PHILADELPHIA — Thursday brought more news for the Miami Heat organization to celebrate, though it couldn't come close to comparing with the surprising, slamming debut of Greg Oden the night before. For the fourth time in franchise history, the Heat were named the NBA's Retailer of the Year, an award they share this time with the Golden State Warriors.
So it appears that Miami's marketing mavens require minimal assistance, in terms of promoting their products. Still, if the Heat ever long for a new slogan, coach Erik Spoelstra inadvertently offered another option after Thursday's elongated practice, in response to a question about the unique challenges of this Heat season—one in which the rotation looks different just about every night, and his team rarely looks like it's playing traditional, dynamic "Heat defense."
"Just different," Spoelstra said. "You can't compare it to last year. There's a lot of things that were set last year. When Dwyane (Wade) was out, we knew which way we were going. The rotation. That doesn't make it any better or worse. That's the reality of this league. No matter what you've done the year before, the next year is usually dramatically different. And that's proven to be this year. But we have to adapt. Adapt or die."
Adapt or die.
Press that on your cheap cotton t-shirt.
For the Heat, for the rest of the season, from the top down, those are the three words to live by.
It seems, at this stage, as if Miami is still stuck wearing last season's threads, expecting to evolve into exactly what they were, simply because so many of the same people are present. The standings show they are actually one game ahead of schedule, at 27-11 through 38 games, compared to 26-12 last season. But now, after yielding an unfathomable 43 first-quarter points to Washington on the way to a third straight loss, the cracks beneath the surface are becoming too evident to ignore, even by them.
As a gravel-voiced LeBron James finally, unequivocally acknowledged Wednesday night: "Defensively, we're just not that good right now."
They're not, and they're trending into deeper trouble.
"Our overall defensive points per possession dropped out of the top 10," Spoelstra said. "And we're 23rd in field goal percentage allowed. That simply won't get it done."
The Heat are allowing nearly 10 more points per 100 possessions than the Indiana Pacers.
And opponents make five more field goals, per 100 attempts, against the Heat than against Indiana.
"It's not physical," James said. "I think it's more mental than anything. I don't know if it's mental fatigue or lack of focus, and it's all trickling down to our play on the floor. We're got to figure this out. It's a good test. We're a team, we love adversity more than anything, and we're definitely at that point."
Later, James added, "We've always had this point. I don't know why we love to do this. Since I've been here, my four years, we had a point where we were just not that good."
They never lost three straight last season, but did once early the season before—also, all on the road—and had losing streaks of three, four and five games in the first season of the Big Three era.
"And then we just clicked," James said. "And if this is the moment, then we need to click right now."
To do that, though, they need to point forward, rather than backwards.
They can take some lessons from the past.
But they can't expect to repeat it.
Not in light of the ABCs working against them.
* There's the Age, which in some cases is finally starting to show.
Chris Andersen, 35, has missed five games this season, with another likely Friday against the 76ers due to sore knees. Shane Battier, 35, has missed six, and he's been less consistent in more limited use this season. Udonis Haslem, 33, is still trying to find his overall game, an even tougher trick now that he's in a reduced role. Wade, 32 on Friday, has sat out nine games, and will sit out more to maintain his maintenance program. Rashard Lewis, 34, appears lively on occasion, but goes long stretches without significant impact.
Ray Allen, 38, is seemingly in premium shape.
But he's slumping badly, making just 8-of-45 shots in January.
"For me, I'm going to try to do everything I can to help us win, and I know it will be that one shot that will get me right back in and create rhythm," Allen said, after missing all five attempts Thursday. "Because you can go in a roll, you can go off a roll."
Allen spoke of players needing to make better plays for each other.
"Right now, it just seems like I'm out of position or out of place every time the ball comes," Allen said. "It's just about getting that comfort level."
Maybe it comes back, as it always has before.
Or maybe, if this continues, Spoelstra needs to adapt, by offering opportunity to others. Maybe that means giving Michael Beasley a bit more leeway. At least Beasley gave effort on the defensive end in his seven minutes Wednesday, which is more than many of his teammates could say of their stints.
* There's the Boredom, which is the primary culprit not only for the nosedive in the defensive numbers—in light of the taxing system the Heat play—but also for the nine losses to sub-.500 teams, eight of those losses to teams in the East.
That boredom is understandable under the circumstances, since no team was capable of challenging Miami for the second seed even before so many All-Stars broke down.
On Jan. 16, 2013, the Heat were atop the East at 25-12, but there were four teams within three games of them, and seven teams within six games of them.
On Jan. 16, 2014, the Heat are second in the East at 27-11, and there's not a single team within seven games of their spot.
So it makes sense why they're sluggish.
And there's a danger that they get even more more sluggish if they slip too far behind Indiana, and are absolutely locked into that second spot.
Still, as James put it, "Whatever is stopping us from getting motivated, we have to throw that behind."
They need to adapt to the absence of East contenders, and find ways to inspire themselves.
* There's the Continuity, which hasn't come, in part because of players' inconsistent availability.
Miami can't complain about injuries, not when compared to what other expected NBA contenders have experienced, and not after the top nine of last season's rotation returned for another run. Still, the Heat took off last season when Spoelstra was able to settle on that stable nine-man rotation—with, as he noted earlier, Mike Miller serving as the Wade sub.
That may never occur this season, at least not until the playoffs, in part because of the age issues noted above, but also because of the changes in philosophy (earlier Wade maintenance) and overall roster composition.
Spoelstra frequently cites the Heat's depth as a strength, but it can also be a burden, as he needs to find ways to honor old standbys (such as Haslem, Battier, Allen) while finding time for talented additions, such as Beasley, and now, Oden.
After playing eight minutes and scoring six points in his first regular season game in more than four years, Oden worked on the side Thursday, and reported no significant soreness or swelling. Spoelstra spotlighted him as Wednesday's single bright spot.
"We were all very happy that he was able to get out there and compete, even for a short period of minutes," Spoelstra said. "We know the struggle that he's been through. Just to see the smile on his face. We allowed one guy to have a smile on his face, yesterday and even today, and that was Greg Oden. So that was great to see."
Spoelstra said Oden will stick to the plan—strength training, core work, hip strengthening and conditioning.
"If he can't do those, then we won't play him," Spoelstra said.
It sounds as if Oden will be day-to-day into the foreseeable future, which will make it an ongoing challenge for him to adapt to teammates, teammates to adapt to him, and Spoelstra to adapt a style that has strayed toward smallball over the past two years.
But they must.
They all must.
"Today, was about trying to catch it before it gets worse," Spoelstra said.
Thursday, they all claimed that was the aim.
Including James, shirtless, sweat-drenched and sounding like himself, after finding the voice he lost Wednesday in Washington.
Now we'll see if he and his team adapt enough to find their way.
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