Miami Heat experiences changes but same goal remains

The two-time defending champions will enter the postseason with a worse record and a lot of questions.

04/16/2014 12:00 AM

05/18/2014 10:39 PM

Here’s the simple truth as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh begin preparing for another run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Heat isn’t as good this season as it was in 2012 and 2013.

The final regular-season record will be inferior.

The playoff seeding will not be as high.

The team isn’t as deep.

The chemistry isn’t as solid.

The options are not as dependable.

That point was driven home Monday, but not at Verizon Center where the defending back-to-back champs conceded a No.1 seed to the Indiana Pacers in favor of a few more days of rest before the playoffs. It took a game in Phoenix to perfectly illustrate what the Heat is missing.

While James, Wade and Bosh watched Michael Beasley freelance his way to 18 points in a throwaway loss against the Washington Wizards, a former Heat family member was playing a far more important and meaningful role in one of the Western Conference’s more compelling games of the regular season. Mike Miller — the Heat’s two-time NBA champion Mike Miller — scored 21 points in 30 minutes for the Memphis Grizzlies in a must-win game against the Suns on Monday night. The Grizzlies needed a victory to earn the West’s eighth and final playoff spot, and Miller went out and shot 8 of 11 from the field and 5 of 6 from three-point range.

It’s that time of year again, but this time the magic of Miller is on a different team on the opposite side of the playoff bracket.

In the NBA, sometimes you get what you pay for, and sometimes you don’t. Or in this case, the Grizzlies got what the Heat paid for when the NBA’s new luxury tax compelled Heat owner Micky Arison to make a difficult decision. The Heat is hoping that decision doesn’t come back to haunt the team.

Because here’s another simple truth: It might not matter. The Heat isn’t as good without Miller, and, it should noted, isn’t as good without Joel Anthony either, but the back-to-back champs could still be good enough to win it all.

It’s almost time to find out.

“Like everybody else that’s going to be one of the 16 teams, there’s a storm coming, and it’s time for us to really start preparing for that storm and getting ready for an incredible journey that’s going to test all of us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

On Monday, the Heat locked itself into the No.2 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs. That means if the Pacers and Heat meet in the Eastern Conference finals and the series goes the full seven (like last year), then Indiana will host the grand finale (unlike last year). Just like during its final road game, the Heat was unconcerned with the standings all season, and chose health for its players over home-court advantage and on-court rhythm. Entering Wednesday’s final game against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Heat has lost 13 of its past 24 games and featured the starting lineup it will use in the playoffs only once.

“Some years, you know, as a team you’re a way better home team than you are a road team, and sometimes, we’ve been a pretty good road team as well,” Wade said after Monday’s loss to the Wizards, which represented his second game back from a strained hamstring. “Seeding is always something that’s important. People love playing at home. So it’s never going to be anything where you say, ‘Aw, we don’t care at all.’ But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee you anything, either.”

The Heat will learn its first-round opponent Wednesday, the final day of the season. It will be the Charlotte Bobcats or the Wizards. The Heat, which hasn’t lost to the Bobcats since James and Bosh joined Wade and Haslem in 2010, had plenty of good things to say about the Bobcats on Monday.

“They were a surprise early on, but they had a similar-type start last year, and they were able to sustain it this year,” Spoelstra said. “Steve [Clifford] has done a great job with the team, but the young players have really stepped up with more confidence this year with a system they believe in, and [Al] Jefferson was a big pickup. … He has been one of the better players in the league since All-Star break.”

One of the Heat’s big offseason pickups was brought in to counter players such as Jefferson, but it’s unclear if Greg Oden will even play in the postseason. He hasn’t stepped on the court since the Heat lost to the Pacers on March 26, and didn’t travel with the team for its final road trip. The Heat’s other offseason addition was bringing in Beasley to replace Miller.

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