Its easy to focus on the Heat’s 8-7 record.
Most of us didn’t figure the Heat would sustain a seventh loss any earlier than picking up a 20th win.
The Heat were supposed to challenge the ‘01 Lakers, ‘86 Celtics and ‘96 Bulls, but at this rate, come May they’ll be challenging the Knicks, Bobcats and Wizards for a bottom seed to make the playoffs.
Though the Heat's record is far beneath what they would have hoped for after 15 games, even worse is the manner in which they have accumulated the seven losses. They have yet to play with the passion and consistency that separates the contenders from the pretenders.
Many of the problems the Heat have exhibited from the start of the season were on full display tonight.
The Magic simply outclassed them in tonight's game and abused the Heat in three key areas:
1) Shot Selection
Dwyane Wade’s shooting really hurt Miami’s cause tonight. Missing 15 of 21 shots is bad enough, but the low quality of most of Wade's shots made his struggles even more evident.
Interestingly enough, the only time Wade showed signs of life at all came while LeBron James rested on the bench.
If The Heat and Magic Face Off In The Playoffs Who Would Advance?
James’ own shot selection also left a bit to be desired. Though he finished with 9 of 18 shooting, he settled for low percentage jumpers far too often. He only seemed motivated to get quality inside looks when the Magic threatened to run away with the game.
The Magic bench only outscored the Heat’s by eight, however they had five players finish in double figures while Miami’s “Big Three” were the only members on the team to accomplish the same.
Coming into the season nobody expected the Heat to have Olympic team level depth, particularly given the absence of Udonis Haslem, but Miami cannot expect to contend for the title with only their top three players making significant contributions.
The fact that Miami lacks the depth to make up for Haslem’s absence despite having three of the top 12 players in basketball is very telling and a cause for concern.
3) Overall Purpose
The offensive half of this builds more on the shot selection we talked about earlier.
Every player wearing a Magic uniform knew their role tonight. They knew how to execute their plays and when to make an offensive gamble.
When the role players deferred to Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson or Dwight Howard, they did it within rhythm rather than out of predetermined necessity and showed extreme fluidity in their offense.
The ball movement was crisp and precise for the majority of the night and as a result, the Magic often found themselves quality looks.
For Miami it was more of the same of what we‘ve been seeing. James and Wade took turns. Chris Bosh’s reemergence continued. In fact, the isolation plays run for Bosh seemed to be the only consistent source of offense the Heat could muster all night.
The Magic also executed very well on the defensive end.
Knowing that Wade has spent the last few games in a rut, the Magic allowed him to settle for long jump shots all game long.
They did their best to prevent James from getting to the rim as frequently as he would have liked and succeeded for the most part.
The Magic didn’t do much to slow down Bosh, who battled bravely through back spasms but seemed to run out of gas in the fourth quarter where he only registered 4 points and was reduced to a non-factor down the stretch.
Perhaps I could have included a fourth point: passion, but passion isn’t something that can really be quantified.
There really isn't a play or sequence I can point to that would fully illustrate how much more passion Orlando brought to the game than their in-state rivals (though its tempting to site the Magic's game-clenching 8-0 run after being tied 89-89 as proof).
If you don’t understand that Orlando brought more passion and intensity to the game than you either didn’t watch or you just don’t understand the game. It was all in the body language, the Magic wanted that game and enjoyed every second of playing it.
The Heat looked like they would have rather been on the highway back home.
Those in Miami’s camp should be more than a little concerned about such a lack of motivation for a team that came into the game in danger of losing three straight.
Still, despite all the red flags we’ve seen from the Heat at this point, the season is still young. As easy as it is to forget tonight, the series between these teams is tied at one apiece and both teams preserved homecourt.
Isn’t that what we should expect from a rivalry featuring two elite teams?
Though I’m sure the Miami bandwagon has a lot more room than it did even two weeks ago, it would be extremely foolish to write this team off.
A team as talented and deep as the Magic should provide a tough match up for anyone, but given the shakiness of the Heat point guard situation and that they are severely lacking in size, it isn't hard to see why they struggled tonight.
Jameer Nelson isn't considered to be one of the very best point guards in the league, but is a very good all around scorer and an underrated passer.
Dwight Howard is the best defensive presence and rebounder in the game and has been the consensus best center in the league for years.
Even with these match up difficulties, its far too early to name a definitive favorite in a potential playoff series between the Magic and Heat, but given that both teams won convincingly on their homecourt and the Magic are on pace to finish with a much higher seed than the Heat, the edge has to reside in Orlando.
At least for now.