Originally published in SLAM 148

Miami Heat

by Ryan Jones / @thefarmerjones

The problem with the Miami Heat is that no one can figure out the problem with the Miami Heat.

OK, so that’s just a theory. But spend a few days with the NBA’s most closely watched team during a pivotal late-season stretch, and it’s hard to imagine coming to a different conclusion. We landed in south Florida in mid-March, the day after the Heat ended a five-game losing streak with a six-point home win over the Lakers. Over the next 72 hours, we watched them beat the Grizzlies and Spurs by a combined 63 points. The day after we left, they lost by 11—at home—to the Thunder.

At press time, Miami stood at 48-22, the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and sixth best in the League. Not bad for a team that turned over half its roster last summer and has played most of this season without its best rebounder. But of course, given who the Heat brought in last summer, it’s not nearly good enough.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t Miami dominating the NBA the way some (though hardly all) predicted last fall? Is it the lack of an active defensive presence in the paint? A lack of depth? An inability to consistently work Chris Bosh into the offense? The lack of a second ball for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to share in the fourth quarter? The axe everyone thinks they see hanging over the coach’s head?

Or: Is it everyone else?

One constant of the Miami Heat’s ’10-11 season has been the noise—people talking, writing, questioning and wondering about this team, and even more people talking, writing, questioning and wondering about the stuff that’s been said, written, asked and wondered about. None of this is surprising, of course, not with the way this team came together, and certainly not after a leading media conglomerate opened a dedicated South Beach bureau specifically to cover it. How are those egos meshing? Who’s crying in the locker room? How is the coach juggling it all? And, oh yeah, how’s the actual basketball working out?

The buzz is deafening, and it doesn’t figure to quiet down anytime soon. Whether all that noise is actually bothering the Heat remains a subject of debate, even within the Heat locker room. And maybe that alone confirms that it’s an issue. Everyone’s talking about the Miami Heat, and the Miami Heat know it. Whether it’s affecting their game now may well determine how we’re talking about them in June.

That is, if they’re still around in June for us to be talking about.

Erik Spoelstra hears the noise. He is not shy about acknowledging this. Miami’s baby-faced third-year head coach isn’t using the noise as an excuse, but he hears it louder than anyone.

“I think there was a terrible feeling of stress from the outside,” Spoelstra is saying the day after his team’s 33-point dismantling of Memphis. He’s talking about the scrutiny that grew out of—and, in his view, contributed to—the five-game skid that started with home losses to the Knicks and Magic, got ugly with a 30-point loss in San Antonio, then got absurd with that one-point, allegedly tear-inducing defeat to the Bulls. “People tried to make claims about us like there was no room for improvement. We’re not a finished product.” Eric Spoelstra

Those words might look defensive on paper, but that’s not how Spoelstra delivers them. In fact, he says, “I think it was good for us. A lot of times the greatest way to have breakthroughs in this League is to face adversity together.”

They faced that adversity on the court, obviously, five straight losses on the heels of a month-long run that saw Miami win 12 of its previous 14 games. But Spoelstra makes it clear he’s talking about the noise, too, and his players’ apparent difficulty in coping with it. They’re hearing it from reporters in the post-game press conference, but also, as Chris Bosh alludes to after that Memphis game, hearing it from friends “who don’t even pay attention to basketball.” This, it seems, is real.

“The expectations,” LeBron says after beating the Grizzlies, “that focus of having to go out and perform at the highest level every night, was wearing on us.”

“I personally hope we don’t care,” says Wade. “Either way, we have to learn not to worry about it.”

You can—and let’s be honest, you will—make assumptions about this team’s mental strength based on such comments. By comparison, it’s all but impossible to imagine Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett talking about being rattled by what the world is saying about them. You can celebrate the confidence it takes to be so honest about, well, a lack of confidence, or you can mock these guys for revealing a frailty they have no reason to be proud of.

Alternately, you can listen to dissenting opinions. “It don’t matter what people say, think or write about us,” Erick Dampier says. “All that matters is the 15 guys inside this locker room.”

“I don’t think it’s had an impact on the team,” Jamaal Magloire says. “The pressure comes from within.”

Perhaps the veteran big men are being overly optimistic, but their ultimate point is hard to argue: If the Heat are winning, the noise will cease. If Miami can solve its basketball problems, its public perception problems will be irrelevant. In that five-game losing streak, Miami’s weaknesses—particularly its inability to close out tight games and beat great teams—were painfully apparent. In beating the Lakers and especially the League-leading Spurs just days later, the Heat made talk of fatal flaws seem laughable.

The win over San Antonio was the Heat at their jaw-dropping best. After negating an early Spurs lead, Miami led by 10 at the half and dominated the rest of the way. Bosh got his offense early and often, finishing with a game-high 30 on 10-16 from the floor. Wade went for 29 and 9, and LeBron totaled 21, 8 and 6. The Heat shot 54 percent as a team, going 23-24 from the line and attempting just 9 three-pointers. And it wasn’t just the Big 3—starting point guard Mario Chalmers scored 11 points, and the bench added 17 on 60 percent shooting. Defensively, they held the Spurs to 38 percent from the field, with Bron and Wade flying around the court blocking shots and setting the tone.

Afterward, Spoelstra was all smiles. “I’m sure that some people now will jump slowly on the bandwagon.”

Predictably, the coach downplayed the significance of the result, opening his post-game comments with “Just keep plugging away—that’s what tonight’s game was about.” Spoelstra knows what he has in this team; every basketball coach lives to see his team execute, but few have the luxury of knowing that their team is almost unbeatable when it follows the game plan on both ends of the court. “Our issue has been consistency,” he says. “When we haven’t done that, it’s come back to bite us. At least temporarily, we’ve learned our lesson.”

The wall-mounted white board in the Heat locker room offered the night’s talking points: On offense, “Attack With Poise” and “Trust! = Play Together.” Defensively, Miami was urged to be “Unlikeable,” “Nasty,” “Relentless,” and to have “No Friends.” On this night, they followed orders. Not even the Spurs and their League-best record wanted anything to do with a Miami team playing this smart, this aggressive and, most importantly, together.