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Have the Miami Heat lost their swag?

The Heat certainly are not playing like a team either going anywhere or which anyone should be afraid to play, writes Sam Smith. It was that way last season. You felt they were going to take over the game and blow you out at some point. No more.
"It was last year about this time the Heat was losing to the Bulls on Sunday on national TV and Spoelstra was relating how players were crying afterward out of frustration, from wanting it so badly," writes Sam Smith. "Do they not want it so much anymore?"
(Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

This may have been the biggest sign Sunday the Miami Heat isn’t quite the overwhelming threat they were a year ago. They lost badly to the Boston Celtics on national TV and no one cried. Have they lost the passion?

"It’s not about any kind of meeting, any kind of talk," coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after the 91-72 loss in Boston. "It’s not about a response to the media. This game was unacceptable. We’re not happy about it (but not upset enough to cry). We have not been able to come up with an answer on the road (losing seven of their last 10) We’ll figure it out. Somehow, somehow, this group together, us in that locker room. We will figure it out."

It was last year about this time the Heat was losing to the Bulls on Sunday on national TV and Spoelstra was relating how players were crying afterward out of frustration, from wanting it so badly. Do they not want it so much anymore? Do they not care as much? Have they been worn out by the season and are pacing themselves for the playoffs? Or are they simply just worn down by being the Heat and the wrestling villains of the NBA?

They certainly are not playing like a team either going anywhere or which anyone should be afraid to play. It was that way last season. You felt they were going to take over the game and blow you out at some point. No more. Now, you almost wonder sometimes how they do win shooting all those isolation jumpers in a stagnant offense. They’ve now had double digit losses to the Thunder, Pacers and Celtics in the last eight days, sort of mirroring the Bulls two worst losses of the season in a week. The Bulls' excuse, and not a bad one, is their best player is out. Miami is without Mike Miller. Yes, LeBron James has a problem with his ring finger, the joke being after it was reported by ESPN it had been injured even though no one knew about it that James has no use for a ring finger, anyway. When James isn’t playing well, these reports generally surface on ESPN to offer a convenient excuse. The Heat also had a double digit loss to the Lakers last month and that loss in Chicago with Rose out when they were lit up by John Lucas III.

It’s not like Miami is out of contention. But as Joakim Noah would say — though he didn’t — we don’t see much swag anymore. This also is a crucial time for Miami, even if they’re not acting like it, because after two seasons you will have gotten it, or not. It seems Chris Bosh is growing somewhat disconnected and hasn’t had a double figure rebounding game in more than a month, which isn’t good for a poor rebounding team. If the Heat don’t win the title, you can expect Bosh to be in serious trade talks this summer with the Heat small at center and missing at point guard.

Now, I could fix the Heat, though it also probably would take changing coaches. Spoelstra surely is a competent guy, and he’s likely going nowhere as a Pat Riley acolyte. But just as it was in Cleveland, you have to play fast with James. You don’t set up in the half court and watch he and Dwyane Wade shoot bad jump shots. Every scouting report about the Heat says you don’t let them get in transition or you can forget it.

So they keep themselves out of transition. Yes, it’s tough to run when you can’t rebound. But you can play fast. James and Wade are good rebounders, and all they need to do is push even after made baskets. Perhaps they don’t have the energy for it. But their lineup, which they often finish games with but don’t use often enough, should be Bosh at center with Udonis Haslem at power forward, Shane Battier at small forward, Wade at shooting guard and James at point guard.

One problem for them is Spoelstra under Riley wants to play a physical, tough defensive game. Fine, but they don’t have those players. Bosh flinches when he sees a butterfly. George Karl should be coaching them. Better yet, Mike D’Antoni. Offense can win championships, too. If you have the best offensive players. James didn’t get a free throw Sunday until five minutes remained. Is that playing the right way? And if you can’t score in transition, then you post James or Wade for mismatches and then swing the ball out to Battier or James Jones.

Look, no one is too unhappy who isn’t bathed in SPF 30 seeing the Heat lose. It’s one of the few things that brings the nation together. They have the talent, but they just don’t seem to care enough to cry about it anymore.

Rockets an unlikely, but possible playoff team

-- The exciting talk generally is about who’ll make the Finals, whether the Thunder or Heat or Bulls will get there, if the Lakers have a shot or the Spurs. But the best race is shaping up at the bottom of the Western Conference, and the Bulls see the most unlikely of the group Monday, the Houston Rockets.

