INDIANAPOLIS -- A little less than a year ago, a humbling 36-point Heat loss at San Antonio put Miami down 2-1 in the NBA Finals and facing the next two games in Texas.
Coach Erik Spoelstra sat in his hotel room late at night breaking down film. “I was despondent,” he recalled. “Beside myself.” There was a knock on the door. Club president and sage Pat Riley was there carrying three bottles of wine.
Or maybe it was two bottles of wine and a bottle of wisdom.
The men broke down the film together. Riley may have snuck in a subtle suggestion or two, but mostly he calmed Spoelstra down and lifted him up. Soon after, a parade, champagne replacing wine.
Fast forward to this week, Heat down 1-0 and facing another game in Indianapolis on Tuesday night.
“We drove back together after the [Sunday loss] and barely talked about the game,” Spoelstra said Monday following his team’s practice. “That’s reassuring.”
It indicates that down after one game in the Eastern finals is not as dire as down after three in the Finals. It indicates that vibes-reader Riley knows Spoelstra is neither despondent nor dependent the way he might have been even one year ago.
It also reminds us there are no magic pills. There is no wand Riley can hand to his protégé.
The Heat just needs to play better in Game 2. A lot better.
“There can be a danger of over-adjusting and over-thinking,” as LeBron James rightly put it.
Popular thought on the adjustment front after Sunday’s 107-96 Heat loss was that Spoelstra erred by not starting Udonis Haslem over Shane Battier. Putting on the 20/20 hindsight goggles, he did. Haslem fits better against Indiana’s front-court size and should start Tuesday night.
The Heat should go bigger with Haslem starting because he has proved he is up to the task of defending 7-2 Roy Hibbert, even giving up six inches. And also because that would allow LeBron to be a perimeter defender again and not spend so much defensive energy inside on David West.
West is one of the few NBA players who might be stronger physically than LeBron.
Asked who else might be on that short list, James smiled, thought a moment, then said, “Probably Shaq and Zeus.”
The Heat ask enough of LeBron all over the court, all over the game, to not tack on the added responsible of defending a Greek god.
Making the switch to Haslem would be Spoelstra admitting he erred in Game 1, but it makes sense.
Again, though, that simple adjustment would be the magic pill that turned out to be placebo, a mind trick — if the Heat deosn’t simply play better in Game 2. A lot better.
Yes, Haslem not in the starting lineup Sunday was a surprise. James had said before the game he’d expected a heavier, from-the-opening-tip dose of the popular captain teammates call “U.D.” Pacers coach Frank Vogel had even surmised Haslem would get the call.
Haslem not only matches up better against this opponent, but him in the starting five looks and feels normal, what Chris Bosh called “classic Heat” and “what’s natural for us.” Haslem brings a comfort level; he’s a security blanket.
“We have a tougher frontcourt out there. Bigger,” James said of the Heat when Haslem is on the wood. LeBron wasn’t lobbying, exactly, although he made his leaning pretty clear. “He has that warrior mentality and heart. That definitely helps us.”
But Spoelstra, not revealing who will start Game 2 alongside the Big 3 and Mario Chalmers, made a pretty fair point in downplaying the Haslem-or-Battier question by noting, “It doesn’t matter who we play. Big or small, we just have to consistently get to our defensive identity.”
The TV over-analysts and the age of micro-analytics tend to over-complicate things.
In Game 1, the Heat generally played like [bleep]. That’s all.
Now it had better play like itself at its best to get Micky Arison’s cruise ship unstuck and moving forward again.
Must win Tuesday?
“Yeah,” Bosh answered. “Down 2-0 is not a very good situation.”
No Heatnik seemed overly concerned by the Game 1 defeat, partly because, as LeBron said Monday, “We’re a team that gets better as a series goes on.”
It may be subliminal, but I sometimes think this Heat team relishes what a loss brings. The challenge. The doubt. The feeling all around Tuesday night’s game.
It takes massive gumption to believe you can turn it on when needed, but if a two-time reigning champion doesn’t have that, who would?
Troublingly, it’s as if it all starts with mind-set, effort and passion with the Heat.
One of the most disturbing phrases heard in the NBA — and you don’t hear it in other sports — is when players talk about the need to “match the intensity” of the other team.
The Heat clearly fell short Sunday. Now the Pacers speak as if they’ll have to turn up their game to mirror Miami’s expected response.
“I’m confident we can match whatever level they bring,” Paul George said Monday.
Added West: “We know they’ll be more aggressive.”
Begs the question: Why did the Heat fail to bring their A-game in Game 1? Was an Eastern Conference finals opener, on the road, against a bitter rival, not enough to merit the Heat’s full attention and intense effort?
Miami must show a defensive tenacity that speeds up the Pacers’ thought process and forces the misguided passes we know as turnovers.
Miami must get to the free-throw line more — that starts with LeBron and Dwyane Wade — and let the Pacers there less.
Miami must shoot a lot better from three-point range than Sunday’s abysmal 6-for-23.
Miami must get much better performances from Bosh and Chalmers.
Mostly, Miami must bring the good desperation Tuesday night.
That isn’t the kind that has any fear in it.
That’s the kind that has no doubt it will remind you who the champions are.