When a two-time defending champion looks more good than great, panic alarms are going to sound from somewhere.
Just don't expect to hear any come from inside the Miami Heat's locker room.
This team has been too good for too long to put too much stock in a mini midseason slump. It's tough to think the sky is falling when Miami has a 7.5-game cushion over the No. 3 seed Atlanta Hawks.
A dismal 2-4 road trip shouldn't simply be brushed under the rug, though. Not when it's presented new concerns in Miami's attempted championship defense—new issues that need to be corrected to keep this club's crown in place.
It's been a while since Miami placed more stock in its stone-wall defense than its high-powered offense. At least, that's what the numbers say.
When the Big Three came together, the Heat had the league's fifth-most efficient defense in 2010-11 (100.7 points allowed per 100 possessions). That figure fell to 97.1 the following season, and the ranking improved to No. 4.
By last season, the Heat had fallen to seventh in defensive efficiency (100.5). This season, they've slipped into a tie for 10th in the category (102.4).
Of course, there's some leeway afforded at that end to a team with this kind of transcendent offense. Even with the defensive lapses, Miami still owns the fourth-best net rating (6.7-plus points per 100 possessions).
Even an offense as potent as this has its limits, though. Limits that are being tested—and surpassed—at a concerning rate.
The stat sheet would agree.
Bosh's comments came after the Heat were run out of the gym in Monday's 121-114 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The Al Horford-less Hawks soared to 71 first-half points, getting double-digit efforts out of seven different players.
Heat needs to tighten up. This is unacceptable that's all. Defense sucks. Just pointing out the obvious. #fox— Freeman and Fox (@TheSportsBros) January 21, 2014
Allowing 121 points to a team that averages 102.2 is troubling. The fact that it can't be written off as a one-game anomaly is worse.
Slow starts have become an uncomfortable reality for this group.
On the season, Miami allows more points (26.2), a higher field-goal percentage (49.2) and better three-point shooting (46.6) in the first quarter than in any other period, via NBA.com (subscription required).
Over the last four games, things have gotten even worse.
Miami is allowing 64.5 first-half points during that stretch, a more damning mark than it seems. The Heat are not facing offensive powers. In fact, the Hawks (104.0 points per 100 possessions, 12th) are the only above-average offense they've faced in that time. They've also competed against the Washington Wizards (101.3, 21st), Philadelphia 76ers (96.9, 29th) and Charlotte Bobcats (98.0, 27th).
"I can’t pinpoint what it is," LeBron James said, via Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald. "It’s a little bit of everything and at some point we’ve got to figure it out."
Miami still has time on its side. What it hasn't had is consistency with its available talent pool, which has undoubtedly impacted the overall consistency of this team.
Between preservation plans (Dwyane Wade, Greg Oden) and unforeseen ailments (Mario Chalmers' Achilles', Shane Battier's quad, Chris Andersen's back), filling out a lineup card has become a nightly crapshoot for coach Erik Spoelstra.
This group knows that the real season won't start for another few months. It will err on the side of caution at every chance between now and then.
And, yes, that will impact this team's on-court performance.
Wade has missed 11 of the team's 41 games so far. He sat out half of the team's six-game road trip.
The 32-year-old has medical red flags flying all around him, but those signals can be deceiving. He's far from being damaged goods.
When he's healthy enough to give it a go, he's still a dominant force. He's a top-25 scorer (18.9 points per game) and still an across-the-board contributor, with 4.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.6 blocks. He's shooting a career-best 54 percent from the field.
Wade makes life easier on the King when he's available. He's a big enough offensive threat that defenses can't overload on James. Anything that helps the four-time MVP obviously helps the Heat immensely.
|Restricted Area||In the Paint (Non-RA)||Mid-Range|
|James - Overall||78.1||57.1||39.0|
|Wade - On Court||81.3||60.0||40.3|
|Wade - Off Court||75.7||55.6||37.9|
It's not just Wade's absence being felt, either.
Rashard Lewis (35.1 three-point percentage) can replace some of Battier's floor spacing (37.4), but that's a bad switch for a team already having defensive issues. Norris Cole still has some feast-or-famine in his game, making the second team a better fit for now. Miami doesn't have much size as it is, so Andersen's a tremendous loss until (if?) Oden's ready for a consistent role.
It's hard to put too much stock into what these Heat players are doing because they aren't even in the real Heat. Not the one we expect to see come playoff time, at least.
Miami has some serious problems that need fixing.
There's something—complacency? fatigue? loss of focus?—keeping this club out of the elite ranks it's masterfully filled over the last three seasons. Championship sightings have come few and far between.
The Nets finished at 46.5% last night b/c Miami locked in late, but point holds: we've seen "Miami Heat defense" only in spurts this season.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 11, 2014
This team can't choose when to defend. The offense can't devolve from ball-movement brilliance to momentum-stopping solo acts.
The Heat know this already, though. They've set the standard for excellence and understand how to surpass it.
This is still the experimental stage for Miami. Spoelstra's still tinkering with his rotation, finding out which pieces work best and where. His medically thinned ranks have only hampered that process.
As long as Miami is aware of its problems, which it is, then the concern meter shouldn't even be registering a reading yet.
An impressive past and potentially great future are more than enough to compensate for a still-above-average present.