ATLANTA — Yes, there's evidence the Miami Heat can still get defensive.
You just need to be in the locker room to witness it.
"Why the hell would we be panicked?" Chris Bosh said Monday, as the Miami Heat finished an often uninspiring first half of the season with an unsettling 121-114 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. "If you're panicked, you're an idiot."
Perhaps so, considering that the Heat remain on a passable 58-win pace, and are in absolutely no danger of slipping out of the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Perhaps so, in light of Dwyane Wade's limited availability thus far (missing 11 of 41 games, including Monday), and in light of this team's tendency to turn on another gear when the stakes are raised.
Perhaps so, since it's apparent that Erik Spoelstra is still patching together his rotations, with some of Monday's creations especially incongruous.
Still, perhaps the Heat should stop making this so much more difficult than necessary. They seem to think they're conserving fuel for the long road ahead.
In truth, they're not.
They're burning it needlessly, night after night.
You see, it's clear by now that they simply don't do cruising well. They are too conflicted.
They care too little. They can't be bothered to compete at peak level early, as was evident again when they allowed 71 points in the first half Monday, just five days after allowing 69 to Washington.
"All across the board, A through Z, there just wasn’t a lot of pride on that side of the court," Spoelstra said of the defense.
And yet, they care too much. They have too much pride.
They can't bear to be embarrassed, so they inevitably end up expending extreme energy to get themselves back into the contest, only to fall short, as has been the case in several recent losses, most notably in Brooklyn on Jan. 10, and here against the Hawks, when they actually took a one-point lead with 4:50 remaining before the offense finally fell apart (three Bosh misses, a Chalmers miss, a Chalmers turnover).
There's been so much talk about the Heat's physical health, most notably related to Wade's frequent absences, even on nights—like Monday—that he clearly preferred to play.
But this pattern isn't what you would prescribe to a team trying to maintain its mental health.
The Heat tout themselves as seasoned vets, but they're acting like college kids, ignoring every assignment for the first several weeks of the semester, and compelled to pop Adderall like Altoids to cram for an exam.
Wouldn't they save some stress if they got serious a little sooner?
As Bosh said of the Hawks, "When they get rolling, if they get rolling, they are very, very difficult to stop. So you have to kind of exert your energy early to kind of take their confidence away. If they have confidence moving into the second half, you can see it going downhill."
Monday, it went downhill against a team that is without its best player (Al Horford) for the season, got only two points from its sparkplug (Jeff Teague) and had to nurse Paul Millsap and Pero Antic through foul trouble.
It went downhill even as Shane Battier and Ray Allen, both of whom have slumped for stretches of this season, made all seven of their three-point shots for Miami; even as LeBron James scored 30 and Bosh scored 21; even as Mario Chalmers contributed 17 points, five rebounds and four assists.
It went downhill because the Heat players refuse, in the opening minutes, to get down in a defensive stance, get back down the court after a miss and get down and dirty near the rim.
"Defensively, we’re not ready to play," Bosh said. "I think, you know, if we were ready to play, we wouldn’t give up so many easy baskets. Now if teams are making shots over the top, making contested 2s, we live with that. But, you know, if they are getting layups and wide open 3s like they were today, especially at the start, that’s no good for us."
So where do the problems start, at the start?
"It’s a myriad of things," Battier said. "We’re just not taking away much. Usually, when our defense is clicking, we’re taking away a few things out of the other team’s offense, and living with other parts of the other team's offense. Right now, other teams have the full menu of what they want to get. It’s paint shots, it’s threes, it’s transition. So we need to get back to taking away what we want to take away and living with the rest."
Then maybe they could actually take a rest later.
Miami hasn't had many easy ones lately, in wins or losses; games in which Spoelstra can shave some of the starters' minutes.
Yes, they've won 16 games by 10 or more points (39 percent), but that's slightly off last season's final total of 34 (41 percent). The season before, they won 29 games by 10 points or more (44 percent, in what was a lockout shortened season). And in their first season together, they also won 34 by 10 points or more (41 percent), while winning 58 overall.
The Heat have lost only four games this season by 10 points or more. That speaks well of them—they don't just tank when things aren't going well.
So, yes, there's some pride.
But what if there was more consistent purpose?
Would there be a little less exhaustion?
"Basketball is a game of runs, we understand that," Battier said. "But it’s more mentally exhausting to go through this every night, and just exhort everybody else, ‘Fellas, we need some stops. Let’s get three or four stops.’ That’s the exhausting part."
Certainly, they're tired of the questions. Spoelstra spoke of the team, now in the league's bottom third in several defensive categories, needing "to decide where we want to go defensively."
Bosh spoke of not being a "defensive-first team this year. If we were defense-first, we would be top five right now, or whatever, if you’re a stat guy. We’ve got some work to do. You know, you can’t stop anybody, you can’t win in this league."
And James? He looked wearier than usual, biting on a towel during some of his short interview session.
"I can’t just pinpoint what it is, it’s a little bit of everything," James said. "And at some point we’ve got to figure it out... A little bit of everything. It’s not good basketball right now."
It's not good for getting to their goals:
Getting through this endless regular season not only in one piece, but with some peace of mind.
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