At essentially the quarter pole of this NBA season, the Heat remains a team that can look brutal one night, brilliant the next.
Just six weeks into the fifth season with this nucleus, the Heat already has a four-game losing streak and a seven-game winning streak. The roller-coaster continued in recent days, with Miami having now lost four of its past five heading into Wednesday’s game at Toronto.
And if you are indeed what your record says you are, then this incarnation of the Heat looks barely above average. In other words, very similar to last year’s 44-38 team that caught fire on its ride to the NBA Finals.
Miami stands seventh in the East, the exact spot it occupied heading into last April’s play-in tournament.
Jimmy Butler bluntly described Miami’s 11-9 start this way:
“We stand right where we don’t want to be, which is very mediocre, not good, not bad, not great, not any of those things,” Butler said after the Pacers overwhelmed Miami’s defense in a 144-129 Indiana win on Saturday at Kaseya Center.
“Just mediocre,” Butler continued. “You talk about our offense has been mediocre. You talk about our defense has been mediocre. That’s the word I would use.”
As always in sports, there are caveats and context.
Miami has played a road-heavy schedule early, with 12 of its first 20 away from Kaseya Center.
The Heat already has played 12 games without Tyler Herro, who was averaging 22.9 points before an ankle injury that could leave him sidelined for perhaps another week.
Bam Adebayo, enjoying his best season offensively at 22.3 points per game, has missed four games with a hip contusion and will miss at least one more – on Wednesday in Toronto.
Butler has missed four after playing 57 and 64 in the past two 82-game seasons.
Caleb Martin missed the first 10 games.
But with this roster, yearning for “when this team is healthy” might be unrealistic. This core hasn’t very often been collectively healthy. Herro missed nearly all of last year’s playoff run, following a regular season when Heat players missed the NBA’s second most games due to injury.
Though no win in the NBA should be devalued, it’s worth noting that the collective record of the teams that lost to the Heat is 78-135.
The Lakers (12-9) are probably the best team that the Heat has beaten.
“I think we’re all right,” Josh Richardson said. “Could be better. Could be worse, too, with how much we’ve been on the road, how many injuries we’ve had.
“If we could get everyone back, we could put another streak together. We won how ever many in a row at some point [seven]. That speaks for something. Once we get more continuity and get everyone rolling, it will be good.”
From a metrics standpoint, Miami is 11th in offensive rating (114.8 points per 100 possessions), 16th in defensive rating (113.5 points permitted per 100 possessions), 14th in both net rating and field goal percentage and 20th in rebound percentage,
Two areas where the Heat has been very good: three-point shooting percentage (38.6 is third in the league) and ball-handling (Miami has the fifth fewest turnovers per game).
The Heat will have three days to ruminate after Saturday’s defensive meltdown, a Pacers clinic administered while 27-point-per-game scorer Tyrese Haliburton sat out with an upper respiratory infection.
Without Adebayo, the Heat’s defense was a step slow all night, beaten repeatedly off the dribble and in transition.
The Pacers’ 144 points tied for the second most allowed by the Heat in franchise history, trailing only the 148 that Cleveland scored against Miami in a 148-80 drubbing of Miami in December 1991.
When it was over, the Pacers had shot 65.9 percent (56 for 85), highest ever by a Heat opponent. The previous record against the Heat came in Miami’s 1988-89 expansion season, when the Lakers shot 64.4 percent in the eighth Heat game in franchise history.
“We fouled them; we gave them the three,” Butler said. “They wanted a layup, we gave them that. Offensive rebounds we gave them that. Transition, we gave them that. We didn’t do anything we talked about doing.
“The coaches did a great job of putting us in position to win. We didn’t execute. We didn’t come out ready to play. They attacked. They attacked everybody. If they didn’t have a shot, they were going to find a way to get them for somebody else.”
How would Butler assess Miami’s overall ball containment this year? “We didn’t do our job tonight; you are only as good as your last game. That’s what I’ve always been taught.
That’s what we live by. We’ve got to do something to fix it and very quickly. That game got ugly very fast.”
After opening 1 for 10 on threes, Indiana – the NBA’s highest scoring team – made 15 of its final 22 attempts from beyond the arc.
“You have to credit Indiana,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You take out their best player who drives this offense and they didn’t slow down one bit. We got up 8, 10 points and subconsciously, we probably thought it would be a little bit easier and thought they might slow down.
“That second unit sped this thing up even more, got into such a great groove. Whatever the situation was, we couldn’t contain the ball on the dribble, we could never stay in front of the ball.
“We were rotating and not getting to the second offense player. It was one of our worst ball containment games of the season. And they made shots. You score close to 130 points, you are not expecting for the Heat to lose a game. Our defense had been trending in a better direction.”
The seven wins in a row last month suggest the possibility of becoming more than the 11-9 record would suggest. But there is also something humbling about looking up in the standings and seeing perennially rebuilding Orlando (14-6) and Indiana (10-8) with higher seeds.