We’ve seen a lot of encouraging stretches from the Miami Heat this season. We’ve seen quarters of dominant defense. We’ve seen flurries of free-flowing offense.
What we haven’t seen yet, not in enough games and not in the season as a whole, is sustainability.
Such was the case again Friday night, in a 108-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors that, in some alarming ways, resembled other losses so far this season, including three others at home. In this one, Miami led by six with 7:47 left, only to get outscored by 20 from there. Against the Timberwolves, Miami led by eight with 10:30 left, only to lose by 12. Against the Wizards, Miami led by seven with 4:29 left in the third quarter, only to lose by 11. Against the Celtics, Miami never led in the second half but got within one with 9:55 left, only to lose by 10.
The circumstances were somewhat different in each, but each spoke to an inability to stay with a winning formula, and then to stem an opponent’s inevitable surge. And while it wasn’t clear that the Heat lost emotional composure — other than Chris Bosh getting ejected following a missed Bradley Beal travel in the Washington game — mental composure is another matter.
Focus has gotten frayed.
“The great teams trust each other,” Luol Deng said. “Defensively, offensively. You see what works, and you stick with it. I think we have a habit at times of just relaxing a little bit. Also, our strength is when we are all into it. I think that’s when we are at our best.”
Goran Dragic used that same word.
“Defensive-wise, we didn’t trust each other,” Dragic said. “The help was too late, or the guy was not there. And it’s tough to play like that. Then they are getting open looks. We did a pretty OK job in the first half, but the second half was too much.”
The second half actually started extremely well offensively; the Heat scored nine points in the opening 2:27, including a nifty collaboration between Dragic, Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside, ending in a Whiteside slam. But then, Miami scored just 30 points in 21 minutes to close the contest. Just two of the Heat’s 19 assists came in the fourth quarter.
“The ball just didn’t move,” Dragic said.
Bosh said the ball stayed on one side too much.
“If the ball doesn’t move, I’m the first guy that gets iced out,” Bosh said. “I can’t be dangerous if the ball isn’t moving. We talk about it all the time. Against Atlanta [on Monday], it was beautiful basketball.”
Yes, they talk about it a lot, internally, externally, endlessly. This group appears to like each other — they speak of their camaraderie frequently — so it’s not as if they intend to ignore each other on offense or abandon each other on defense. It’s more like they forget. They forget how they need everyone in order to accomplish anything significant. They forget that they can’t merely overwhelm teams with their talent, the way that the Big 3 squads could, or the Golden State Warriors can. They don’t have a takeover player in his prime. Wade can still do it in spurts, and that can work, as it did in Brooklyn on Wednesday. But sometimes, his more deliberative style can slow the pace so much that teammates stand idle.
That happened some Friday, though six of Wade’s eight turnovers came in the first half, not down the stretch. Nor was he the only culprit for the team’s collapse.
“We have to trust our consistency,” Bosh said. “Trust that the next guy is going to be in his spot. Trust that the next guy is going to move the ball. And trust that everybody’s going to know the play and get that ball moving on a rope when it’s time.”
This is the trick: believing in each other enough to trust every teammate, while not going so far as to believe in the team’s collective superiority. This is the third time this season that the Heat has won three games in a row, but never four. Bosh acknowledged that “we exhaled a little bit” amid the streak, and that’s his concern with this group: “I’m not worried about when this team is on edge, after we’ve lost a couple, or lost a close one.” Rather, he’s worried about unearned complacency when things are going well.
As he should be.
“Today, [the Raptors] simply were hungrier than us; they’d lost three in a row,” Deng said of Friday’s loss. “It’s exactly what we did to Atlanta, where we came in on a back-to-back and we just played hard the whole game and wore them out.”
He noted that Toronto was on the second night of a back-to-back Friday.
“I thought in the third quarter, there was a small window that we had, where I really believe — nothing bad about Toronto — but I believe they would have quit if we just kept our foot on the pedal,” Deng said. “I felt that we relaxed for a little bit, they had a run, and it kind of brought life back to them.”
You can trust this much:
To separate in the East, they’ll need to sustain excellence for more than three games in a row.