OKLAHOMA CITY -- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra enjoys applying platitudes such as “toughness” and “resolve” to his team. At Wednesday’s NBA Finals media session he must have used his pet phrase “impose our will” a dozen times. He likes to suggest that dealing with all of the attention, noise and venom the past two years — “we live in a different world than most teams,” he declared — has uniquely imbued the Heat with a psychological edge, a reservoir of something extra available to no one else.
Time to see.
Time for all of those perceived magical intangibles to come to bear for Miami in Game 2 on Thursday night versus the Oklahoma City Thunder.
See, for the first time in two years, somebody else might have more talent. For the first time in the Big 3 era, the Heat is a series underdog and rightly — all the more after losing Game 1. And for the first time in this MVP season of his, there is serious debate whether LeBron James is the best player on the court.
You know what OKC looked like in Tuesday night’s Finals opener? Like it was better than Miami, bluntly put. Like that second half and that result were no fluke.
You know what it looks like now? Like this next game, realistically, is all but a must-win for the Heat.
And as usual Spoelstra is in the middle of everything, fiddling with his lineups, bench rotations, minute allotments, defensive matchups, game plans, everything. You get the sense nothing about this Heat team — beyond LeBron — is set or consistent. A lot of hoping and tinkering still is going on for a team in the Finals, and it has been thus throughout the playoffs. (Anybody remember Dexter Pittman starting one game at center and not being heard from since?) Some of this was set in motion by Chris Bosh’s injury, but not all of it. Much of it is just because this shiny, noisy, expensive thing that Pat Riley assembled is an imperfect machine.
Miami was better, flaws and all, than anybody it faced in the postseason, including Boston. But it does not appear to be better than Oklahoma City, a locale that might conjure visions of prairies and covered wagons, but a basketball team that moves as if jet-propelled.
Miami defensively was not up to OKC’s athleticism and speed leading to 24 fast-break points to the Heat’s four Tuesday night. The Thunder looked like the team Miami wants to be and thinks of itself as.
So, as usual, the Heat talk entering Game 2 is of “making adjustments,” a team still tweaking its way forward, an experiment on the fly, these Finals not proof the formula is achieved but rather just a grander stage for the laboratory.
This isn’t the norm.
The Thunder and before it Boston and Indiana were fonts of stability, with set lineups, rotations and approaches.
Heat players deal with a mish-mash. The latest changes for Game 2 could include Bosh returning to the starting lineup, James Jones rejoining the rotation, and perhaps LeBron defending Thunder superstar Kevin Durant more often. (James was surprised to find out just before tip-off Tuesday that he wouldn’t be defending Durant). Spoelstra also tinkers with ways to get Dwyane Wade some easy looks early to help snap him out of his first-half funk, and to slow OKC’s fast break.
“It’s been challenging,” James said Wednesday, diplomatically, of the lack of stability. “When you go out with different lineups from game to game, it’s challenging for sure.”
Said Wade: “It’s been different. But no excuse. Would we like the same lineup all the way through? Yeah. But we do not live in a perfect world. Has it been ideal? No.”
Spoelstra got a tad testy on the topic Wednesday.
“Who cares? That’s not what we’re dealt with,” he said of the constant changes. “We had to reinvent ourselves.”
It is hard to second-guess Spoelstra partly because he so often second-guesses himself first. The latest: When he was asked if he had done too much defensive switching on coverage assignments in Game 1.
“Possibly,” he said. “It flattened out some of our aggressiveness.”
James and Wade — how the stars coexist and mesh — continues two years in as another reason the Heat maintains the feel of an evolving experiment, a work still in laborious progress.
It isn’t the awkward mess it was for them last season, but neither is it all smooth.
“That’s the hardest part about playing with another guy of that ability,” Wade said. “Trying to figure out when to defer, when not to defer.”
Wade didn’t say that early last season. He said that Wednesday, preparing for Finals Game 2.
James obviously appreciates the delicate balance. He is now clearly the team’s go-to scorer, but also knows Miami can’t win a championship with Wade scoring 19 points on 7-for-19 shooting, as he did Tuesday.
“He still needs to be Dwyane Wade and not worry about deferring,” James said, unusual candor for LeBron.
James said he has had conversations about that with Wade periodically but wasn’t sure if he would prior to Thursday’s Game 2.
A legion of anxious Heat fans probably wishes he would.
The first three rounds of the playoffs showed us that a tinkering, inconsistent Heat team was good enough to get by.
Game 1 of the Finals suggested Miami’s imperfect machine will need a symphony of all its cylinders to do it this time.