For the better part of two decades, the Heat built its foundation on sound, stout, high-effort defense.
That foundation is crumbling, with Miami allowing teams to shoot at a higher percentage that it has during any season this century.
Even in shooting a season-high 56.3 percent on Wednesday, the Heat was again exploited defensively in a 112-102 loss to Atlanta that dropped the Heat to 9-9 and 4-6 at home.
What’s more, Miami lost starting forward Luol Deng, who suffered a bone bruise on two fingers on his right hand while taking a charge, forcing him to depart for good at halftime. X-rays were negative, but Deng said he could miss some time.
“Hopefully, not that long,” he said. “I tried to play” but could not.
Chris Bosh (27 points, 11 rebounds), Dwyane Wade (season-high 28 points) and Mario Chalmers (19 points, 11 assists) did their part offensively, but the Heat couldn’t muster nearly enough defensive stops, a troubling trend that shows no signs of ending.
“This was the eighth time we scored 100 points and lost,” Bosh said. “We’re kidding ourselves. We have to play some defense. This was eight steps back. We haven’t taken a step forward in a couple weeks. It’s hard to accept.”
Bosh said the defensive shortcomings are “about effort. It’s us not working it. It’s nothing about the system.”
But Wade said “effort is there. We need to be smarter the way we do certain things. It’s frustrating. It just ain’t working.”
Is the talent there to play better defense? Wade said yes, then added: “If not, we are going to lose a lot of games.”
For four years in a row, Miami dominated the Southeast Division, winning 21 in a row against opponents before the streak was snapped last January. Now, in consecutive games, the Heat has lost by 21 to first-place Washington and by 10 to second-place Atlanta, dropping its division record to 3-4.
Defensively, the Hawks’ quickness and deft passing left the Heat scrambling, this marking the seventh time this season that Miami has allowed an opponent to shoot at least 50 percent. Atlanta’s 33-point third quarter was the most by a Heat opponent this season.
Miami struggled to defend quick, crafty Hawks guards Jeff Teague (27, including 22 in second half) and Dennis Schroder (career-high 16). Throw in 18 from Kyle Korver and 14 from Paul Millsap, and that was more than enough.
“We have to figure it out and get to work,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of the team’s defense. “That is the only solution.”
Offensively, the Heat committed too many turnovers: 19 overall, including a season-high eight in the first quarter. Wade and Josh McRoberts each had four.
Down by 14 in the first half, the Heat closed to within one midway through the third before the Hawks trampled the Heat with a 25-10 run over the final 7:23 of the third, surging ahead 88-72 heading to the fourth. From there, the Heat never drew closer than 10 the rest of the night.
Spoelstra made two changes to his starting lineup, with McRoberts replacing Shawne Williams and Chalmers filling in for the ailing Norris Cole.
That group had turnover issues early, then lost Deng, who scored five points in 16 minutes before departing.
Demonstrating the passing skills that made him attractive to the Heat in free agency, McRoberts had five assists but no rebounds in 21 minutes on a four-point night.
“He’s been giving us good minutes,” Spoelstra said of the decision to start McRoberts.
Spoelstra’s lineup changes extended beyond his starting group, partly a result of injuries to Deng and Chris Andersen (who remains out indefinitely with a sprained ankle) and Cole’s illness.
James Ennis (two points) started the second half in place of Deng, and Spoelstra used Danny Granger (nine scoreless minutes) for only the third time this season.
Justin Hamilton, who had played just 10 minutes over the previous 12 games, was the Heat’s first big man summoned off the bench and had two points and a rebound in seven minutes.
Spoelstra didn’t use Udonis Haslem for three quarters, then played him the entire fourth.
The conversation before the season, among analysts and others, was whether this team could approach 50 wins. Now, 18 games in, the question is whether this group can stay above .500.
The Heat, at 9-9, opens a five-game road trip Friday in Milwaukee, and only one opponent on the trip (Utah) has a losing record.
▪ The Heat is sending guard Andre Dawkins to its NBA Development League team in South Dakota.