Things have gone from bad to much worse very quickly for the Miami Heat in recent days.
With its best rim protector hobbled by a high-ankle sprain and best on-ball defender handicapped by an injured finger, the Heat and coach Erik Spoelstra were already struggling to come up with a viable defensive game plan. Then Luol Deng, the team’s best wing defender, went out with a bruised hand.
In seasons past, one player would have made up for all of those defensive deficiencies until the injured players returned to health. LeBron James was the Heat’s defensive insurance policy — “One Through Five,” Spoelstra called him — and on top of all that defensive versatility, James would still lead the Heat in scoring and assists on most nights.
Spoelstra, team president Pat Riley and the Heat’s other executives knew their team would be operating without a net this season. Well, the net just broke.
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“I think if you go back to the preseason transcripts, I said that this is the type of season that we’re going to have,” Dwyane Wade said. “This is the team that we have. We don’t have that team that can win 27 in a row right now. I’m not the kind of guy to dream that big.
“I understand where we’re at right now with the team that we have. Can we get better? Yeah, we can get better. But we’re not at that point yet. This is the kind of team we have, and we got to figure out how to be as good as we can with this unit. We’re all trying to figure it out, players and coaches.”
The Heat’s blowout loss to a young Milwaukee team Friday night at Bradley Center gave the four-time defending Eastern Conference champion a losing record for the first time this season, and, perhaps more than any other loss, highlighted the difficulties this team could have this season without James to bail everyone out.
LOSSES PILING UP
The Heat (9-10) hasn’t had a losing record this late into December since 2009, and Miami now is just a half game in front of the Brooklyn Nets for eighth in the Eastern Conference standings. Chris Andersen remains sidelined with his ankle sprain and Cole, who has missed games recently do to an illness, has been playing with a splint on his left middle finger. Cole and Deng both practiced Saturday in Memphis.
Take away that game against the ghastly Knicks and the Heat hasn’t looked competitive since back-to-back victories against the Hornets and Magic. The Bucks, who are 2-0 against the Heat this season, outscored Miami 55-35 in the second half.
“For the past two weeks, we’ve been playing pretty bad basketball, and we had trouble with this team at home, obviously,” Chris Bosh said. “I didn’t shoot the ball well that night or this night, but I don’t know if we made that jump. We do have guys out and everything and we had different looks, but I’m not sure if we knew what we needed to do to win this game.”
Now the bad news.
The Heat was out-rebounded 45-20 by the young Bucks, but that frightening discrepancy could just be a preamble to Sunday’s game here in Memphis, and the remainder of this five-game trip. The burly Grizzlies are led by center Marc Gasol, who might be the best big man in the league, and Zach Randolph, the tough power forward who has always played the Heat well.
The Grizzlies (15-4), who just lost two in a row to the Rockets and Spurs, are tied with Milwaukee for 18th in the league in total rebounding. The Heat is last, and has allowed four of its past five opponents to shoot better than 54 percent from the field. The Grizzlies are sixth in the league in field-goal percentage (46.6). In other words, the Heat is going to have a tough time keeping Gasol and Randolph away from the rim.
“It’s a lot to overcome,” Wade said. “It’s the same thing that has been going on the last few games. We’re either going to change it or we’re not. We’re going to change it to give ourselves a chance to win or we’re not going to change and we’re not going to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Sunday: Heat at Grizzlies
When/where: 6 p.m., FedEx Forum.
TV/radio: Sun Sports; 104.3 FM, 790 AM, 710 AM (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 20-15.
Of note: Heat point guard Norris Cole (finger/illness) and forward Luol Deng (hand) missed Friday’s game in Milwaukee but both players are probable against the Grizzlies. Chris Andersen (ankle) is out. … Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have scored at least 20 points in four consecutive games. Deng needs one steal to reach 700 in his career.