Cavaliers 90 - HEAT 117 Recap

MIAMI, January 31 – Following the Miami HEAT’s 117-90 thumping of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Erik Spoelstra made one point very clear. The guys in his locker room, he said four separate times, are very excited to finally be healthy and together.

The past two games have shown why.

Granted, Monday’s game-that-was-hardly-a-game was, aside from a five-minute stretch in the second quarter, hardly telling given that the beat-up Cavaliers are two losses away from tying the NBA’s all-time longest losing streak. But between a blowout tonight and a tightly contested win over the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday, the HEAT have finally progressed into a new stage of evolution as a team.

First there was the coming together in training camp. Then, the feeling out process of November, and the soul searching of early December. A massive win streak came and went, Mike Miller returned, the offense stagnated, the defense maintained, All-Stars were hurt and lineups were jumbled.

Now, with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade healthy, Miller with his game legs back underneath him and experimental lineups beginning to bear fruit, this might be the closest we’ve seen to the HEAT team of the playoffs (without Udonis Haslem).

For the most part.

After Miami’s offense went through bouts of artistry but the defense was inconsistent, Spoelstra’s buzzword for Monday was “Complete”. Every coach wants that elusive perfect game, and in its absence they strive for it. Five minutes of second quarter play was enough to stop the quest short.

“That 5 minute stretch in the second quarter . . . wasn’t our best,” Spoelstra said.

Leading by 16 with 5:06 to play in the first half – a lead built on the shoulders of spacing, hustle and ball movement – the HEAT were playing as expected. Not just as expected in the context of their opponent, but as expected in the context of their own talent. The defense stifled, roles were performed, plays executed and thrills earned.

But over the next five minutes, the dream slipped away. Defense went the way of the fast break as the Cavaliers scored on four consecutive possessions in the span of 66 seconds. Each of those buckets was answered by Miami, but the next nine were not. By halftime, the lead had shrunk to nine. Four minutes into the third quarter, the lead was at three.

The HEAT quickly came up with a 9-0 run of their own, but that wasn’t the lesson to build on, that they can flip the switch when threatened.

“We want to build those habits where we’re not having blocks of games with empty possessions on either side,” Spoelstra said.

“A game can change in three minutes. In a playoff series, that can be all it takes. Thursday night [against Orlando], we better bring a complete game.”

At least now the HEAT are searching for a complete game, for perfection, rather than a complete lineup. They have Mario Chalmers, starting, hitting high-efficiency shots in the corners. They have Miller, shooting, rebounding and creating.

They have Eddie House and James Jones, shooting, running, hustling. And Joel Anthony and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, giving the team the spacing and pick-and-roll defense, respectively, that affords Spoelstra the opportunity to play James at the four in small lineups.

Join all of that with the All-Star trio’s consistency, with Wade taking the helm tonight with 16 points in the second quarter and 34 overall, and the HEAT have their pieces in place. Pieces that are meshing, still, but doing so with trust, of the open man, of the back-line defender, of the pass and of the rebound.

Meshing together and, as Spoelstra pointed out, the HEAT are excited to do so. As they are for Thursday, when they continue the search for that complete game.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” James said. “It’s not just we can just sit here and say its any old game, because its not, because we love competition, we love playing against the best, we love playing divisional opponents.”