5 Things Miami Heat Must Do Entering 2013 Playoffs
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That wasn't an exhale in the Miami Heat locker room in the United Center after the visitors lost their first game since Feb. 1.
There had been an emotional—as well as physical and mental—toll to winning 27 straight games, and there had also been a recent influx of media maggots, the sort not seen in the regular season since the Big Three's first season together, back in 2010-11.
Dwyane Wade said it best:
27-1 in our last 28 ain't bad. Now that it's over, I'm glad that it's over. See you all in the playoffs.
Now coach Erik Spoelstra can prepare for those playoffs, resting his key guys without concern that he is depriving them of a piece of history. The Heat are on the verge of clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference and lead the San Antonio Spurs in the chase for the top overall seed in the NBA.
Following the defeat, Spoelstra had already turned his attention to the next phase. He spoke of pursuing a "bigger goal" than the streak and how that pursuit would require better play than the Heat had produced of late:
Objectively, we can step back and admit that we probably weren’t getting better, these last handful of games.
So what matters to Miami now, with 11 games left in the season?
(All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics were accurate as of Thursday afternoon.)
5. Better Starts for the Current Lineup
If the Heat's starting group doesn't improve, don't surprised if Erik Spoelstra makes a change.
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During the course of their 27-game winning streak, the Miami Heat were able to overcome their poor starts with furious finishes.
Now that they've finally lost, having done so in a game that they again fell behind early—with a foul-plagued Udonis Haslem playing ineffectively—there figures to be more focus on the starting group and whether it requires a tweak.
The lineup of Haslem, Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers played 322 minutes together during the streak, three times as much as any other lineup. During that time, it was a plus-58, hardly an embarrassment, but hardly proportional to the dominance of a couple of other groups.
One, with Haslem in for Shane Battier, is plus-77 in just 85 minutes.
"Good veteran group," Erik Spoelstra said. "Sometimes, certain groups have great chemistry together."
Still, Spoelstra hasn't used that lineup as much recently—though he did turn to it in both halves against the Chicago Bulls. He said that he views it as the change of pace at the moment.
"It's good when it's fresh," Spoelstra said.
He said that with a smile.
So it wouldn't be a surprise to see him start games with it, as he did in the 2012 NBA Finals. While the group is small, it actually rebounds better than the Haslem alignment, because Battier, according to Spoelstra "is the best box-out guy in the league," and Bosh takes more of the rebounding burden.
It's in Spoelstra's pocket.
Which is one reason why, while it would be nice to start faster, there should be no panic.
4. Make a Physical Statement
The Bulls beat Miami, and in the process tried beating up LeBron James.
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LeBron James said he wanted to collect his thoughts.
The Miami Heat forward had plenty to share.
James used the occasion of a question—about the reason for his flagrant foul—to express his frustration with the physical way that overmatched opponents are defending him and the insufficient way the officials are restricting or punishing them:
These comments led to some social and national media chatter that perhaps Chicago's physical approach had exposed a weakness in James, and thus in Miami—and that maybe bullying could be the blueprint. This theory, however, ignores the fact that Miami beat Memphis, Indiana and even Chicago during its 27-game winning streak.
So it doesn't seem like a winning strategy to bruise the Heat and hope that gets them to back down. Certainly, that didn't work in the 2012 postseason.
Just the same, it wouldn't hurt the Heat to make some sort of a statement over the next three weeks, entering the traditionally chippy postseason. If the officials won't police the shots to James, then someone—Chris Andersen? Udonis Haslem?—needs to.
3. A Little Rest for LeBron James
There will plenty of this in the playoffs, but for now, LeBron James can catch his breath.
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LeBron James never seems to get a break.
He speaks passionately about his love for basketball, and it's silly not to take him at his word, considering the frequency of his hooping activity over the course of his life—activity that has never been greater than during the past year.
He's played more than 30,000 minutes in his 10 seasons in the NBA, and more than 5,000 over the past seasons, the first of which came during a crazy, compressed schedule, and this one which came after he spent the summer leading the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal.
And when he's not playing, he's attending to off-court business affairs, his circle of friends or assorted family matters. He naps some between shootarounds and games on the road, but when he's home, which is rare, his two sons are vying for his attention.
So, while he can't sleep through games, it seems logical that any reduction in his responsibilities, during the last three weeks of the season, would be welcome. James has a lock on his fourth MVP award, his team is certain to secure the top East seed—as early as Friday in Louisiana against the New Orleans Hornets—and there are no statistical milestones worth chasing.
James will surely lean on Erik Spoelstra to play, because that's just his nature, but Spoelstra should resist stretching out his minutes and should give him at least a couple of nights off, even if those nights are at home.
That may disappoint some Heat fans, but he owes them nothing other his best in the postseason. Which he is certain to deliver.
2. Keep Dwyane Wade Fully Healthy
Dwyane Wade was doing a fair share of grimacing in Chicago.
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This streak went under the radar.
While the Miami Heat were winning 25 straight games—on their way to 25—few mentioned one of the corresponding factors.
Dwyane Wade played in every one.
In fact, Wade, whose availability has been inconsistent the past few seasons, hadn't missed a game due to injury or illness since Nov. 17 against the Phoenix Suns.
That's why the surprise announcement that Wade would miss the March 24 game against the Charlotte Bobcats created some mild concern. Then he missed the next game against the Orlando Magic with what the team called a bruised right knee—not the knee that he had surgically repaired last offseason.
Wade returned against his hometown Chicago Bulls, a team against which he has sometimes scuffled.
Prior to the game, he said he had been dealing with "two situations," one of which had been resolved, with the knee being the other.
During the game, he appeared to bang the knee and tweak his ankle, scoring 18 points in 38 minutes, but sometimes falling a step behind Luol Deng on defense.
The last thing the Heat should want is a repeat of last postseason, when Wade was so troubled by a swollen left knee that he had it drained during the second round—and felt the need to call in former trainer Tim Grover during the finals. They need to get him as right as possible now.
That should mean taking at least half of the remaining schedule off, letting Mike Miller take some starts, and living with the results.
1. Get Chris Bosh Rolling
When Chris Bosh is attacking the rim, it usually spells success for Miami.
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Sometimes, it pays to be out of the spotlight.
Chris Bosh was always the center of attention as a Toronto Raptor, as the franchise's centerpiece. As the Miami Heat's third star, however, he doesn't always get the credit that he deserves.
Conversely, he doesn't always get the blame.
So it sort of went unnoticed when, over the course of the Heat's 27-game winning streak, his production kept slipping. In fact, you can argue that Bosh was the one Miami rotation player who didn't necessarily pick up his play during that seven-week period.
Bosh, who vowed to average double-digit rebounds prior to last season, and was at around 8.0 for much of this season, averaged a rather anemic 6.0 during the streak. He continued to shoot well, at 52.4 percent, but in many games, he appeared content to launch from the perimeter, rather than putting pressure on the defense by attacking the rim.
And lately, he's been drifting even further out, behind the arc.
Bosh is an important piece for the Heat; that was proven when he was absent, due to injury, during the 2012 postseason. But, even with Chris Andersen now around to relieve him—and sometimes supplement him—in the lineup, he needs to play with more force.
Going a dozen straight games with a double-digit rebounding performance?
Miami won't go as far as it wants if he plays that way.