Watching the Thunder/Heat game last night where the Thunder rolled the Heat whom seemed to mentally check out of the game. Miami will finish with a great regular season record. At worst, third best in the NBA, and they could easily finish with the best or second best. They have an unbelievable array of talent, enough talent that they should dominate the league. Yet it feels like something's missing.
There are only three things that come to mind, if you hadn't guessed from the title, coaching, mental toughness, and heart.
This is a team with more talent than anyone in the NBA. They have the best player, arguably the second best player, and another guy in the top 15. They have the talent to break the 72 win barrier set by Jordan and Pippen, but they've already lost 12 in this 66 game season, and it's hard to predict them ever putting together a 72 win season together.
Their head coach has never found a way to get a quality two man game out of Wade and James. The team plays to far less than the sum of its parts because James and Wade still effectively take turns rather than developing a two man game together. The Heat get a few huge advantages over having two superstars despite their lack of a two man game:
1: They can always keep a superstar on the floor by staggering their rests
2: Their superstars are fresher for not having to carry the load the whole game
3: They can ride one star or the other based on whether a team is more equipped to stop one of the two
4: They are virtually unstoppable on the break with both of them in the game
Those things are all great and make the Heat difficult to stop, but for a team that might have the two best players in the NBA, that's a pretty short list of strengths relative to the strength of their two star players. James and Wade are each putting up monster stats, but they seem so much less than the sum of their parts, and I can think of no bigger indictment of the coaching staff than to say the team is less than the sum of its parts.
Do they lack mental toughness?
And by "they", I might simply mean LeBron. LeBron choked away a ring last season. There was no reason for Miami to lose to Dallas except that LeBron played like crap and folded in the moment. Now, we would have said the same thing about Dirk 5-6 years ago, and he went into that finals and in one year crafted a legacy that lands him in the top 10 all time discussion, so LeBron will certainly have many chances to make up for it.
However, LeBron doesn't always seem to rise to the moment. He carried his team through the pathetic Eastern conference to the finals early in his career, but afterwards, his Cavs teams were a relative disappointment. They failed to get out of the East as the #1 seed twice, and both times lost to teams they should have beaten. He's had moments where he's seemingly given up or frozen up at the biggest points in his career.
Again, plenty of time to turn that legacy around, but that's where I'm at with LeBron right now. His playoff losses in the past three seasons guaranteed that he'll never pass Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time, and he has the physical package to have done so, but the mental side just isn't there. If he wins six straight rings, he'll still have choked away one more and go down as the primary reason his team didn't win a ring in at least one season.
Do they lack heart?
The Heat just dropped a game to OKC and lost to Chicago without Rose. These are games against what should be the Heat's two biggest rivals. Teams they want to make a statement against. Instead, it was the other way around. The opposing team made the statement by handily beating them both times.
Miami will get another shot, they have one more against OKC and two more against the Bulls. They can still change this narrative around fairly easily, but when you get towards the end of the season and you've got games that will determine the #1 seed and come out flat, it just shows a lack of heart.
A win against a Roseless Bulls team would have come close to locking up the #1 seed for the Heat, and they couldn't do it, and they didn't feel like they really made an effort to do it until the fourth quarter when the Bulls fought off a furious charge. The Bulls won by simply wanting it more and playing with more heart.
How do you go into a game like that and not want it enough to win? How? It's just inexplicable.
Will they put it together?
I've always thought they would. I've always thought this team would mend the cracks in their armor. LeBron obviously worked hard this off-season rather than partying it up in south beach during the lockout. He's come back with a post game, he's come back with perhaps his best statistical season in the NBA.
But right now? It feels like they're still missing something. It still feels like they haven't found a way to put it all together. I'm still scared to death of Miami. Whatever cracks in their armor we see now were even bigger this time last season when they still trivially put things together to romp all over Chicago in the playoffs.
Yet, I thought they'd come back unstoppable, and they haven't. They've come back quite beatable still. We'll just have to see if Chicago is up to the task this season.