit with just 40 seconds left in regulation), while Wade was forced to watch the entire fourth quarter from his court-side seat.

Miami still holds the Eastern Conference's best record at 24-12, so this is simply much ado about nothing, right?

Well, that's not exactly how ESPN's Brian Windhorst described the scene in Miami's locker room following their most recent defeat.

Still, this is a club that's faced adversity before.

And they've got an uncanny track record in responding to their challenges.

On Nov. 27, 2010, the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks. During a timeout, James bumped into Spoelstra and sparked a media frenzy regarding Miami's apparent disgruntled family.

Following the game, the Heat promptly embarked on a 12-game winning streak and a stretch of 21 wins in their next 22 contests. Miami throttled its opponents by nearly 13 points per game during that stretch, while James himself posted nearly 27 points per game.

In Miami's 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinal series with the Indiana Pacers, it was Wade's turn to spark controversy. During Miami's Game 3 loss, Wade chastised his coach on the sideline.

The Heat responded with five consecutive wins, and, following a stretch of 11 wins in their final 15 games, they paraded down Biscayne Boulevard with the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy. Wade himself responded with better than 24 points per game during those final 15 playoff games.

Look, a confrontation with their coach doesn't guarantee that the Heat will put Miami's parade planners back to work in June.

But it certainly doesn't suggest the kind of strained relationship that could derail a season for a less proven, less battle-tested club.

Miami may not look the part of championship favorites, but they still wear the title of 'defending champions' until proven otherwise.

With James, Wade and Bosh still in the mix, Miami remains the team to beat in the NBA.

Their upcoming schedule offers little relief with road matchups looming against the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers to round out their current six-game road trip.

It's gut check time for this club, but they've been known to withstand a barrage of punches before.

And don't forget about their ability to deliver championship-caliber haymakers of their own, either.

*h/t to Adam Nofflett.

**All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 1/14/2013.