Trips to New York used to inspire the Heat no matter the time of year, but this is January 2014, and this is a new kind of Heat playing by a new set of rules.
These regular-season games just don’t mean that much anymore. Not when the Eastern Conference is a boneyard of broken rosters, not when the Heat’s own lineup is limping through the New Year and certainly not when the Heat’s owner is imploring everyone to relax.
Micky Arison asked everyone to “CHILL” on Twitter in the middle of the Heat’s two-game road trip to New York, and the owner’s missive, while clashing with those traditional values Heat coach Erik Spoelstra often preaches, provided a valuable look inside the Heat’s current philosophy and culture. The team is now 0-3 this season against the NBA’s New York clubs, but that all matters none in the grand scheme.
Miami is trading losses for health at this point in the season, and it’s a sound strategy considering the state of the NBA:
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• The Heat (27-10) is all but locked into one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and the All-Star break is still a month away. The team’s only real competition this season is the Indiana Pacers, which are three games ahead of the Heat in the loss column.
• Beyond the Pacers and the Heat, only one other team in the East currently has a winning record, and the Atlanta Hawks (20-17) are without their best player, Al Horford, for the rest of the season.
• Speaking of injuries, more than a handful of elite guards across the NBA are missing extended time this season with injuries, with Jrue Holiday and Eric Bledsoe being the latest backcourt players to go down.
“You cringe certainly when you see players get hurt,” Spoelstra said. “News that we just heard of the last two players getting hurt, it’s horrible. You feel for them and their teams. With us, we want to make sure that we’re taking care of it to make sure we don’t have a setback.”
Resting starters Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers against the Knicks and Nets was a luxury. Both players could have played, but why risk injury for meaningless games in January? So Chalmers can wear a jersey with his nickname?
“With our guys, and in particular with Shane and Rio, that’s what you don’t want,” Spoelstra said. “So, even if you take a few extra days longer than they think they might need, if you don’t have a setback, then that’s great.
“You have a setback and then all of sudden it’s another two weeks, that starts to add up, and now you’re really playing from behind. We just want to be smart about it. … That’s just the situation we’re in this year with injuries.”
Wade, of course, injured his knee last season during the historic winning streak. The Heat doesn’t want to make that mistake again. Wade clearly has become frustrated with the team’s cautious approach — as evidenced by his snarky comments to reporters recently — but the team’s training staff will continue to make the final call on whether he plays or sits.
“Dwyane is a different situation,” Spoelstra said. “It’s big picture. He’s getting stronger and healthier as the season goes on.”
Of the Heat’s 10 losses this season, only two have come against teams with winning records (Indiana and Golden State), but here’s something to keep in mind as the seasons drags on and the Heat continues to lose to teams it shouldn’t. Since 2010, Miami has almost played the equivalent of one extra season when factoring in the playoffs. That’s a lot of games, and a lot of meaningless games that could suddenly become significant if a player sustains a long-term injury.
“It’s a long and grueling season for all of us,” LeBron James said. “We’ve played a lot of basketball in our four years together, and it’s taken a lot of wear and tear on our bodies. Mentally it is fatiguing. We try to find the motivation the best way we can as a group — in my mind it’s winning a championship.”