Don’t call this a reality check, please. The Heat’s reality looks just the same after its first loss of this infant NBA season as it did in the 3-0 start it carried into Tuesday’s night game here.
Three consecutive wins didn’t mean that losing LeBron James wasn’t a crushing blow, but neither does a first loss mean Miami still isn’t capable of being better than people think this season.
Before Tuesday night and after it, the Heat remains closer to competitive than a contender. What this game did was demonstrate the gulf between those two levels — the one the Heat was the past four years, and the one it finds itself now.
The unbeaten Houston Rockets buried the Heat 108-91, a hugely impressive show by the visitors, and one that exposed weaknesses in the Heat. Rockets stars Dwight Howard and James Harden combined for 51 points, as Howard exploited Miami’s size disadvantage near the basket, playing like his Superman nickname much of the night. Houston hit as many three-point shots (17) as Miami had allowed in the first three games combined. And the Rockets’ defense held the Heat to 42 percent shooting and forced 19 turnovers.
Chris Bosh’s 21 points and Dwyane Wade’s 19 led Miami, but their teammates clanked to a combined 16-for-49 shooting (32 percent). Bosh was close to signing with Houston in free agency this summer — “Very close,” he said. On Tuesday, the team he spurned held him to a season low in points and rebounds.
Bosh’s three-pointer in the first minute of the fourth quarter drew the Heat within 83-80 and enlivened the faithful in the downtown bayside area, and later Miami was within 90-86 on a three by Justin Hamilton. That was Miami being competitive. But Houston dominated from there, including a 13-point run. That was Miami seeing what a contending team does.
“We had our chances to keep it close, and they just outplayed us the last eight minutes,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “Limiting their threes and keeping them from the free-throw line, that’s the challenge. We didn’t, and they lit us up.”
Bosh noted the Heat had a seven-point lead late in the first half, “and we couldn’t capitalize. We take this one on the chin and move on.”
Simply put, the Heat beat three opponents closer to its own size before facing its first opponent with championship dreams.
For Miami this season will be a continuing challenge to prove itself, to overcome the LeBron shadow, to survive the void. The Heat won’t admit it, but that won’t make it less so.
On the court, Miami must prove it still is good enough to be a player in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, where the No.3 seed — after acknowledged front-runners Cleveland and Chicago — seems available among a handful of candidates.
LeBron’s Cavaliers may take time to gel (as his Heat did in 2010) and seem short on defense. The Bulls depend on Derrick Rose’s health, a wild card. There is no reason for Heat fans to not think the team is capable, if everything falls right, of reaching the conference finals — something still true after Tuesday’s loss to Western power Houston.
The motivation for all of this season-long proving will be more personal. It involves the manner in which James left Miami, the way he blindsided management. Club president Pat Riley, in a podcast with Dan Le Batard that began airing Tuesday on ESPN Radio’s website, admitted he has not reached the point of “forgiving” James the way he left.
Riley also needled LeBron on the podcast by referring to Magic Johnson as “the real Chosen One.” (Magic happened to be Riley’s guest Tuesday, sitting with him during the game.)
James gets to be a feel-good story to the rest of America, the man starring in The Homecoming, complete with the marketing accoutrement of heartstring-tugging Nike ads.
Well, it isn’t a feel-good story to Heat owner Micky Arison or to Riley or to plenty of Miami fans. For them, this season on a personal level is about showing James he couldn’t break the Heat. That the team is bigger than the man who rather inelegantly left it.
Neither three consecutive wins out the gate nor a loss to a very good Rockets team changes any of that.
The proving wouldn’t have stopped even with a Miami win Tuesday.
For the Heat, the proving will define this season.
It won’t stop.