Posted Mar 17 2011 9:01AM
MIAMI -- There will be games like this in the summertime, intense and emotional and physical sumo wrestling matches against elite teams, and you wonder if the Heat can possibly hold strong and firm, like the humidity around here.
Against the Thunder, they did not. They were done. Well before the 96-85 defeat was official, they were whipped, mentally and even more worrisome, gave the impression they were torn physically as well. Which raises a reasonable question: Can the Heat expect to go deep into May or even June if the legs of the Big Three by then are wearing thinner than Dwyane Wade's temper Wednesday night?
Normally known for his coolness, on the floor and off, Wade blew a fuse no one knew he had. He took off with the ball on the break in the fourth quarter, trying to trigger a comeback, and was challenged at the rim by Serge Ibaka, the Thunders' designated swatsman. Wade missed the shot, rather badly, then threw both arms in the air. Followed shortly after by some R-rated language.
"I don't comment about the refs," he said. "It was an emotional game."
Truthfully, the source of Wade's anger had more to do with Miami's inability to compete when it truly mattered. With the exception of a five-minute dunk contest in the second quarter, the Heat were outplayed, mainly offensively, shooting only 38 percent, and self-destructed at the end. Wade made 7-for-21 shots. LeBron James: 8-for-21. Chris Bosh: 6-for-17. Combined, that's a 21-for-59 night for the Big Three.
And here's more: Wade played 40 minutes, Bosh and LeBron, 39. At a time of the season when stars on other teams are being preserved for the postseason, Miami is still giving generous time to three players who'll be leaned on heavily once the playoffs begin. This is somewhat by necessity, partly because Miami is still trying to recover from a five-game slide, and partly because the supporting cast isn't making it possible for the stars to get a breather.
And even when there's no need to push them to the limit, here's what happens: LeBron somehow saw the need to play 41 minutes in a 30-point blowout win against the Spurs, Wade 39, Bosh 35. While these aren't exactly aging players with brittle bodies (although Wade has had his share of injuries), the regular season does have a way of taking a bite out of you, and you won't even notice the gash until the playoffs, when it's too late to sew it up.
For the season, LeBron is averaging over 38 minutes, Wade 37 and Bosh 36. Not exactly tendon-stretching playing time, but remember, these are heavy minutes for players who have multiple responsibilities. These three are running around the floor with the franchise on their shoulders.
Wouldn't it be refreshing for all involved if, for once or twice, Mike Miller could make enough 3-pointers to keep LeBron on the bench? Or if Udonis Haslem could recover in time (still no word on his return, by the way) to assume some of the inside heavy lifting from Bosh? Or if Mario Chalmers and/or Mike Bibby can contain the other team's point guard so Wade won't need to spend so much precious energy chasing a speedy and smaller player?
But Miami rarely gets any positive consistency beyond the Big Three. There's 28 feet of centers on the roster, and if you fused them together, they still wouldn't make Dwight Howard shiver. Everything is done by committee: center, point guard, sixth man, with none of it very effective for long spurts.
"We just have to keep encouraging them," Bosh said. "They just have to know they're going to get more opportunities down the line, and they'll have to knock them down when it comes time."
Given that, the Heat could be exposed in the playoffs by a team with tough interior defense, as the Thunder just did, with the addition of Kendrick Perkins. Or a team with a dangerous point guard; Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose come to mind. Or a team with a center that plows through the middle, which sounds like Orlando and Howard. Or a team with depth that keeps sending in quality reinforcements.
When and if this happens, Miami needs to respond with the obvious weapons and advantages, and hope that Wade, LeBron and Bosh are still fresh enough by then.
Instead, as LeBron said: "Right now, we're still trying to grind and get better."
Getting better, well, that's the purpose for a team still trying to figure it out. But grind? That sounds an awful lot like wearing and tearing yourself out over the final few weeks of the regular season.
Will LeBron and Wade and Bosh still have what it takes come May? Or is the effort to get there taking something from them?
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