I covered the Lakers in 2010-11 when they were chasing a third straight title and four straight Finals appearances. It was a strange experience.
That group started the season 13-2, feasting on a home-heavy, fairly soft schedule. But from there, warning signs started popping up. They had several multiple-game losing streaks, and dropped games to some absolutely hideous teams (the 19-win Cleveland Cavaliers, for example).
Those Lakers, save a brilliant run of 17 victories in 18 games coming out of the All-Star Break, rarely looked dominant, and struggled against better competition.
Despite closing with five straight losses, it was assumed by fans, media, and the Lakers themselves that they could flip the proverbial switch once the postseason arrived. They got the benefit of the doubt, because everyone knew the Lakers were saving their best stuff for when it really mattered.
And, of course, they were soundly embarrassed by the Mavericks in the second round.
With the benefit of hindsight, picking out their red flags wasn’t tough. Many we knew were there, but wrongly assumed would go away.
Which brings me to the Heat. After consecutive losses in Brooklyn and New York indicated they are, no surprise, suffering from some motivation problems.
The regular season is a long, hard slog, particularly for a team playing deep into June in each of the last three seasons. Miami is banged up, has Dwyane Wade on a strict program for self-preservation, and very little go get their juices flowing game-to-game. That, as much as anything, explains why eight of their 10 losses have come against sub-.500 teams. It explains why their defensive efficiency (104.6 points per 100 opp. possessions) is closer to league average than league elite. It contributes to their rebounding problems.
It is incredibly difficult, mentally and physically, to achieve what the Heat hope to this year. Everything for them is a grind, and with no real incentive to push Indiana at the top or a significant challenge in the rear-view mirror, fast forwarding psychologically to the playoffs is a real temptation.
On the one hand, two-time champions sporting the best player on the planet deserve a little leeway. On the other, bolstering weaknesses and reversing bad habits isn’t easy once they’re baked in.
To say Miami is in serious trouble is a monumental overreaction to a couple of bad games, or a lingering sense they’re not as sharp as they could or should be. Against the best teams in the NBA, those .500-and-better squads against whom more focus is required, Miami is a league-best 11-2. So they seem able to summon motivation when needed.
But it’ll be fascinating to watch how they operate down the stretch, whether managing playing time or in reaction to commentary about rough patches the Heat will almost surely see between now and mid-April. They could slide in some important categories. The trick will be noting which shortcomings can’t be cured in the playoffs. Miami should have everyone’s benefit of the doubt now, even on nights when they look sluggish and even a touch apathetic.
It’s certainly possible, though, that equation could change.
Onto the rankings.