With a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night, it's official. The Miami Heat's 21-1 December juggernaut has given way to injuries and a four-game losing streak in January, and once again, we come to the reassuring conclusion—the Heat are human.
Call it coincidence or comeuppance, but since LeBron James' karma tweet, Chris Bosh and LeBron have both suffered from injuries, and Miami's lost four straight games. And it shouldn't be a surprise that a few injuries have hit them this hard. The Heat can't afford to lose anyone, let alone players like Bosh and LeBron. But since it's the Heat, people will ask... Is the losing streak cause for concern? ... Is it time to PANIC?
Eh, not really. In a lot of ways, it's the nature of the beast. When Miami gutted their roster's foundation this summer, they weren't doing it to add depth. Pat Riley wanted the best high-end talent that money could buy, with fast breaks that'd give the rest of the league nightmares, and three superstars that'd form the most explosive core in the NBA. And that's exactly what's happened.
Remember December. The same Hawks team that Miami lost to on Tuesday night, they beat by double digits (89-77) when all three of their stars were healthy. They also beat Utah, Milwaukee, and L.A., too. All playoff teams, all double-digit victories, all on the road. At some point, that sort of success buys you enough credibility to render four-game losing streaks an afterthought. Besides, this is how the Heat were built.
Think about it like this. Miami's a high-end sportscar—capable of hitting speeds that would be impossible for 90% of the other teams in this league, but with a chemistry that's more mercurial than that of, say, Orlando. The regular season's potholes will hit them harder. As LeBron James told ESPN after Tuesday's loss, "We had everything going and when you have a few injuries it takes the chemistry out, it takes the rhythm out of a team."
It's not to say the Heat don't have issues, but over the past 60 days, they've answered the biggest question that haunted them during the first month. Can the Heat be dominant together?
The answer: Yes, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade can be dominant together. Go figure.
But Tuesday's loss highlighted a trickier problem. When the going gets tough, all that chemistry we saw in December seems to disappear. In other words, the closer the game, the more vulnerable the Heat become. Not because of anything their opponents do, but because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade still haven't figured out to share the responsibilities in those moments, and it throws them both off their game. Brian Windhorst nailed it over at ESPN:
On Tuesday, Wade didn't take a single shot in overtime and James took six. It was eerily familiar to an overtime game back in November when Wade took seven shots in a home overtime loss to the Utah Jazz and James took only one. ... James fired up 30 shots, making just 11, and Wade didn't have a single attempt during the last seven minutes.
And that's why, as LeBron James took jumper after jumper in the final minutes and into overtime, it became easier to forget how dominant Miami's looked lately. Because the biggest question that haunted Miami—can it work?—was always a little ridiculous.
It can work great. Look back at Miami's December, and it's pretty clear. 14 of 21 wins were double-digit victories, and all but one (a 95-94 win in Washington) were by five points or more.
The real question is whether it can work in close games, within a halfcourt offense, against good teams, with Miami's superstars trading on chemistry instead of trading off responsibilities. Because there won't be many blowouts in the playoffs, and while NBA teams can do serious damage steamrolling through sleepy teams in January and February, it becomes a different game in April. The regular season Grand Prix that favors the Heat's sports car becomes more like a Demolition Derby.
So, when the time comes, can Miami make it work? Will 'Bron and Wade answer it together, or awkwardly pass the mic back and forth? It's a question that still stands for Miami. So, no, the losing streak isn't really be cause for concern. But Tuesday's loss to Atlanta might be.
At best, it's a reminder.
For all the splendor of December, Miami still hasn't addressed the elephant in the room.