With a soundly executed Texas two-step, the Miami Heat could have slain two of the Western Conference's finest and laid claim to the top spot out East.
Sure, the competition was stiff (first the Houston Rockets, then the San Antonio Spurs), but the competition doesn't always matter for the two-time defending champs. Riding an eight-game winning streak—punctuated by LeBron James' career-high and franchise-record 61-point onslaught—into the Lone Star State, an unblemished layover felt like something of a formality.
It wasn't. Not even close.
The Heat not only found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard both nights, they never held the right side of it during their visit:
But if you're listening for the panic alarm, you're wasting your time. Sirens don't sound north of a .700 winning percentage.
Back-to-back stumbles did shed some light on a couple concerns, though. Concerns that could become problems if not properly addressed.
The Heat might have a two-year hold on the hoops world, but they understand it could all be over in an instant.
It shows you how fragile this league can be," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of his team's two-game slide, via Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "Things can change very quickly."
So, what exactly did change over these last two games? What potential threats to Miami's three-peat were unearthed?
Nothing new, actually.
The Heat's biggest problem areas these last two games have been unfortunate South Beach staples: sluggish starts and spotty rebounding.
Miami has made a living out of sleepwalking out of the gate, then flipping the switch and hitting a game-saving gear no other team can match. The Heat recovered from seven double-digit deficits during their 27-game winning streak alone last season.
This fire isn't new, but they are playing with it like before.
The Heat dug themselves a seven-point hole 12 minutes into their 106-103 loss to the Houston Rockets and trailed by 15 after the first in Thursday's 111-87 rout by the Spurs. Throughout the season, Miami has been a different team during the opening frame than it has in the last three periods, via NBA.com (subscription required).
|Listless Beginnings: Miami's Efficiency By Quarter|
|Quarter||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg|
"Setting the tone the beginning of the game hasn't been adequate," Spoelstra said, via Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "That typically isn't a good formula for us."
It's not a deal-breaker by any means. Miami playing at half speed is still too much for some teams to handle.
Where it becomes an issue, though, is when the Heat run into a team with nearly the same amount of talent. Miami is good, but it's not good enough to consistently make up for self-inflicted wounds.
"Slow starts, but slower than even normal, giving up 30-something points," Dwyane Wade said, via Richardson. "That's a tough gap to put yourself in, period, but on the road, places where teams are very good, that's going to make it tough on you."
It becomes even tougher when coupled with a significant disadvantage on the glass. The Heat have been outrebounded, 91-69, over the last games, tracking down an average of 11 fewer boards than their opponent.
Again, though, this a problem that's plagued Miami for some time.
It's a byproduct of downsizing to play the pace-and-space attack that has fueled the NBA's most efficient offense (110.2 points per 100 possessions). Floor balance is the bonus, but rebounding is the cost. The Heat are tied for 28th in rebound percentage (47.4) and tied for 21st last season.
Miami has tried to get bigger (signing Chris Andersen last season, Greg Oden over the summer), but this is a necessary evil that isn't likely to go away.
What could change—and needs to soon—are the struggles of Miami's point guards—Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. The pair averaged just 6.5 points on 21.7 percent shooting, 4.5 assists and 3.5 turnovers.
With James and Wade spending so much time on the ball (both have top-20 usage percentages), Spoelstra's offense doesn't require a typical point guard. It does, however, clearly need something better than what Chalmers and Cole have managed.
So just how big are these concerns?
Not at all—for now.
The primary concern is opening the game with more energy and a better focus, but that should correct itself come playoff time. After two consecutive titles and three straight Finals berths, this team knows when the real season starts.
If these remain issues going forward, that's when they could become problems.
In the meantime, just consider them reminders that this team is promised nothing in its quest for No. 3. Talent helps, but there's still a reason you play the games.