Twice this season the Miami Heat have been on an arduous six-game road trip.
The first, taking place not even two weeks into the season, featured six road games compacted into eight games. Despite suffering blowout losses to Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers, the Heat salvaged a 4-2 record thanks to wins over Atlanta, Houston, a rare victory in Denver, and Phoenix. The usually stalwart road team emerged with an 8-3 record on the year, despite playing a week’s worth of games that was reminiscent of last year’s lockout schedule.
The Heat had four games in five days during that span. Their identity, however, was still in limbo. They gave up over 100 points in three games and looked absolutely outmatched against Memphis’ frontline and the Clippers point guard play. Since it came so early in the season, and the team still recovering from that “championship hangover” everyone likes to talk about, analysts weren’t able to put a bead on just what direction the Heat were going to head in their championship defense.
In between the first and second west coast road trips was a four-game trip that featured the Heat playing mediocre talent in the likes of Charlotte, Detroit, Milwaukee and Orlando. Miami managed a 2-2 record, needing a late push to stave off a Bobcats comeback in one win and needing a frantic comeback in a win over the Magic where they yielded 110 points in 53 minutes and allowed Nikola Vucevic to have the game of his life.
Things were getting a little hairy around the Heat organization. Still, it was early in the season and a lack of motivation was cited for the lack of effort on both sides of the court in the losses to the Pistons and Bucks, as well as the wins against Charlotte and Orlando.
The second trip of the season didn’t feature as arduous and compact a schedule, but was equally difficult because of the amount of time spent away from home. Miami had gotten used to playing at home–having played its previous three games in the friendly confines of the Triple A–and was now being subjected to already their third road trip of at least four games before they hit February.
The road trip started January 8th. The Heat are playing their first home game since then tonight: January 23rd. In the middle of this roller-coaster ride of a season that has featured the team losing a bit of their defensive identity and succumbing to significant rebounding deficits, the team was given this sabbatical away from home to pinpoint just how far they’ve come since winning their first championship of the Big Three era.
The first four games, with the exclusion of their personal Slam Dunk Contest against Sacramento, were a travesty to say the least.
They managed a season-low 77 points against the Indiana Pacers. Not exactly the start you want to get off to but, hey, the Pacers were hot going into that game, were motivated to defeat the same Heat team that had embarrassed them in last year’s second-round, and had the frontcourt to dominate. Although it was the same Pacers team from last year, sans Danny Granger, they were the team who truly wanted it more.
The losses to Portland and Utah, however, were a wee bit more troubling.
The loss to Portland was troubling because of just how inept the Heat’s offense became and how forgetful they became, once again, of Chris Bosh in the second half. Despite Bosh clearly having the production in the first half to continue carrying the team in the second, the Heat went away from him and instead relied more on the ball-handling responsibilities of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
The loss was a fluke. Wesley Matthews made an incredible three-pointer to give the Trail Blazers the go-ahead points and LeBron had his worst statistical output of the season. Still, this straying away from Bosh is nothing new. There have been a number of sequences this year where the Heat plain forget Bosh, even if he’s having himself a game like the one he had against the Blazers.
Bosh had 29 points that game and hasn’t done much since.
The loss to Utah was another defeat based solely on effort. The Jazz had 40 rebounds and the Heat had 23. You don’t win too many games with 23 boards, and it’s only tougher to win when your second and third best players combine for 27 points–five points less than what your best player had.
The story to arise from that game, however, was the fact that Wade and Bosh were benched in the fourth quarter. Before then, it was unheard of to have Wade and/or Bosh riding the pine while the Heat were attempting to stage a comeback. Those who criticize this move don’t understand that the Heat had their top contributors of the night in the game throughout the fourth.
But Wade with 11 points in 29 minutes and Bosh with a rebound in 27 minutes deserved that time? Over Rashard Lewis and his 13 points and four boards in 27 minutes? Over Ray Allen and his 10 points and three assists in 23 minutes? Erik Spoelstra put who he thought were the best players that night on the floor to win his team the game, but recovering from a 21-point deficit isn’t as easy as you may think it is.
But don’t let the mainstream media tell you that. Here come the ‘Trade Wade’ and ‘Trade Bosh’ skeptics out of their caves, starved for attention and thirsting for a negative situation surrounding the Heat. It’s tough to blame them, though. Miami was 8-9 on the road at that point and only 1-3 on the road trip with contests against the revamped Warriors and the hungry Lakers awaiting for a back-to-back.
And then the Heat played that little thing called defense, and we forgot what we were worried about.
Against the Stephen Curry-less Warriors, the Heat forced their opponent into 21 turnovers and a season-low 75 points on 36 percent shooting. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Heat had a 30-point lead against the same team that had beaten them on their own turf on a last-second layup a month prior. The most notable regression came from Klay Thompson: 27 points in the first game, two points on eight shots in the second.
The contest against the Lakers? A blowout if the Heat had a single shooter played to their abilities. Miami compensated for their 2-of-13 shooting from deep, however, by forcing 20 Laker turnovers, allowing Kobe Bryant only 22 points on 25 shots, and Dwight Howard to attempt only seven field-goals. The Lakers shot a modest 43 percent, but it was the defensive pressure at the top of the perimeter that gave way for a 99-90 Heat victory.
You have never been more satisfied with a 3-3 trip. Only because we’re left with the lasting memories of the Heat’s superb defensive efforts against the Warriors and Lakers do we forget that they were positively dreadful against the likes of Indiana and Utah. Still, what those two wins at the end of the trip proved is that there is absolutely nothing to worry about because the Heat do have complete control over what transpires each game.
When the Heat apply themselves to the defensive end like they did against the Warriors and Lakers, they are the best team in the league and that gap between them and the second-best team only widens; because there isn’t another squad out there who can consistently give similar defensive pressure to their opponents over the course of a 48-minute contest.
For 48 minutes? Maybe. A seven-game series? Doubtful. There isn’t any other roster in the league that can boast having one of the league’s top perimeter defenders that also doubles as the best scorer on the other end. When it comes down to it, the Heat have LeBron James and nobody else does.
The Heat will continue to play against teams that are extremely motivated to defeat them and Miami will lose a few of those games.
Just wake me up when it’s May.