The Heat knows it’s time to go. Time to go on this two-part, six-game road trip that begins Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers. Time to go on a run of performances that establishes a higher baseline for the spring.
You could argue that has already begun.
In its past four games, the Heat thrashed San Antonio with Dwyane Wade coming off the bench and playing only 23 minutes 42 seconds; took a home whipping from Oklahoma City when it got too cute offensively; won by 15 at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks; and dealt with Detroit’s front-line size advantage in Monday’s 102-96 win.
“Aside from the turnovers and fast-break points we gave up against OKC, we’ve been playing some really good basketball,” Heat forward LeBron James said before Monday’s game. “I can see that we’re getting back to form.”
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Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wouldn’t go that far yet.
“It’s more about the time of year right now. We’ve been working on it all year long; we haven’t gotten there … pushing and taking a step back, taking two steps forward,” Spoelstra said.
“It’s time for us to impose our will on the season, the way we’re capable of. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a striking point like last year. Likely, it’s not going to be the same as last year. So if we’re looking for inspiration, saying this is the moment because last year it was, after the Super Bowl … if it works out that way, fine, if that’s the inspiration we need. But it’s got to be something deeper than that.”
Of course, a year ago after the Super Bowl, the Heat began challenging the NBA’s winning streak record.
The 27-game winning streak captivated much of the rest of the NBA during what’s usually the season’s (February and) March of the Mundane; acted as history’s teaching point about the 1971-72 Lakers, winners of 33 in a row; and left the Heat as bedraggled as their fans were thrilled.
“How tired I was once we lost,” James said when asked what he remembers about the streak. “How extremely exhausted I was. It was a fun ride. We played some great ball. It wasn’t always perfect. We were down in the fourth quarter, down in the second half, big at times. We just found a way.”
The first four games of the trip are before the All-Star break, including Saturday in Utah, Feb. 11 at Phoenix and Feb. 12 at Golden State.
Although the rest of the Heat gets a break from imitating Odysseus after four games in eight days, the three core players in this American band — James, Wade and Chris Bosh — head for New Orleans and the All-Star Game.
Everybody comes together again in Dallas for a Feb. 18 game, then to Oklahoma City for a rematch on Feb. 20 to end the trip.
“This is different,” Wade said. “A different challenge for this team. We’ll see how we respond to it.”
This time of year usually challenges coaches, too. Words can turn into repetitive background noise for players, whether admonishments from coaches or questions from media. The road brings a series of second visits to cities, usually greeting visitors with dreary weather.
Keeping players in a groove but out of a rut isn’t always easy.
“We’ve had enough struggles and adversity that it’s caught our attention the last two weeks,” Spoelstra said. “That’s motivating enough. Guys have been coming in ready to work. We have tweaked things slightly just in terms of how long we go, when we go, sometimes, practices or shootarounds. Film sessions are slightly different.
“To try to go too far in that direction and making changes, you’re losing sight of what really matters,” he continued. “And that’s the commitment to work, the commitment to preparation, the commitment to getting better. It is slightly different than last year, our approach.”