Miami Heat feeling March sadness

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Coming off a spectacular February in which they went 9–1, only losing to the Utah Jazz, expectations were high for the Miami Heat and superstar small forward LeBron James for the month of March. Last year, March was a good month for the Heat, who were in the middle of their 27-game win streak. This streak helped them get the No. 1 overall seed and home court advantage throughout the playoffs.

However, the performance drop-off seen from the entire team over the course of the last 10 games has been shocking and has seen them fall three games behind the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference. They have gone 4–6 over that stretch while giving up an average of 102.6 PPG, a number unusually high for this team’s stingy defense. What has suddenly gone so wrong for the Heat?

The most obvious and important reason for this sudden drop in performance is the drastic failure in James’s performance since the team’s 107–124 loss against the Charlotte Bobcats on March 3. Over the next three games, James did not reach even 20 points and made only three jump shots. He has not been himself since that game, and with the exception of wins against the Washington Huskies and Cleveland Cavaliers, has shot nowhere near his season average of 57 percent.

It doesn’t help that one of the best defensive players in the game isn’t playing anywhere near his capability on that end. There were several defensive rotations where James seemed lost and did not track his man down — definitely not the way to re-establish himself in the MVP race considering fellow small forward and MVP rival Kevin Durant is in the midst of a 33-game streak of 25 or more points.

Another factor working against the Heat is the presence of too many talented yet underperforming role players. Shooting guard Ray Allen, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, has been in a season-long slump and is having his worst shooting season statistically. He’s had nowhere near the impact he had on the Heat’s title charge last season. The same goes for small forward Shane Battier. More often than not, Battier has been played on larger power forwards for purely defensive purposes. 0–5 shooting nights aren’t rare anymore; in fact, they’re becoming the norm. The Heat need their two premier perimeter shooters to be on top form to beat the Pacers or any possible contender in the loaded Western Conference. The likes of small forward Michael Beasley and center Greg Oden were supposed to be low-risk, high-reward moves, but both of them have been more of liabilities and have only displayed fleeting moments to showcase the talent they truly possess.

The inconsistent play of the Heat’s other two superstars, forward-center Chris Bosh and guard Dwyane Wade, has also exacerbated the Heat’s situation. Wade looked to be in prime form until this recent stretch and it looked like he would be in optimal shape for the playoffs, but concerns about his knee are resurfacing, and he sat out on one night of back-to-backs again. Bosh had been on a hot streak recently, but his poor defense and lack of menacing presence in the paint or rim protection hurt the Heat against the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets, who all exploited the freedom in the paint.

The Big Three — Bosh, James, and Wade — came together so at least one of them could pick up the slack when other members were going through a slump, but when none of them are clicking, the Heat are in trouble.

Some of coach Eric Spoelstra’s decision-making has also been questionable. The Heat have not used previously key rotation players power forward Udonis Haslem and small forward Rashard Lewis at all during this stretch, which was evident in the recent loss against the Boston Celtics.

The Heat have also been poor at holding onto large leads. They had double-digit leads in the games against the Celtics and Bulls, both of which they eventually lost.

The Heat haven’t had this bad a stretch since March 2011 when the Big Three were in their first season together. It’s been a similar story this time around.

Teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, and of course, the Pacers are going to pose stern challenges in their conference and any of the West’s top eight teams would present a more than formidable challenge. If the Heat want their coveted three-peat, they need to get their act together and do it soon.