Amid one of the Heat’s worst two-game stretches of the season, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James took some time to celebrate Saturday.
Following an intense practice session in suburban Chicago, James boarded a private jet bound for Cleveland and Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ jersey retirement ceremony. Wade said he had plans to attend his sister’s wedding. Throw in one less hour for the overnight time change and Sunday’s noon tipoff (local time) at United Center, and the Heat’s road-trip finale against the Chicago Bulls has all the makings for another sluggish start.
The Heat allowed 39 points in the first quarter of Tuesday’s loss to the Houston Rockets. On Thursday, the San Antonio Spurs scored 37 first-quarter points against the Heat. Poor defensive effort in the first quarters of those games was a point of emphasis by coach Erik Spoelstra.
“When we’re successful on the road against good teams, we’re able to impose our will on the game early on with an effort, a focus, a disposition that clearly wasn’t the case the last two games,” Spoelstra said. “We know we have to put together a complete game, which we haven’t done on this road trip.”
Sounds great in theory, but the Heat hasn’t displayed much urgency recently despite an excellent opportunity to move into first place in the Eastern Conference. The Indiana Pacers have lost their past three games — the team’s first three-game losing streak of the season — but the Heat has failed to gain any ground.
The Heat trailed the Pacers by a game in the loss column to begin this road trip, and that’s still the case. Home-court advantage throughout the playoffs goes to the team with the best record in the conference, but Spoelstra said the Heat isn’t worrying about the Pacers’ record.
“We’re more concerned with how we played the last two games,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not about what they’re doing.”
The Heat couldn’t match the Rockets’ energy level, and the game against the Spurs went down as the worst loss of the season. The Heat trailed wire to wire in both games, lost the rebounding battle 46-33 against the Rockets, and committed 21 turnovers, including 10 in the fourth quarter, against the Spurs.
“We have the No. 1 offense in the league,” Spoelstra said. “You can’t go on the road and bank on that. You have to give yourself a chance and impose your will on the game, and weather tough stretches.
“You can’t expect to shoot 55 to 60 percent every game against quality opponents in their building. You better be able to defend and grind out possessions, and we haven’t done that the last two games.”
Sunday will be another battle. The Bulls (34-27) are fourth in the Eastern Conference, and have won 10 of their past 13 games despite point guard Derrick Rose out with injury and former starting forward Luol Deng traded away to the Cleveland Cavaliers. At the Bulls’ resilient core is center Joakim Noah, the live-wire act who led the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007.
“He’s a hell of a player and he plays with a motor that not too many guys have,” Wade said. “It’s a special gift that he has and he gives that team a chance to win every night and every game.”
“He’s a worker, and we like his defensive toughness,” Spoelstra said of Liggins. “There’s a lot about his fabric and qualities that we like out of an NBA player, and like more specifically to our system.
“He makes our guys better. He’s got a lot of energy and a lot of toughness to him. He doesn’t back down from anybody, so on a day like [Sunday], it’s actually valuable to have a guy like that.”
“Yes, it’s a business and there is competition and that competition is fierce, but there are special moments in this league and you have to be able to acknowledge that. That’s what makes this league special is great individual and great teams and cool nights like that. We’ll work around it and they’ll get some rest. They’re not going commercial.”