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The Heat's struggles go beyond losing LeBron James

Thanks to a miserable December, the Miami Heat are barely hanging onto a playoff spot in the East.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

For the Miami Heat, 2014 was a year to forget. After the San Antonio Spurs dismantled them in the NBA Finals, LeBron James went back to Cleveland and they started the 2014-15 season at 14-19, it was hoped that 2015 was a chance to start fresh.

Then, in their first game of the new year, the Houston Rockets beat them by 36.

It was an ugly night: The Heat scored just 11 points in the third quarter. The 115-79 loss dropped them to 14-20, which is still good enough for eighth in the Eastern Conference. And while the Heat are in the playoff hunt, the first season without James has been an ugly one.

It didn't start out that way, though. At the end of November, Miami was 9-7 and mid-pack in the East. Then December hit. They dropped 12-of-17 games while inching closer and closer to the lottery.

Losing James was obviously a big hit for the Heat, but a team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shouldn't be fighting for the eighth playoff spot in the East. Yet that's exactly where they are. Here's why:

December was an awful, awful month.

The Heat weren't playing out of this world in November. They were simply a solid team putting up solid numbers. That being said, the drop in production in December looks even worse. It didn't help that Bosh missed eight games in December with a calf injury.

On the year, Miami has a defensive rating of 107.2, it's the fifth-worst in the league. But in December, it was 108.9 and only the Knicks were worse.

Meanwhile, their offense sputtered as well. Their offensive rating was 104.2 in November, but dropped to 102.6 in December. The biggest drop came from shots behind the arc. The Heat were sixth-worst in the league shooting the deep ball in December at 32.6 percent.

Heat 3-point shooting in December

This came after they shot 39.1 percent in November. That was second in the league for the month, behind only the Golden State Warriors.

Going cold isn't the only thing bringing the Heat down this season.

The defense isn't what it used to be

With James and Wade on the court, Miami's defense was attacking and aggressive. No passing lane was safe. An offense had to speed their game to keep up with the dizzying defense. And it worked. The Heat were stifling on defense.

Their 107.2 defensive rating is up from 102.9 in 2013-14. And teams are shooting the ball much better against this Heat squad. Opponents are hitting 47.3 percent of their shots, it's the third-worst in the league behind the Timberwolves and Lakers. They're also making 37.2 percent of their threes against the Heat, which is fifth-worst in the NBA.

The attacking defense led to fast break points for the Heat teams with James, but this year's squad isn't scoring nearly as much. They're getting 8.5 steals per game, which is on par with James' Heat teams, but they're not taking advantage in the same way. Only 9.3 percent of their points are coming on the fast break compared to 12.9 percent last year and 11.6 and 13.9 percent in their two championship seasons.

The loss of James has a lot to do with the dip in defense, but it also doesn't help that the remaining stars aren't what they used to be.

Bosh is the key

Bosh and Wade were happy to play second (and third) fiddle to James, and they've both stepped up since James left. Wade looked washed up in the 2014 NBA Finals, but has stepped it up as the Heat's leading scorer. Bosh, who was hampered by a calf injury that kept him out of eight games, has upped his game in 2015, but needs to step it up even more if the Heat are going to turn the season around.

It seemed he was ready to be the star in the first game of the season. Bosh put up 26 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. He hasn't matched those numbers since, though. That isn't to say Bosh is having a bad season. He's averaging 21.1 points and eight rebounds per game with a PER of 21.68. It's his best statistical season with the Heat and nearing the numbers he put up in Toronto. But it's not enough.

The Heat were 3-5 without Bosh in the lineup and are 0-3 since his return from injury. And with Josh McRoberts out for the season, the Heat's presence down low is lacking. Chris Anderson gets minutes, but Bosh's importance on both sides of the court has added importance.

The rest of the Heat roster needs to improve as well. Unless the defensive effort intensifies and they bounce back from their December slump, the Heat aren't making the playoffs in the East.


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