Warning Signs We're Seeing from Miami Heat's Recent Slide

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 15, 2014

Warning Signs We're Seeing from Miami Heat's Recent Slide

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Miami Heat should be worried. 

    Losing five contests in a six-game stretch is always cause for concern, even for the defending champions. But these losses have done more than prevent the Heat from seizing the moment and rising to the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

    They've allowed doubt to enter into the equation. 

    Obviously, it's far too soon to declare that the Heat's three-peat chances are over. This is still an elite team, and doubting its ability to turn things around on a dime would be foolish. 

    However, there are warning signs.

    And there are a lot of them. 

    This stretch of poor play has exposed quite a few of Miami's primary weaknesses, as well as a few new developments that should leave Erik Spoelstra waking up in the occasional cold sweat. 

A Lack of Passion When It Matters

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Heat have shown a shocking lack of passion throughout the 2013-14 campaign. 

    During the doldrums of January, they went through the motions with a somnambulant state of mind before rebounding—figuratively, not literally—in February and keeping pace with the Indiana Pacers. But even with the stretch run looming, the motivation has been rather lacking in recent games. 

    It's not any one player who's more guilty than another, but rather the team as a whole. The Heat's offense is defined by sluggish movement in the half-court set and a distinct lack of urgency. The defense is allowing opponents to waltz into the paint and shoot uncontested looks. 

    I hate to use the word "entitled," but nothing could be more appropriate. 

    Last season, Miami suffered through a similarly lackluster January, but then got off to a scorching 27-game run. That was the impetus the Heat needed heading into the playoffs, as they proved once more that they could remain elite while defending their title. 

    But this season, there hasn't been any such run. As the year has progressed, things have actually gotten worse for the two-time reigning champions.

    And based on their mentality, there are no signs of an upcoming turnaround. 

    A championship team is one that bounces back from two consecutive losses by dominating a rival. But this Miami squad lost to the Chicago Bulls in overtime, and there was a distinct dearth of effort—especially from a rather unenthused LeBron James—throughout the proceedings. 

    An elite team shows resiliency after a close loss at home to the Brooklyn Nets. But the Heat were manhandled by an average Denver Nuggets squad two nights later, giving them their first back-to-back home losses of the season. 

No Longer Dominating Non-Elites

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    During the opening salvo of the 2013-14 season, it seemed obvious that the Miami Heat would be able to waltz right through the first two rounds of the postseason, moving with ease into the inevitable Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Indiana Pacers. 


    Not so much. 

    If the regular season ended right before St. Patrick's Day, the Heat would be faced with a first-round matchup against the Charlotte Bobcats. And after that, they'd be playing either the Toronto Raptors or Washington Wizards

    While the Heat swept the regular-season series with the 'Cats, they've endured some struggles against the potential second-round opponents. Toronto has lost all three matchups, but each was in close fashion, and the Wizards have beaten the Heat once in three attempts. 

    Those are favorable matchups for the Heat, but it's concerning in itself that this analysis is necessary. That's because the Heat are no longer confident in their chances against two of the other playoff teams in the Eastern Conference; at least they shouldn't be. 

    The Chicago Bulls clearly have Miami's number after an overtime victory saw LeBron James and Co. post only 88 points in five quarters. That evened the season series, but Miami clearly has lost the momentum to a surging group of defensive stalwarts. 

    And a matchup with Brooklyn is just as terrifying. 

    Paul Pierce has always played LeBron tough, and the rest of the Nets have followed suit in 2013-14. In three outings, Miami has yet to come out on top against Brooklyn, most recently falling by a single point on March 12. 

Terrible Rebounding

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Heat have never been a good rebounding squad, yet they've still managed to win each of the last two championships. They use a natural power forward as the starting center (Chris Bosh), and two limited bigs come off the bench as defensive presences (Greg Oden and Chris Andersen). 

    Lately though, things have been even worse. 

    Basketball-Reference shows that on the season, the Heat have been quite bad on both types of glass: 

    Offensive Rebounding PercentageORB% RankDefensive Rebounding PercentageDRB% Rank
    19.9No. 3072.3No. 28

    Pretty bad, right? 

    During the six-game skid that has featured five losses, Miami has been on the wrong side of 20 percent four times when we're looking at offensive rebounding percentage. The average mark during that stretch is only 17.8. 

    And the team's defensive rebounding percentage has been similarly bad.

    The Heat's season-long marks are pretty awful, and they've been even worse lately, as there have been virtually zero consistent presences on the glass.  

