Miami Heat's stars have been eclipsed through season's first month

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 12:08 AM

IN MIAMI It's no time for panicked team meetings, Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday morning, but he admitted a sense of urgency would be nice. Nearly a month into an NBA season many expected would be the Heat's playground, the Heat has been booed on its home court, defeated routinely and resoundingly, and picked apart nationwide.

Which might explain why a handful of Miami players, including team captain Dwyane Wade, dutifully showed up to American Airlines Arena on Thursday for an informal shoot-around despite getting the day off for Thanksgiving.

Wade declined to name the players who attended but said their voluntary participation provided a welcome mental counter to what had been a demoralizing three-game losing streak, which ended Friday night with a 99-90 win over Philadelphia. The last thing the Heat needs, Wade said, is to panic.

"You start to panic and you start tensing up too much and not playing the game freely," Wade said.

"No question you get humbled. We never would have predicted we'd be 8-7."

Miami's frustration has been palpable. After signaling for a timeout during Miami's 16-point home loss to the Indiana Pacers on Monday, Wade hurled a baseball pass across the court in disgust that struck a surprised fan in the front row. Late in that game, three-time MVP LeBron James glared at the scoreboard with his hands on his hips.

Meantime, an increasingly anxious Spoelstra has summoned a host of phrases no one imagined would ever apply to his talent-rich Heat squad. He said early in the week he didn't want to overreact, that it was time to put "the pieces back together."

"We have to be active participants right now," he said, "in our own rescue."

The Heat, which hosts the Wizards on Monday, has been alternately soaring and sinking, but doing far more of the latter than anyone expected when Heat President Pat Riley assembled what was figured to be the Team of the Decade this past summer, luring free agents James and forward Chris Bosh to join Wade in South Beach. Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy predicted the Heat wouldn't lose two in a row all year, yet Miami achieved that twice in the season's first month, and players admit they still haven't gotten comfortable with each other.

Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson speculated that Spoelstra's job could soon be in jeopardy. The Miami Herald declared the squad "A Royal Mess" in a headline this week.

"It's very challenging when you have nine new guys, guys trying to learn a system and guys trying to get acquainted on the basketball court," James said. "We haven't really had our full team yet. . . . It's been a struggle, because you want to be in full-go."

Indeed, some of Miami's difficulties can be attributed to a host of injuries, major and nagging, that have kept key pieces of the 2010-11 squad off the floor at various times - the latest being the loss last week of Udonis Haslem, Miami's leading rebounder, to an ankle injury. Even so, it's difficult to square a squad as talented as Miami's with the enormity of recent struggles.

Miami has lost twice to the Boston Celtics. It blew a 22-point lead in an overtime loss to the Utah Jazz. Even after Monday's wake-up call defeat, the Heat could not muster a resuscitating victory over the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, falling by nine on the road. Entering Friday's game, James was leading the league not in scoring, but turnovers (4.1 per game).

"I don't think we anticipated anything like that, but we're here," Bosh said. "We're just going to have to deal with it. When we all came into this situation, we knew the fact it wasn't going to be an easy road. . . . Anger right now isn't going to do anything. We just got to get it done."

Teams have exploited the fact that Miami's offense lacks a dominant low-post presence and rebounder. Wade and James said the greatest challenge, however, has been turning their inclination to share the ball and be unselfish - which both believe is healthy and critical for team success - into a productive and game-dictated instinct.

Wade admitted that on occasion, instead of responding to the action in front of him, he has gotten bogged down worrying about whether Bosh and James have gotten enough shots.

That's helped create what he described as a communication "disconnect" between him and James and everybody else. Both agreed on this point: They haven't enjoyed this bumpy ride one bit.

"You want to see guys have fun playing together," Wade said. "I don't think you've seen that yet. . . . I think us two is having the biggest adjustment. . . . We have to lead these guys. We have to become more in tune with each other."

They've tried. The two have attended news conferences jointly and sat together on the bench. They've deferred to one another and gone out socially. They dined out together after the Indiana game, figuring a good meal would help them get past the night's miserable performance more effectively than dwelling on it with hours in the film room.

In fact, James said, the Heat needs less analysis and more spontaneity.

"You gotta have fun while you're doing it," James said earlier this week. "We're not doing that right now. We're not having fun at all. . . . We're playing passive. Then when we take a shot it almost looks out of rhythm."

Spoelstra tried to reduce his players' mental burden by gradually adding pieces of the playbook instead of foisting the entire thing on his players at the start of the season. And in the hard-nosed tradition of his mentor Riley, Spoelstra has emphasized play at the defensive end of the court. An unfortunate by-product, perhaps, has been an offense that lacks the fluidity and effective ball movement of a more extensively rehearsed squad.

"We're just running basic sets right now," center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. Spoelstra "is trying not to be overbearing because there are a lot of new players learning the system. Little by little, he's putting in more plays."

Spoelstra, meantime, said he refused to let speculation about his job security present a distraction. He said he talked with Riley on Thursday and it was "business as usual."

"I came in with a clear head," Spoelstra said. "I told the team that. I disciplined myself yesterday just to get away from everything."

Yet the frequent lineup changes have increased the headaches. Haslem underwent ankle surgery Tuesday and is expected to miss months. Shooting specialist Mike Miller isn't expected back before January because of a right thumb injury suffered during training camp. Wade missed much of the preseason with strained hamstring, then missed a game last weekend with a wrist sprain. Bosh's back is sore.

"We feel like we bolstered our depth this summer, really at every single position," Spoelstra said. "And now it's being tested."

Thus far, the test has been a killer.

"We're getting to know each other," he said, "under adverse circumstances."

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