There are six teams, including defending champion Dallas, within three losses of one another going for four spots. It’s Dallas, Memphis, Houston and Denver with Utah and Phoenix barely on the outside. “This is like our playoffs right now,” says Marcus Camby, who came in trade from Portland in March. “We have to approach it like the NCAA Tournament. I know it’s not really one and done, but that’s the approach we have to take because each game down the stretch is definitely crucial.” The Rockets have been without their starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin most off the last month, but continue to hang in there with the most unlikely starting lineup that includes second rounders Chandler Parsons and Goran Dragic. They lost a tough overtime game Sunday to fall to eighth. And they’ve got Earl Boykins in the rotation now, giving John Lucas a chance to post up someone. Still, it’s a nice tribute to coach Kevin McHale. The Hall of Fame forward has been maligned for his stewardship of the Timberwolves. But he built the current team with the trade for Kevin Love and drafting Nikola Pekovic. He also changed the way NBA executives viewed the game in drafting Kevin Garnett fifth when no one believed a high schooler could play in the NBA. Picked ahead of Garnett, by the way, were Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. Garnett will be the only player from that draft to get into the Hall of Fame now that Greg Ostertag has given up his comeback and Dragan Tarlac retired prematurely. McHale isn’t mentioned for any coaching honors. But he had the Timberwolves as an interim heading to the playoffs until Al Jefferson was hurt, and has stepped into a tough situation in Houston and has them highly competitive.

As for the other contenders, the Grizzlies have 10 in 15 days coming up with still a three in three days stretch while the Mavericks close with six of their last eight on the road, including the last two, perhaps to make the playoffs, in Chicago and Atlanta.

NBA news and notes

-- You have to wonder if that was Carmelo Anthony dancing the night away Saturday. Yes, he probably liked the Knicks' win over the Cavs Saturday to hang onto eighth place in the East. But you figure he had to be dancing on the inside with now Mike D’Antoni, Amar’e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin all gone for the rest of the regular season. It was D’Antoni whom Anthony basically admitted he got fired, saying he didn’t try to play defense until Mike Woodson became coach. It was Lin, out with arthroscopic knee surgery, whom D’Antoni had running the offense through instead of Anthony, and it was Stoudemire battling for media attention. Now the spotlight can rest on Anthony. After all, if you’re not winning a title, why sacrifice and share? ... With Lin now out for the rest of the regular season, can he still be voted Most Improved, which he had locked up, with only 35 games played, eight of which were early garbage time appearances? And not being in the rotation until early February? Then you might have said Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic, but then he went out and hasn’t played in about two weeks. It might open the door for the unlikely season of John Lucas, averaging almost nine per game in March, not much less than Lin in half as many minutes per game. John Lucas III? Plus, Lucas is shooting far better on threes at more than 40 percent for the season and Lin’s production has declined since D’Antoni resigned. Yes, that John Lucas. Certainly Lin’s is a remarkable story. But he’s basically played six weeks of the season. ... It was curious to see Kevin Garnett’s enmity toward the Timberwolves organization, which basically changed the economics of the NBA for him with a $128 million contract despite him only taking the team out of the first round once and then trading him where he could win a championship. In returning to Minnesota last week, Garnett had harsh words for the organization, apparently over some view that somebody once questioned an injury when he was sitting out games Garnett has yet to return any of the $128 million. But Garnett, playing center for the Celtics lately and putting him impressive numbers, did get it going pretty good in outplaying Kevin Love, whom some in the media were suggesting was the best player in franchise history. Classic Garnett also took a bit of a below the belt shot at Love afterward, saying, “It was just a situation where I know Kevin doesn’t really play a lot of defense. But he does get a lot of rebounds, and he shoots a lot of threes. I felt like I had the advantage and I took it.” Despite fairly amazing numbers from Love, I’m still not convinced he’s anywhere near the MVP level the Timberwolves are pushing him as. I still think you can play him reasonably well with a smaller, athletic player, like you could Dirk Nowitzki early in his career, and force Love into shooting too much to get his points. I’d still take him, though. Nowitzki is not a bad comparison, after all. It does show what knowing fundamentals and working hard can do for you. Love is terrific in pinning your arm when he rebounds, he may have the toughest box out in the league and he runs the court hard, especially when he nudges his man out of bounds going for a rebound. As for Garnett, he can be an enigma, sometimes classy with his work ethic and commitment to playing hard and other times a cheap shot specialist and dismissive of true pros. He also sounds like a guy playing for another big contract. Said Garnett after also outplaying Al Jefferson: “I’m motivated. I hear y’all calling me old. I hear y’all calling me older, weathered. It don’t take much to motivate me. I don’t watch too many of you guys’ interviews, they’re garbage. But the ones I do catch, it’s an opinion and it’s what it is but it puts a spark under me and I like that. Playing against younger talent that’s supposed to be prolific, supposed to be above average, but I’m old though, you know?” Jefferson, by the way, went in the trade for Garnett. Could Boston try to get him back when his contract expires after next season? He dined with coach Doc Rivers when the Jazz was in Boston and said, “Doc has always been like a father figure to me.” And Jefferson told the Boston Herald: “I would like to continue to play there. I love the team. I love the fans, I love the city. But I know they’ve got some talented bigs behind me: Derrick Favors and 'Big Turkey' (Enes Kanter).” Favors, by the way, had the classic double/double last week against the Kings with 14 rebounds and 13 shots (none of which he made). Boston was 14-5 since the All-Star break heading into Sunday’s game with Miami with Garnett mostly at center. Boston is in Chicago Thursday for a national TNT game and now hanging onto the Atlantic lead to avoid a potential first rounder with the Heat or Bulls.

