Not quite how some who anointed the Heat favorites the East would have expected their first nine games of the season to play out, although this recent loss to the Boston Celtics serves as a snapshot of what has to improve if the Heat want to offer some sense that this season will develop into something other than an anticlimactic prelude to another Lakers-Celtics clash in the finals.
Entering this game, two themes seemed to spring forward with the most consistency:
The Heat cannot handle elite point guards, and they have no one to defend the interior or command a double-team to create opportunities to score in the paint.
Playing the Celtics (which has depth at both positions) both weakness were on full display as illustrated in the first quarter: There goes Rajon Rondo driving down the lane past Carlos Arroyo and dunking the ball for two of his 8 points and game-high 16 assists. Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett, one of those bigs the Heat have had trouble guarding had 16 points and 13 rebounds.
LeBron James had attempted to assert himself early but if you're going to play one-on-one basketball against the Celtics defense you are not going to win. Wade once again struggled against the Celtics defense going 2-12 for just 8 points in the 112-107 loss.
The game was a testament to the importance of team development and cohesiveness, and after blowing a 22-point lead the previous game and getting it handed to them in the game against the Celtics, it certainly looks as though the Heat are not yet ready to challenge the Celtics for the Eastern Conference crown.
Here are just a few observations about the game.
First, I want to take the "glass half full" approach and say that a 5-4 start, while concerning, is not the end of the world.
While this loss will certainly put Erik Spoelstra on the hot seat, I do feel as though Pat Riley needs to give him a bit more time before shopping for his replacement.
There was another team a while back that was experiencing the same slow, getting to know you stretch that the Heat is going through:
The 1999 San Antonio Spurs.
Back in 1999, there were high expectations going into the shortened 50-game season, especially regarding the Spurs. As they were entering the season, David Robinson had agreed to sacrifice parts of his offensive game to Tim Duncan for the good of the team. The club had added veterans with championship experience in Mario Elie and Steve Kerr in the off-season and they were looking to make big things happen as the regular season began.
But it didn't happen, at least not right away, the Spurs opened the season a disappointing 6-8 and everyone was calling for Gregg Popovich's job. There was talk of breaking up the team after the slow start and some felt as though David Robinson and Tim Duncan just could not play together. One NBA columnist suggested trading David Robinson to bring in a big man that would better compliment Duncan's game.
Nevertheless, the team stayed the course, eventually developed their team chemistry and wound up winning the franchise's first title that season.
I say that not to argue that this scenario will definitely play out for the Heat, but just to serve as an example of the type of "what have you done for me lately" aesthetic that exists throughout sports analysis.
If the Spurs were as easily discouraged by their team's chances as the pundits felt they should have been, they never would have won a title because Popovich and Robinson would have been sent packing after their slow start.
However, I will also concede that if this team does not show more consistency by mid-season, a change will need to be made.
Coming off a disappointing loss to the Jazz, I was expecting the Heat to come out and look to establish their prescence at home early.
After all, this was the same Boston Celtics team that smacked them around on opening night. They needed to come out with a determination to at least convince the Celtics they were going to be in for a war.
But there was none of that as the Celtics jumped out to an early 14-5 lead and won the game wire-to-wire.
Coach Erik Spoelstra mentioned the importance of the team "playing with passion" prior to the start of the fourth quarter, but despite a few minor 6-0 runs in the second half, there really wasn't much consistent passion.
Where was the sense that: This is our house and we have to defend it? Where is the sense that, even if we are missing shots we're going to attack the rim like our lives depend on it? There was a look of passive acceptance in their body language at times, like the fight wasn't there.
How can Rondo get to the rim so easily with hardly any body contact? Was someone supposed to be guarding Ray Allen, because his 6-6 from the 3 point line and team-high 35 points said otherwise. Maybe now it's time to give the Celtics defense the credit for Dwyane Wade's struggles as he scored the hardest eight points of his life.
Perhaps it will come with time, or it will come with experience, but right now the Heat don't have the collective will to derail the Celtics from their goal of advancing to the NBA Finals again.
There was a point in the first half when Chris Bosh, who has been struggling with his offensive game since the season began, made a few quick baskets and looked as though he might be due for a breakout game. On the next possession after a Paul Pierce miss, Dwyane Wade rebounds and brings the ball up and passes it directly to Bosh who wasn't expecting it and it results in a turnover.
