Hours before their inexcusable loss to the obviously tanking Philadelphia 76ers, I was singing their praises, pounding on LeBron James' chest like an ape for him. I, like many of you, was sold on the Heat after their victory over the Chicago Bulls. Sold on them as an unstoppable force that wouldn't become despondent in the wake of too much success.
After their loss to the Sixers, I am, like all of you should be, enlightened. And still sold on the Heat.
Sustaining the killer instinct that has brought them two straight NBA titles isn't going to be easy. Complacency and disinterest is an ever-present danger for a team when the regular season is a formality. An inconvenient liturgy that, for the last three years, has ended the same way—with the Heat emerging from the Eastern Conference in convincing fashion.
Do the Heat actually see the regular season as 82 games' worth of red tape? No clue. If they do, they'll never cop to it. Deliberate lethargy isn't a character trait fans appreciate.
Does it even matter? And if it does, can the Heat resist the urge to ingratiate themselves long enough to flip the switch we know they've used in the past?
The answer will be the difference between a likely three-peat and those who, like me, believed in the Heat looking sheepish.
Loss to Sixers a Red Flag?
It's understandable to (want to) question the Heat's effort after a loss like this.
Philly looks like it could be one of the worst teams in the NBA ever, not just this season. The Sixers are tanking and hoping to reload through this year's stacked draft. It's no secret that's what they're doing. The Heat know it; everybody knows it.
Losses figure to pile up and the games against contenders should be particularly difficult to endure, especially one like this, against the reigning champions. But it was the Heat who were forced to suffer, endure.
Their defense was terrible. Absolutely atrocious. They allowed rookie Michael Carter-Williams to come within three rebounds and a steal of a quadruple-double. He notched 22 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists and nine steals, the latter of which is an NBA record for a neophyte's debut.
Evan Turner (26) and Spencer Hawes (24) combined for 50 points. Tony Wroten looked like he belonged in the NBA. Miami was minus-nine on the boards against a team devoid of any threatening size. It was ugly.
Offensively, the Heat were easier to watch. LeBron James went for 25 points and 13 assists. Chris Bosh notched a double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds. And Ray Allen contributed 19 points to the cause.
But the Heat were inconsistent. Just look at their scoring breakdown by quarter:
|Heat By Quarter vs. Sixers|
Dogged by spasmodic execution, the Heat went Jekyll and Hyde on us. In the second and third quarters, they played like champs, taking advantage of a clearly inferior opponent. The first and fourth quarters were disasters during which the Heat played like the Sixers should have.
Playing without Dwyane Wade isn't an excuse, either. Miami went 11-2 in his absence last season, defeating far more formidable opponents than a shallow and inexperienced Sixers squad.
Adversity gets the best of everyone sometimes. With the Heat, however, they're often their own worst enemy, rarely valuing every game the same.
Against the Bulls, LeBron took over during the waning moments of the fourth quarter, scoring six points and dishing two assists in the final five minutes to ensure a Heat victory. Against the Sixers, he went 1-of-6 with two turnovers in the fourth.
There's a difference in the way the Heat approach each game. That's just the way it is.
"We're a comfortable team, we always feel like we can win a game," LeBron said afterward, per the Associated Press (via ESPN).
On this night, the Heat were too comfortable.
All eyes are on a third title in Miami. Nothing else.
The Heat are going to have a successful regular season because that's what they do. Success before the playoffs won't come at the expense of injury, though. That much became clear against the Sixers.
Wade sat out in Philly, a decision he admitted was unexpected.
"It was not pre-planned, it was something our trainers and coaches came to me with," Wade said according to the AP. "It's early in the season, it's just a precaution."
Precautionary measures will be quite common in Miami this season. The Heat are dealing with a number of aging and injury-prone players to whom they must cater.
Shane Battier (35), Chris Andersen (35) and Allen (38) will be used sparingly when possible. Greg Oden, upon return, will be on a minutes cap. Then there's Wade, who's been battling knee injuries his entire career.
This is what the Heat are up against. Players will have to sit. On any given night, it could be Wade or Allen or Battier. Coach Erik Spoelstra may even rest LeBron, who averaged 37.9 minutes a night last season, as he sees fit.
It's all about the playoffs for the Heat. About this spring. They're already in postseason-preparation mode; they'll forever be in postseason-preparation mode.
When players like Wade sit, losses to the Sixers shouldn't happen. Inevitably, they will. They always do.
"If he needs to take the second game of the season, the 30th game, 50th game, 80th game, that's the way it is," LeBron said of Wade, per the AP (via ESPN).
And that's how it's going to stay.
One Too Many Flipped Switches?
There isn't cause for panic throughout Miami.
Losing to the Sixers and other lottery-bound franchises will not become a common theme for the Heat. They're a great basketball team, and great basketball teams win.
Unlike most contenders, though, they have another level. It can't always be measured or quantified, but it's there. When the Heat want to, they can dominate. Destroy. They can dictate the outcome of a game or entire series.
Existing in such imbalance, however, can be dangerous. Can the Heat really play for a third title trusting that they'll just play better and fight harder when they need to?
Inconsistency almost cost them last year's championship. They fell behind the San Antonio Spurs, 3-2, in the Finals, only to come roaring back and win the latter two games of the series and a second straight title.
But what if Bosh doesn't get that offensive rebound in Game 6? What if Allen doesn't hit that three?
More of the same isn't going to earn the Heat that third consecutive title. They don't play in the same Eastern Conference anymore. Teams like the Bulls, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets will be gunning for them. Incongruous efforts won't stand up forever. Not when they have a target on their back.
To secure another title, the Heat must recapture that same killer instinct that's gotten them here every night. Or as close to every night as possible. Periodic dominance won't suffice.
"It's a team game," LeBron said following a win over the Bulls, according to CBS Sports. "That's what this team is put together for."
This year, the Heat must also be put together for sustainable absolutism, able to flip their intangible switch and never turn it off.