-- Interesting dynamic when the Knicks were in Atlanta last week and Mike Woodson refused to mention the name of his successor and then assistant, Larry Drew, who replaced him as coach. Woodson apparently holds his firing against Drew, though Woodson might check with the players, who basically gave up in maybe the most lopsided playoff loss ever to the Magic. ... If the Suns training staff says you are dead, you better find a coffin. The Suns were much criticized for not paying Stoudemire as the medical staff said there was no way his body would hold up at least three seasons. The Knicks gave him a five-year deal without insurance. Now, he’s put again with a serious back injury and despite the Knicks’ positive pronouncements, there are fears he’ll never come back anywhere near what he was. ... It was the dump-for-the-draft game last week when the Nets, who only get their pick if it is top three, facing the Warriors, who only get their pick if it is top seven. Both have been trying hard for their picks, and the Warriors gave up the most down the stretch to lose. It’s going to be an exciting run of blowing games as the Warriors now have the ninth worst record and the Nets the fifth. Gerald Wallace had 24 points and 18 rebounds in that comeback Nets win and they must be regretting that deal. Maybe team doctors will come up with something soon. ... The league fined Glen Davis for an obscene gesture despite his airtight alibi that he was merely licking blood off his middle finger pointed in the direction of the stands. A continuing reason why no one can understand why the Magic won’t listen to Dwight Howard on personnel, though they did that time and Brandon Bass has emerged as a key contributor for a streaking Celtics team. ... Howard and Jameer Nelson got called out for failing to be in the huddle during a blowout loss to the Knicks, and they apologized. Sometimes too much is made of symbols and it doesn’t really mean that much, but for two and a half hours and several hundred thousand dollars a game you probably can pay attention even if you don’t care. Magic players said the Knicks’ athleticism with their switching disrupted their pick and roll. That would be the first time that’s ever been said about a Knicks team.

-- Gregg Popovich is probably the main contender with Tom Thibodeau and Doug Collins for the Coach of the Year award, and it’s been a subtle transition for the Spurs, long a defensive stalwart. The Spurs now are fourth in the league in scoring and shooting as one of the league’s best offensive teams while 21st in opponent shooting. Said Popovich: “We spend more time working on offense these days, because our defense won’t be as good as it used to be in the past.” The Coach of the Year vote is curious in one respect since the Bulls and Spurs both won more than 60 games last season. So how can they be improved enough to deserve that award, which generally goes to a coach whose team improved or overachieved. ... Jason Terry joined the salary cap uninformed last week in telling a Miami TV station — so much for his commitment to the defending champions and players not wanting to leave Mark Cuban — he could see himself playing for Miami. Wait until someone tells him the most they can pay him is $3 million while he makes $11 million now. Similarly with Steve Nash, though he didn’t so much volunteer he wanted to go to Miami but was asked as a free agent would he consider it. If you are a free agent, the manual says you would welcome all interest. Nash, though, did sound like he was done with the Suns as he went on national radio shows to say the Suns needed to get much better for him to stay. They do have more than $20 million in salary cap room, though that’s not counting him and Grant Hill. ... Is Lamar Odom’s mental meltdown in Dallas going to be a great reality show episode, or what?

