Two of the NBA’s glamour teams tried to impose a semblance of order on this disheveled season.
The Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, opponents in the 2012 NBA Finals, are playing catch-up as they hit the halfway point in 2015, looking toward the playoffs with binoculars.
Both teams have had to step around massive craters. The Thunder lost injured dynamic duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for a combined 38 games. The Heat lost the Chosen One when LeBron James decided there was no place like home.
Both are struggling to be .500 teams, although the 21-20 Thunder has gone 18-8 since starting 3-12 without Durant and Westbrook.
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Oklahoma City’s efficient 94-86 victory Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena was revelatory in small but telling ways.
After going 3-2 on a road trip through the vastly superior Western Conference, the Heat returned to Miami feeling confident it had turned the corner. The main reason for renewed hope in the post-LeBron era is a suddenly wonderful 7-footer named Hassan Whiteside, previously rejected as an immature “jackass,” according to a former NBA executive.
Whiteside immediately brought Hassanity to the bayside arena, wowing fans with a monster dunk off a pass from Dwyane Wade and amassing 10 points on perfect shooting in the first quarter. But soon after making his first start at home, Whiteside went to the locker room with a sprained right ankle that will sideline him indefinitely but is minor in severity. Whether he will be a rebounding/shot-blocking/scoring solution for the Heat down low or just another foul-prone project remains to be seen. At least Pat Riley has him working hard and humble.
Not even Whiteside could have saved the Heat from itself on Tuesday. Those glaring 21 turnovers converted into 22 Thunder points proved to be the difference in a game the Heat trailed by only two points with 3:38 left.
When Durant scores 19 and Westbrook scores 19, the Heat should be able to win at home, “but OKC is far too good an offensive team for us to have 21 empty possessions,” Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We played hard enough, but just not sharp enough on offense.”
No, not even the Heat’s new “Black Tie” uniforms could disguise the scaffolding of this work in progress.
“Our athletes are complex personas and Black Tie is tailored to Heat players’ dual citizenship in Heat Nation and the world of fashion,” says the program description of the pseudo-tuxedo duds that “began as an exploration of the male aesthetic.”
The Heat is still finding its way without James. Chris Bosh has improved his game overall but has yet to assert his persona on the new old Heat. No one can fill the throne vacated by the King, but Bosh is smart and talented enough to design his own custom mantle. The question is when. Bosh said the second half of the season, when many teams give up or break down, should be prime time for the Heat’s evolution.
“I look forward to the challenge of the second half,” he said. “I’m a glass-full kind of guy. We were in this ballgame. The next step is figuring out our late-game packages, building that late-game chemistry. We don’t have our late-game rhythm yet.”
The lack of togetherness on a team whose progress has been interrupted by injuries is evident in the Heat’s 1-20 record when it enters the fourth quarter trailing its opponent. The Heat is still a half-baked team on defense, and the Thunder defended better down the stretch, although Wade is optimistic.
“We’re getting better defensively,” he said. “We’re finally getting into a comfortable rotation defensively.”
Another troubling sign is the 7-13 home record. Miami is the only team in the league with a winning road record and a losing home record.
The Heat plays Wednesday at Charlotte, which has won seven of its past eight — another example of the muddle in the awful Eastern Conference, which ought to consider the concept of relegation. Things aren’t so bad for the Heat considering that a playoff spot is there for the taking for the defending NBA finalists.