Why the Heat need a wake-up call after Sunday's stunning loss to the Wizards

The Miami Heat's title hopes may hing upon how they respond to a recent loss to the woeful Wizards.

Miami Heat v Dallas Mavericks
Miami Heat v Dallas Mavericks / Tim Heitman/GettyImages
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Sunday night should’ve been an opportunity for the Miami Heat to wash out the taste of recent back-to-back losses, gain ground in the playoff hunt and provoke vintage post-game locker room content from Jimmy Butler. You know, the fruits of facing the Washington Wizards: A lottery-bound laughing stock who just snapped a 16-game losing streak last Friday. The win was the 11th of their disastrous campaign.

None of that happened.

Instead, the Heat fell 110-108 and dropped from sixth to eighth in the East. Butler was solemn while speaking to reporters. “This game is just very humbling,” he said minutes after missing a game-winning three at the buzzer. 

Now mired in a three-game losing streak, the Heat must use Sunday’s demoralizing loss to the Wizards as a wake-up call. Their NBA title hopes may hinge upon their response. 

“We didn’t handle our business in these three games,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Handling business immediately is essential because history has shown there’s a near-direct correlation between a great March and a June and a better chance at hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. 

Outside of the dynasty-era Golden State Warriors, every 21st century champion finished March with a .500 record or better and 21 of the 24 had winning percentages of .600 or better. During Miami’s title runs in 2006, 2012 and 2013, it had a combined March winning percentage of .800.

However, these Heat are 2-3 this month. That record could continue to remain sub-.500 if future efforts mirror Sunday’s. The competition is just too good. Their next game is against the reigning champion Denver Nuggets and, later this month, they’ll see playoff contenders in the Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans, Cleveland Cavaliers and Warriors. 

If the Heat crumble in that stretch, and fall below .500 in March – or worse – chances are they aren’t capable of avenging last year’s NBA Finals loss. The fact that Miami lost four of its last six games suggests it may fare poorly. 

Sure, three of those six losses came on the road against Western Conference playoff hopefuls – Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder – and all three were close. But teams that are unable to close against the NBA’s elite in spring typically don’t end their season by passing around cigars and Dom Pérignon.

Even the Heat’s two wins aren’t very encouraging. Earlier this month, they snuck past the No. 11 seed Utah Jazz and needed a 37-point masterpiece by “Playoff Jimmy” to escape the Detroit Pistons: the only team worse than who the Heat fell to on Sunday. 

There was unease entering Sunday's game against the Wizards. That unease only intensified after yet another listless fourth quarter.

After failing to put the Wizards away, the Heat eventually found themselves down eight with less than two minutes left. The fact Miami made it a two-point game is more of a testament to Washington's woefulness than its resolve. 

For instance, in those final two minutes, Washington’s Kyle Kuzma made three forehead-smacking plays: A travel, a clanked floater right after grabbing an offensive rebound and an offensive foul after walloping the Heat’s Terry Rozier in the face on a drive to the rim. 

At one point, while down four with 45 seconds remaining, the Heat grabbed four offensive rebounds on the same possession before Miami’s Caleb Martin miraculously tipped the ball in. The point is the Wizards were Wizarding and the Heat still couldn’t win. That’s not good. 

And two of the misses in that aforementioned rebounding sequence came from Duncan Robinson, who shot 4-for-13 from the perimeter (was 1-for-6 in the first half), committed five turnovers and had a Heat-low plus-minus of minus-11. Robinson also missed a potential game-winning three with five seconds left. Entering Sunday, he scored just nine points in the fourth quarter in the Heat’s previous five games. 

This is particularly important because this is where Spoelstra begins to build a grasp on his rotations. Earlier this week Norris Cole, a two-time NBA champion with the Heat, went viral after sharing Miami’s playoff ramp-up process on the "Gilbert Arenas Show."

“The rotation sometimes would get shorter as we get closer to the playoffs. So now you got to make your mark on the team. So like, ‘Can Coach trust you? Are you going to be in this top eight or top nine of the rotation?’” Cole reflected, “‘Or are you not?’” 

At a time when fellow three-point marksman Tyler Herro is injured, Robinson could’ve shown he deserves a spot in the starting lineup this April. Now, however, Spoelstra is left wondering where to go.

“There’s a certain intensity when [you're] playing for the marbles,” Cole said. “And it’s like when you win it’s good and when you lose it’s a failure of a season. For us in Miami, that’s what it was. If we won – great – if you lose – ‘You suck you were the worst ever.’”

Robinson is aware of this pressure. He’s played a role in the Heat’s two recent Finals appearances and five straight playoff runs. But even a veteran like him isn’t immune to needing a late-season wake-up call. Especially right now.

The same can be said for Bam Adebayo, who is averaging 11.7 points on 35% shooting over these last three games. Or Jimmy Butler, whose 23 points were outpaced by Kuzma's 32 and nearly by Corey Kispert's 22.

“This is also why we love this profession. All the context and pressure at this time of year,” Spoelstra said after falling to the NBA’s worst-rated defensive team.

The context in the Heat’s case can’t be ignored. Maybe those fourth-quarter struggles are a byproduct of a jam-packed traveling schedule?

“I think we’ve had five (games) in seven (nights) or something like that and crazy travel day and getting in late. That’s not an excuse. That’s not why we lost at all. Washington made the right plays down the stretch,” Spoelstra said. “But we can get some rest and we can get ready for practice on Tuesday and prepare for a big game on Wednesday.”

Calling Wednesday's matchup against the Nuggets a "big game" might be an understatement. After three straight losses that took momentum out of Miami's playoff push, it's a chance to make a statement and reclaim the look of a bona fide contender.

“This game is just very humbling," Butler said. "If you don't come out with the right mindset, this is what will happen and continue to happen."

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