LeBron James said this about an hour before Wednesday’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder:
“The way we’re playing right now, we’d love to start [the playoffs] right now, but we got another month to continue to get better, continue to hone our skills and work out some of the things that may be going on.
“We’re ready. I know I’m ready, but I’m not going to take for granted this last month.”
A few hours later, the Heat lost 96-85 to Oklahoma City, which has won five in a row and could be a “dark horse” to win the Western Conference, according to Dwyane Wade. Although neither James nor Wade was too upset about Wednesday’s loss to a formidable team on a hot streak, work still remains, apparently, for the Heat.
Consecutive wins against the Lakers, Grizzlies and Spurs calmed fears of an epic collapse, but the fact remains that the Heat has lost six of its past nine games and, on Thursday, was three games behind the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings with just 14 games left in the regular season.
Catching the Celtics and Bulls, who both hold playoff tiebreakers against the Heat, will be difficult and Wade said Wednesday night that focusing on a 14-game winning streak to end the season would put too much pressure on his team. The Heat (46-22) traveled to Atlanta on Thursday for an away game against the Hawks on Friday night before returning home for a game against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.
“We have to pick ourselves up, regroup, refresh and get focused for the game on Friday in Atlanta,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
The Heat is 1-1 against the Hawks, who have lost five of their past seven games. Miami could be without reserve center Zydrunas Ilgauskas on Friday. Ilgauskas has missed three games in a row because of an infection in his foot caused by stepping on a nail at his home. Although the Heat’s aggressive group-rebounding mentality did well against the Lakers, Grizzlies and Spurs during its three-game winning streak, the Heat was outrebounded 51-40 by the Thunder.
“In this league, to have success against the best teams, you have to have bigs,” Spoelstra said before Wednesday’s game.
The Heat’s three centers combined for seven rebounds against the Thunder, which recently acquired center Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics. Perkins, who started Wednesday, had five rebounds in 19 minutes. Reserve center Nazr Mohammad, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Bobcats, had nine rebounds in 16 minutes.
“They did a great job getting prepared for the Western Conference,” said Wade, when asked about the Thunder’s new additions. “They’re going to be right there in the thick of things because they added some beef up front.”
The Thunder’s collective size limited the Heat’s ability to penetrate, and the Heat’s 17.6 percent three-point shooting (3 of 17) did little to offset the mismatch. Wade and James combined to shoot 35.7 percent (15 of 42) from the field.
The Thunder shot just 39.8 percent Wednesday but outscored the Heat 24-10 on second-chance points thanks to 17 offensive rebounds. The Heat has held four consecutive opponents to under 41 percent shooting, which offered some consolation after Wednesday’s defeat.
“[Wednesday night] is not one of those games where you feel bad about how you played,” James said. “We can be satisfied with this loss because we know we kept a team [from] shooting 40 percent from the floor. It’s nothing to hold our heads about.”