MIAMI — LeBron James and four teammates chatted for several minutes under a basket after the Miami Heat finished practice on Friday afternoon, each player sporting a serious look for the entirety of the conversation.
For the first time this season, the reigning NBA champions are dealing with some real trouble.
Back-to-back losses — at Washington on Tuesday, then by 20 points at home against a New York Knicks team that didn’t even have Carmelo Anthony on Thursday — have soured the Heat mood. Add that to some poor defensive numbers and Miami already needing six late rallies before closing out wins so far this season, and it’s easy to see why no one seemed to be laughing at work on Friday.
“When you win everything’s great. When you lose everything’s bad,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “That’s how it works.”
As Wade spoke, James was chatting about 50 feet away with Ray Allen, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and James Jones, a few of them sometimes gesturing at spots on the court as if to mimic how a play is or is not supposed to work. Typically, when the Heat are done with their actual practice, it’s a light-hearted time, one filled with shooting contests and things of that nature.
That wasn’t the case on Friday.
“There is a cloud over our team because we’re not defending like we know we’re capable of defending,” James said. “We have some room for improvement. The good thing is we can be great. But right now, we’re not good. We’re not very good right now as a team and we’ve got to get to that point.”
Miami’s next chance to start getting to that point comes Saturday, when the Heat play host to New Orleans.
The Heat saw the Knicks make 18 shots — on 44 tries — from 3-point range on Thursday night, which became the latest entry on a list of events where Miami believes opponents have thrived simply by getting up to play against last season’s champions.
So far this year, the Heat have seen opponents score at least 100 points 11 times in 17 games. Last season, that happened 16 times in 66 regular-season games.
Some of the highlights, or lowlights, include the following:
— Washington scored 105 points against Miami on Tuesday, the most the Wizards have managed in regulation against anyone all season, and remember, they had one win all year entering that game.
— Wayne Ellington made seven 3-pointers for Memphis in a win over Miami on Nov. 11. He’s 3 for 21 from beyond the arc since, entering Friday.
— Raymond Felton had a season-high 27 points, and tied a career-high with six 3-pointers in the Knicks’ win Thursday.
“Never seen anything like this,” Bosh said of how opponents have at times scored at will against Miami. “And I’ve played on some bad defensive teams. We’re not one.”
The most troubling defensive stat of all for the Heat is likely this: Miami entered Friday 23rd in points allowed per game, after finishing fourth in the league in that stat last season. The Heat have allowed the third-highest number of 3-pointers in the NBA so far, nothing new after giving up the second-most makes from beyond the arc a season ago.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra often speaks of habits and the human condition, and he was asked Friday if Miami’s struggles are simply because the team knows the playoffs are still four months away.
“If that is a reality, then that is a major problem,” Spoelstra said. “But we have an opportunity to correct it, you know, right now. If it goes too long, what it becomes is a tendency. Goes longer than that, it becomes a habit. If it continues, by the time you get to the playoffs, that’s who you are. So that’s what we’re going to change right now.”
James insisted that the regular-season-is-irrelevant argument doesn’t apply to Miami.
“Not for me,” James said. “It’s not for me. My motivation is well beyond hoisting one trophy. I’m not taking any shortcuts to get to that point, so I can’t allow my teammates to take shortcuts. We’ve got to be better. I’ve got to be better. It’s that simple.”
For two years, ever since Wade and James and Bosh decided to play together in Miami, the Heat have been surrounded by what they call “noise.” Everything the Heat have done, the good and especially the bad, have been scrutinized. Winning last season’s title, they figured, would relieve perhaps a tiny bit of that noise — that is, until the first rough patch of this season arrived.
It’s now here. And some inside the Heat locker room think that the extra motivation might not be a bad thing right now.
“We understand what it takes to win,” Haslem said. “We understand that we have what it takes to win. But not performing at a high enough level defensively, it’s just a shame. We’ve got to fix it. And we’re going to fix it.”