The distinct taste of aggravation moved from one interview scrum after another Wednesday night in the visiting locker room of Boston’s TD Garden. When before it seemed like the Heat was only giving lip service to its sporadic tendencies, this new flavor of frustration was all too real.
The Heat is still losing to bad teams after all these months, but now it’s starting to matter.
The l01-96 setback to the Celtics represented the Heat’s 11th loss of the season to teams with a sub-.500 winning percentage. Considering the defending back-to-back champions are only two games behind the Indiana Pacers in the loss column, there are a lot of inexcusable defeats lingering among all that apathy.
Even with LeBron James out Wednesday with a sore back, the Heat was still a heavy favorite against the Celtics, but the team gave away another early lead, and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined to shoot 3 of 15 from the field in the second half.
If the Heat (46-20) can’t catch the Pacers (50-18) for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference standings at this point, it will have only itself to blame for not securing home-court advantage through the conference championship round. And if the Heat doesn’t figure out how to win consistently soon — as in this week — that measuring stick of a game against the Pacers on March 26 might not mean a thing.
Before coach Erik Spoelstra can try out new starter Greg Oden against the Pacers’ rugged bunch, the Heat has important home games against the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers bookending an away game against the New Orleans Pelicans. The Grizzlies and Blazers are fighting for playoff position out West, and New Orleans, well, based on the Heat’s previous levels of disinterest against the NBA’s struggling teams, a victory against the Pelicans is anything but guaranteed.
“I wish I had an answer to that,” said Bosh, when asked about the Heat’s inconsistent play. “We aren’t used to playing so unstable. I think we are trying to figure it out — what our style is, what our consistent plays are. We are in this gray area right now.
“We need to pick it up. We are running out of time. We still have time, but we have to do a better job if we want to win.”
Watching film of the Heat’s most recent loss might provide Bosh with some answers. The game against Boston was like a case study in the Heat’s current woes. Led by Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers, the Heat outscored the Celtics 34-22 in the first quarter. After that, the team’s familiar mood of indifference dulled any hint of Haslem’s inspired form to begin the game.
“We have never played this poorly at this point in the season before,” said Shane Battier, who played less than six minutes in the second half. “This is uncharted territory for us, but I like to think it will forge us and make us better for the stretch run.
“But we have to make it happen. We can’t just hope that things will turn around.”
With James and Oden inactive against the Celtics, the Heat used its 16th starting lineup of the season, and Michael Beasley, who started in place of James, was involved in a few defensive breakdowns that needed explaining from Spoelstra.
“We expect guys to come in and play and play a role and prepare like they’re going to play,” Battier said. “We didn’t execute our defensive fundamentals, which has been an issue for us the last few weeks. And it’s something we need to correct no matter who’s playing and who’s not playing.”
Of course, it wasn’t all bad in Boston. The lone bright spot was the re-emergence of Haslem. Wade was happy the Heat’s other co-captain and winner of three NBA championships was back on the floor. Haslem isn’t expected to remain in the Heat’s starting lineup, but he could play a role off the bench in the final 16 games of the regular season and the playoffs.
Haslem carried the team in the first quarter against the Celtics when Wade was dealing with a bloody nose, and Haslem’s minutes in the first quarter served as a reminder to anyone watching that he still has something positive to contribute. The Heat lost the game, but not because of Haslem’s presence. He was 7 of 8 from the field and finished with 14 points, and added five rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
“It’s great for us to get one of our rotation players back in the rotation,” Wade said.
On Haslem’s return to significance during the road trip, Wade said it “was big for him to come in and close the game out, and [Wednesday] to start and have the game that he had, the impact that he made — it’s great for his confidence.”