This sequence illustrated one obvious problem with the team currently: They are still trying to find themselves offensively and Wade's well-meaning, but woefully predictable decision to pass the ball to Bosh in that situation rather than passing it to a player that might have been more open on the wings, suggested a "let's see if this will work" dynamic that the Celtics don't have.
When Rondo drives down the lane, he knows that Glen Davis and Kevin Garnett are right behind him and he can simply dish the ball to them or Ray Allen in that corner spot he loves to shoot those killer threes from. They know each others tendencies and positions on the floor and are able to exploit the match-ups that they prefer.
When Wade or LeBron walked the ball up, they seemed to be looking for some offensive advantage. They very rarely found one as the team's lack a familiarity with each others tendencies resulted in too much one-on-one or scatterball.
Meanwhile, the Celtics cohesiveness allowed them to feel comfortable in their defensive rotations to prevent any major offensive night by multiple members of the Heat Big Three.
LeBron has 35, but Wade and Bosh combine for 23.
Rajon Rondo had a strong game: 8 points and 16 assists. His play making abilities were solid throughout the game and he certainly controlled the game with his passing and defense.
A lot of writers are saying that the Heat struggle with elite point guards and that "they are now 0-4 against the leagues best point guards," but that is just a bit too simplistic for my taste. The critics say that they need to "stop" Rondo to win, but those individuals miss the point.
The great Bill Russell, a man who knows a little something about defense and winning, was once asked how he would stop Shaq if he had to guard him in the NBA.
Russell said, "I would play him straight up and when he did what he was going to do, we get it back on the other end. Once you decide: Our job is to stop this guy, you lose a bit of the team concept. My philosophy was: We play their best player as part of their strengths, but we go out and beat that team."
The Heat don't have to worry about "stopping Rondo" to win, they need to worry about being emotionally and physically prepared to beat this Celtics team to win.
This game was a perfect microcosm for the Russell philosophy: James had 35, but they were insignificant because the Celtics team beat the Heat team collectively. One player will not spell doom for a great, cohesive team, and the Heat are not at the Celtics level yet.
Here's an interesting factoid from the game:
The Heat's front-court actually outscored the Celtics front-court 77 to 54. And even if you take out LeBron and Pierce's numbers, the advantage is Heat 42 to 29. As a team, the Heat out-rebounded the Celtics 37 to 35 and the Heat had more blocks (4) than the Celtics (0). But it was clear that the Celtics size made an impact. Shaq got in foul trouble on LeBron and Wade's penetration, but if his job is to play 10 minutes and get the most out of his six fouls, he did the job.
Glen Davis statistically had a similar game to big Z, but his hustle and defense were always on display to help the team regain the momentum following a Heat momentum play, like Eddie House's three to end the first quarter.
For the life of me I don't know why Erik Spoelstra refuses to play Dexter Pittman.
Sure he's a rookie, but he would offer this team size and a presence in the middle that they just don't have right now.
Nevertheless, I think that the Heat's bigs can be effective provided they can find a way to impact the game in more ways: More hustle, more rebounding, more "enforcing" so that when LeBron and Wade are leveled teams don't feel as though they won't feel a retaliatory elbow in kind.
The Heat bigs need to show more toughness if they want to be prepared to challenge the Celtics.
I don't wanna go all Dennis Green on everybody but, the Celtics "are who we thought they were!"
And that is: The best team in the East. But there is a lot of season left to play and the Heat still have a chance to right the ship.
One more thing I want to emphasize though is that for a team like the Heat, losing a game like this and the one against the Jazz, may be what the club needs right now to learn as a team.
It's only through failure and losing that teams learn and develop the sense of what it takes to win collectively. I think if the Heat had steamrolled through the NBA in their first few weeks, they might have developed a false sense of security that would prevent them from truly growing through disappointment.
Whether it was Michael Jordan losing to the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs three straight years or the Lakers losing to the Celtics in the finals before discovering how tough they need to be to win it all themselves, teams grow through failure.
Hopefully, the Heat will learn something from a team that individually, had to suffer a lot of losing before they could win themselves.