Denver Boot Leaves Cold Heat At Crossroads

Maybe it’s a simple lack of energy in the dog days off winter. Or too many cluttered minds especially in the first half. Or a lack of depth on the bench. Or the inability of their best player to take over in the fourth quarter . . .

Whatever the reasons for their recent funk, the Heat have five weeks to fix them.

A 111-107 defeat at the hands of the lottery-bound Denver Nuggets on Friday night left the Heat with five losses in their last six games. For the first time in three years, they lost back-to-back games at AmericanAirlines Arena.

And for the first time this season, twin anchors LeBron James and Dwayne Wade spoke with a sense of urgency not heard before this season.

“This moment will either define our season or end our season,” James said in no uncertain terms. “Obviously, it won’t end right now, but if (the slide) carries on to the playoffs, it will. We always have one defining moment, and this is it right here for us.”

“We’ve got to figure it out (on the court),” Wade said. “I’m very confident in this team that we will. We’ve just got to do it sooner than later.”

In the race for the Eastern Conference lead, the Heat fell three games behind the Indiana Pacers, who haven’t been much better lately. The teams will meet two more times this season.

First, the Heat have to get their own house in order and do it quickly.

“This league is a beast,” head coach Erik Spoelstra said after his team gave back a 14-point lead in the first period.   “We’ll respond. We looked each other in the eyes. Things can change very quickly in this league, and momentum can change again in our favor. But we have to do everything in our capabilities to put ourselves in a position to make that change.”

How to get James more involved down the stretch ranks high on the to-do list. In the six-game skid, he scored 15 points in the fourth period — total. 

James started out on fire — he connected on all five of his field goal attempts in the first period — but he cooled off considerably. He converted only 3 of 12 field goal tries thereafter.

“In the first half, I felt pretty good,” said James, who finished with 21 points. “We didn’t go back to some of the sets we had in the first half and got out of rhythm.”

The latest setback was similar to that of two nights earlier. The Heat were sloppy with the ball (20 turnovers) and their bench came up short again. Their second unit totaled 40 points, but Ray Allen (season-high 22) and Chris Andersen (14) had all except four of them.

It was a forgettable night for Greg Oden in particular. In five minutes, the center was held scoreless and had a minus-15 points differential.

Spoelstra said the game plan called for the team to “player harder” and for him to substitute more liberally. What he didn’t expect was that four players would asked to be pulled in the first quarter alone.

“You probably can tell at times that our mind is occupied,” Spoelstra said. “Sometimes that makes you slower. That’s the mental toughness that we have to continue to work on.”    

At 29-36, the Nuggets were all but eliminated from the playoff race weeks ago. One wouldn’t haven’t known it to witness the middle two periods, when they scored 65 points against what had been a solid defense not long ago. 

The Heat trailed at halftime, 58-53, and any realistic chance they had for a comeback was quickly doused in the third quarter. The Nuggets opened the second half with a 10-1 run to take control of the game. The home team was held without a field goal for six minutes, 15 seconds, at which point Allen drained a three-pointer to break the drought.

Kenneth Faried paced the victors with 24 points, 10 rebounds and three steals.

“We have to figure it out. We have to continue to get better,” James said. “It won’t get any easier for us with Houston coming into our building. If we re-right the ship, it would be good to do on Sunday.”