Heat struggling to figure out late-game collapses

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 7:20 PM

MIAMI - It's one thing to struggle at the start of a season after a complete offseason roster retooling. And an occasional punishing defeat in the midst of a long NBA season is surely to be expected.

But when your money players consistently fail to hit high-pressure, late-game shots, and players end up crying in the locker room after games, a stretch of painful losses is not so easily digested.

That explains the hand-wringing and furrowed foreheads throughout South Florida over the star-studded Miami Heat, which has provided the league's most gripping melodrama this season, if not the highest-level of basketball.

In three of its last four losses, the Heat has both squandered leads against strong teams and blown chances to win or tie on last-second shots. (The other defeat was a blowout to the San Antonio Spurs.)

The Heat, in fact, is shooting a woeful and mind-boggling 6.25 percent (1 for 16) in the final 10 seconds of recent games when attempting to tie the score or take the lead, according to an analysis by the Miami Herald.

"Some of these games do not need to come down to the last possession," Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It is frustrating now. It is painful. Until we change, the result will be the same. . . . We simply need to get better in late-game situations."

The figures suggest that Miami is having trouble handling pressure, a much more scary development as the playoffs approach than a spate of overconfidence or malaise. The Heat, which has been arguably the league's most-scrutinized team since all-stars LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade signed free-agent contracts with Miami last summer, would be creating far less of a stir if it were merely blowing games because of a lack of commitment or intensity.

"It can get inside your head if you have a couple of past experiences where you haven't been able to close games," said Patrick J. Cohn, a sports psychology expert in Orlando. "You start to over-generalize or think it's going to happen again. . . . If they start to adopt that mind set, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at the end of a game. It does happen, even at the professional level."

Miami's most recent defeat, an 87-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, saw James and Wade both misfiring in the waning seconds, and left at least some players in tears in the locker room, according to Spoelstra, who used the word "crying" when talking to reporters Sunday. He tried to back off that postgame remark a day later, saying Monday he saw only "glossy eyes." He jokingly called the episode "Crygate."

"Guys were very emotional about it in the locker room," Spoelstra said. "Heads were down, I saw glossy eyes, that's about it. . . .The guys care. Nobody was wimpering in the locker room."

Whether the tears were streaming down their cheeks, or kept in check, the point remains the same: After enduring a November in which Miami started 9-8, the 43-20 Heat is mired in yet another perplexing slump.

After a late February victory over the Washington Wizards, Miami has lost four straight games to quality teams. The Heat lost, 91-86, against the Knicks on Feb. 27 as James missed two shots in the last eight seconds. Two nights later, the Magic rallied from a 24-point deficit in the third quarter to stun the Heat, 99-96, as James and Bosh each missed shots in the waning seconds. That was followed by a humiliating 125-95 loss to the Spurs on Friday.

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