The start of the week looked promising for the Heat. They were about to face the vaunted Sixers, arguably their biggest rivals in the East, but about to trek to the Wells Fargo Center without All-Stars Joel Embiid and James Harden. Meanwhile, they brought with them momentum off 15 victories in their last 19 games. They were at the top of the conference standings for a reason, and they figured they would continue their winning ways to fortify their pace-setting position heading into the playoffs.
As things turned out, the Heat figured wrong. Not that they didn’t compete; the match was close from the get-go, and at no time did they look out of it — not even with a little over a minute to go in the fourth quarter and the Sixers up by 11 after having reeled in nine straight points. That said, their execution — particularly in the crunch — left a lot to be desired, leading to a setback. And, as far as their brain trust was concerned, the argument that talking heads put forth about their not having planned for the absence of the hosts’ top two scorers did not wash. After all, if there was one thing they could boast of that set them apart from other contenders, it was that they always came prepared.
Yesterday, the Heat lost anew, and while there was theoretically no shame in bowing to the vaunted Nets at full strength, the reality looked far different. It was the third consecutive match they failed to win at the FTX Arena, where, prior to their swoon, they stood a heady 26 and nine. Moreover, it wasn’t simply that they lost; it was that they lost big. The only quarter they produced more points than the visitor was the fourth, which they started down by 28, and during which time the set-to was already effectively decided.
Even from casual observers, the Heat appeared to have a problem. They often looked disjointed against the Nets, who didn’t even need otherworldly efforts from all-world Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The two combined for just 34 points, but had three teammates net double figures in a balanced attack. Put simply, they were given a taste of their own medicine. Little wonder, then, that head coach Erik Spoelstra was not pleased. Pride was absent, just as it was when they succumbed to the severely undermanned Warriors — hence the very public spat between him and top player Jimmy Butler. Neither was there any silver lining to being on the wrong end of the stick against the also-undermanned Knicks.
To be sure, Spoelstra knows there’s still a lot of hoops to be played. And, perhaps, the Heat needed to be reminded of the difficulties of winning in the National Basketball Association. For a while there, they looked too confident — cocky, even. Now that they’ve been overtaken by the Sixers in the standings, they know they have nothing to brag about anymore. Needless to say, he’s hoping that, in the midst of adversity, the chip on their shoulders will mean something once more. For him, there’s still time. For those on the outside looking in, the question is what they will do with it.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.