-- Portland media is speculating Steve Kerr, whom the Trail Blazers previously pursued as general manager could be in the mix again. ... Rookie Alec Burks is looking like the shooting guard the Jazz has been searching for since Jeff Hornacek. So the Jazz isn’t hearing much from their fans who were demanding they draft Jimmer Fredette, now basically out of the rotation in Sacramento. It’s not unlike in Indiana when GM Donnie Walsh was vilified for passing on local favorite Steve Alford and taking Reggie Miller, who is a finalist for the Hall of Fame, which will announce its inductees Monday with coach Don Nelson already saying he has been notified he was elected. ... Quietly, one of the better stories this season has been the Warriors Brandon Rush, basically forgotten in Indiana after a drug suspension. He’s averaging almost 10 points off the bench and 45 percent on threes. ... Kobe Bryant made that game winner Saturday, though it finished a three of 21 game after three of 20 a few weeks ago. Though Bryant is leading the league in scoring, he’s also third in minutes played behind Kevin Love and Luol Deng and at Bryant’s age they’re saying in L.A. coach Mike Brown, who doesn’t much interfere with his stars despite that supposed benching of Bryant last week, is killing Bryant’s legs for the playoffs ... Larry Brown has been popping up in media interviews this season, the most recent in the Portland Tribune. Though 71, Brown says he wants another shot coaching in the NBA, and you can speculate about the Clippers, where he was a favorite of owner Don Sterling. Vinny Del Negro is on the hot seat again and not expected to be retained as his contract expires after this season as the issue with the Clippers is to persuade both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to sign extensions. Though the Clippers have rebounded with four wins since reports grew of Del Negro’s imminent demise, it might make a big difference to hire a big name coach. And if you are in the market this may be the time. Phil Jackson, living in L.A., figures to be more likely to stay than go to the dysfunctional, media unfriendly Knicks if he wanted to return to coaching. There’s also Mike D’Antoni, who may be the best with point guards, Nate McMillan and Jerry Sloan among those said to be looking to return. And Jeff Van Gundy will go back at some point.

-- The Wolves were 21-20 when Ricky Rubio went down and about out of it now at 25-29. But the bar is set lower there. Said Love: "However this season ends up, we can hold our heads up. People can tell this franchise is headed in a different direction." ... The Spurs keep rolling along, Tim Duncan continues to show he’s nowhere near retirement, and coach Gregg Popovich continues to keep them loose. Popovich said one of his favorite players was George Hill, who was traded to Indiana for the rights to Kawhi Leonard, who starts for the Spurs. When the Spurs were in Indiana last week, Popovich waxed eloquently about Hill, calling him “an incredible human being.” Then Popovich added, “But I traded his (butt).” ... Of Rajon Rondo’s 18 triple doubles, 14 have been in national TV games ... The Bulls have the best post All-Star record at 15-4 followed by Boston at 15-5. They meet in Chicago on national TV Thursday. Uh oh. ... What’s with J.J. Hickson, who has a career average of 8.7 points and 5.6 rebounds and was released by the Kings averaging 15.8 points and 6.3 rebounds in six games since coming to the Trail Blazers, including a 29/13 game against the Clippers and Blake Griffin.

-- It hasn’t been a good season for Richard Hamilton, who missed 37 games with injury coming into Sunday. But it hasn’t worked out much better for other shooting guard/swing man candidates the Bulls looked at signing, some to much longer deals. Former Bull Jamal Crawford has had a nightmare season with the now retooling Trail Blazers. Crawford was accused in local media reports — though I personally didn’t see that about him — of leading some sort of insurrection against fired coach Nate McMillan and is having his poorest shooting season since his rookie year with the Bulls. He is shooting 36 percent since the All-Star break and 27 percent on threes. Once a given, perhaps Crawford doesn’t opt out and takes $5 million for another season from Portland. Then there was Caron Butler, who wanted more years than the Bulls were offering for a player coming off serious knee surgery. He hasn’t regained his explosiveness. He is shooting below 40 percent overall and averaging the second fewest points in his 10 year career. Similarly for Jason Richardson, who was pushing for — and received — a big four year deal that would have limited the Bulls chances to resign their reserve big men. Richardson is averaging a career low 11 points — by more than three a game — and tied for a career low in shooting. And he’s getting worse, shooting 31 percent the last six games and 37 percent in March. And that’s with three more years to run and almost $20 million.

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