This is no time for defending champions to reach for the panic button, but it’s a question that begs to be asked just the same.
Just what has gotten into LeBron James and the Heat lately?
The Chicago Bulls stormed back from a 12-point deficit early in the fourth quarter en route to a 95-88 overtime victory at the United Center, as the Heat limped home without a victory on their three-game road trip. More important, they momentarily fell two games behind the Indiana Pacers in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
After Jimmy Butler stripped James of the ball on the final play of the fourth period, the home team scored the first nine points in the extra session and never looked back the rest of the way.
“I dropped the ball,” James fessed up to reporters. “That’s a double entendre, huh? I actually dropped the ball and I dropped the ball on my team. I had it. That’s a great play, and I give a lot of credit to Jimmy.”
In his third consecutive subpar performance, James was limited to 17 points on a miserable 8 of 23 in the field. Even more telling, he did not attempt a free throw in a game for the first time in more than four years.
In the three games since James went off for a career-high 61 points, he averaged 19.3 points per game, nearly eight below his season average.
This time James wasn’t sidetracked by an uncomfortable protective mask or a restrictive jersey, neither of which he wore in the game. He spent Saturday night in Cleveland, where former Cavaliers teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas had his jersey retired in a ceremony. He also lost one hour because of the change to daylight savings time but had no regrets.
“It was special, a special time for Z, and I’m happy I was able to be a part of it,” James said beforehand.
If not for Dwyane Wade and Chris Andersen, the game would have been over in regulation play. Wade scored 17 of his team-high 25 points in the first half before he appeared to tire late in the game. Anderson contributed 13 rebounds and a half-dozen blocked shots in reserve.
Joakim Noah led the Bulls with 20 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. The Florida product also pointed countless index fingers toward the seats, where his equally fiery father Yannick was among those in attendance.
“It’s nerve-wracking for (his father), you know,” Noah said of the one-time tennis star afterward. “I always tell him to just drink a beer and chill out. It must be tough for him watching his son play.”
Recent cast-off D.J. Augustin gave his team a lift with 22 points off the bench. Included was a three-pointer that opened the overtime period.
“Each game (in the streak) has been a little different,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This game was different than the other two. None of us feel good about this game.”
After brutal starts in the first two games of the road trip, the Heat came out with a greater sense of purpose this time. They took control late in the second quarter, when the home team was held scoreless in a five-minute, 42-second stretch.
But much like the Chicago winter, the Bulls refused to leave quietly. They finally pulled even at 86-all when Kirk Hinrich (11 points, five turnovers) banked in a left-handed runner with 20 seconds on the clock.
That left James in position to say enough was enough, but Butler (16 points) knocked the ball away on a drive to the basket before time expired. Butler might have been fortunate to still be in the game at that point, as he blindly kicked James in the face during a brief skirmish in the second period. Both players were assessed technical fouls on the play.
“We got the best player in the game driving to the bucket for the last shot, and Jimmy Butler did a great job of stripping him,” Wade said of the fellow Marquette product. “But we couldn’t have asked for anything better at that point.”
Rather than dwell on the lost road trip, maybe the first-place Heat should heed Noah’s advice. Just drink a beer and chill out.