    When asked about the Heat's rebounding problems being potentially problematic in playoff matchups against Chicago and Indiana, two teams with lots of size at their disposal, this is what the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman had to say: 

    Well, they got away with it Monday against the Wizards, despite their 50-33 deficit, and they got away with it against the Bulls the previous time the teams met, and almost did again, in Sunday's overtime loss in Chicago. But I agree that it makes the challenge all the more difficult, the way Marcin Gortat looked like Dwight Howard on Monday night, especially with the real Howard to arrive this coming Sunday. Look, this team will have rebounding deficits based on the roster composition and the continued decision to start Shane Battier. Michael Beasley needs to get more than the one rebound he had Monday, and if Battier is going to start in that role, there has to be more there, also.

    Miami is indeed good at getting away with rebounding deficits, but eventually this is going to come back to bite the squad. 

    More effort on the glass and less focus on scoring transition points has to be an emphasis. Of course, it would help if the half-court struggles weren't popping up with so much frequency, thus placing more emphasis than necessary on the fast-break game. 

Half-Court Struggles

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    When the Heat aren't running the court in transition, it's been hard to come by offense. 

    The ball is stagnating, players are hesitant to take shots and missing when they loft up attempts, LeBron James has been mortal and there's a distinct lack of attacking mentality spreading through the team. It's just not a pretty sight, and it's caused the Miami offense to stagnate quite often. 

    Oh, and the Heat are turning the ball over far too frequently. As Chris Bosh told B/R's Ethan Skolnick after the latest loss, "Right now, we're indecisive. We're not making simple plays." 

    They're not making complicated ones either. 

    During the last six games, Miami has averaged 15.8 turnovers per game. That doesn't stand out much when compared to the season average of 14.9 cough-ups per contest, but it gets even worse when you remember that the last few outings have been grind-it-out games that featured plenty of slow, deliberate play. 

    Basketball-Reference reveals that the Heat have a turnover percentage of 14.6 on the season, which is better than only the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. But here are the turnover percentages over those last six outings: 

    • 7.9 percent against the Houston Rockets
    • 18.7 percent against the San Antonio Spurs
    • 16.9 percent against the Chicago Bulls
    • 10.6 percent against the Washington Wizards
    • 17.6 percent against the Brooklyn Nets
    • 16.6 percent against the Denver Nuggets

    Only two other times this season have the Heat posted turnover percentages on the wrong side of 16 in back-to-back outings, and this was the first time they had four such performances in a five-game stretch.

    But that's not the only problem. 

    A lack of comfort is rearing its ugly head as well, and it's stemming from trying to reintegrate a healthy Dwyane Wade back into the lineup. 

    "It's better for the team," LeBron James said, via ESPN's Michael Wallace,  "But it's kind of gotten me out of rhythm right now."

    He went into more detail a little later, courtesy of Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel

    It's a challenge. When [Wade] was in and out, I knew exactly what I had to do and exactly how to attack the game. His health has gotten better. It's going to be better for the team but it's kind of got me out rhythm as an individual. It's not like our first year playing together. It's something that we figured out in Year One. You can't take it for granted. You still got to try to figure it back out and that's something I'm going through right now.

    The maintenance days may have kept Wade healthy, but they've made it harder for the Heat offense to function when all the pieces are out on the court. James' game in particular has fallen off recently, as he's not used to playing without quite so much ball control. 

    This is one aspect that should get better, but that's far from a guarantee. 

Overaggressive Defense

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    When the Heat are functioning at their highest level, they trap everything. Every screen is met by a second defender, and the defense rotates perfectly to account for what should've become a weakness behind the first line of defense.

    It's a system that has worked to perfection some games, and it throws even the best players off balance. 

    However, defense has been a struggle in recent games. 

    Miami is still playing aggressively, but it's taken that to an extreme.

    The Heat are straying too far from the basket, and improper rotations are leaving them extremely vulnerable to quick passes and shots, a sentiment that SBNation's Dane Carbaugh strongly agrees with: 

    Rotationally, the Heat have suffered as teams have come prepared for their pick-and-roll defense, which often involves doubling the ball handler in an effort to force turnovers. But with their strategy known, teams have started to gameplan for counteracting Miami's defense by slipping screens and sending more than two players to set ball screens.

    Miami hasn't been able to keep teams from moving the ball, with every opponent in their last five losses finishing with more assists than the Heat. Without the ability to keep teams off the glass and from creating open passes off the pick-and-roll, the Heat defense isn't playing well enough to make up for their inequities when it comes to offense.

    The results have been ugly.

    Four of the last seven opponents have scored at least 106 points against Miami, including the offensively impotent Charlotte Bobcats and the struggling Denver Nuggets. That's not something to be proud of. 

    In fact, this is the biggest concern for Miami. 

    So much of the team's dominance stemmed from an ahead-of-its-time defensive system, but the rest of the league seems to have caught up. 

    Erik Spoelstra better be working feverishly on some adjustments.