Are Miami Heat's struggles against elite teams a reason for concern?

The Miami Heat have lost their last three games against playoff contenders. Should fans be worried?
Miami Heat v Portland Trail Blazers
Miami Heat v Portland Trail Blazers / Soobum Im/GettyImages

Other than the hue of blue their opponent donned, the Miami Heat’s losses on Thursday and Friday night felt the same. 

A blown double-digit lead. An inability to close against a Western Conference contender on the road. Providing a platform for an All-Star to make his case for a 2023-24 MVP. A head-scratching performance from an elder statesman. 

With the NBA playoffs rapidly approaching, should Heat fans be worried about Friday’s 107-100 loss to the Thunder and Thursday’s 114-108 loss to the Mavericks? These losses came after a recent defeat to the Denver Nuggets. The Heat have lost their last three games to playoff contenders.

“We’ll get better from this,” head coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday night.

Losses to elite teams aren't anything new. Miami has the 20th-worst record in the league (3-17) against opponents with a top-10 point differential, per Cleaning the Glass. Shouldn't this feel unsettling? After all, this is who they’ll need to beat to avenge last season's NBA Finals defeat. Who cares how they perform against the woebegone Wizards at home Sunday night, or against the dregs of the NBA moving forward?

Fans can take some solace in recent wins over the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and New Orleans Pelicans, but that was before injuries to Kevin Love and Tyler Herro. 

Perhaps their presence could’ve prevented the Thunder’s 17-0 third-quarter run to overcome an 11-point deficit or swung momentum in the fourth quarter to keep Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from scoring 10 of his 37 points in the final 3:04 to take control. The lasting image of that loss was a Gilgeous-Alexander step-back three to put the Thunder up 104-97 with 1:36 left. He stood statue-still, gazing at his dagger as the Heat’s Terry Rozier stumbled to close out.

The stepback, the dagger, the roar of the crowd and the eventual Heat loss were the same song and dance Luka Doncic performed a night earlier when he put up a 35-point triple-double. 

At this rate, who knows how much damage Denver’s Nikola Jokic will inflict on Miami at home Wednesday. Could he post another 28-point, 16-assist masterpiece like he did in Game 5 of the 2023 NBA Finals?

Miami should hope not. 

By losing four straight games to playoff contenders, players' confidence may begin to wane. Spoelstra, meanwhile, could be left tinkering at a time when other contenders have a firm grasp on how they want to play.

Stellar offensive performances from Terry Rozier and Jaime Jaquez Jr. should be encouraging but there are still lingering questions about how Tyler Herro, currently sidelined with a foot injury, fits in when he returns.

From a different perspective, does Miami need to have everything figured out? Just take last year. The Heat were 4-6 in February and 7-8 in March, then flipped conventional wisdom on its head and used the momentum from a 4-1 start in April to bulldoze through the East’s elite en route to an NBA Finals appearance. 

But hoping for another postseason turnaround of last season's magnitude is not exactly a plan. There's also an argument that this year's team is deeper than last year's.

Even after a back-to-back that saw Jimmy Butler commit a season-high six turnovers and Bam Adebayo go 1-for-9, the margin between the Heat and their playoff-caliber opponents was narrow.

“There were a lot of good things to take away and none of us want to talk about it or feel that, whatever right now, because we’re competitors," Spoelstra said. "But by the time we get back to Miami, even the head coach can see that there are some good things happening in our locker room."