The Miami Heat are as disjointed as a conference-leading, defending champion can get.
With just four wins in their past nine games, Miami entered Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions Arena for an interconference matchup with the Utah Jazz in desperate need of a win Monday night.
They left with yet another loss, 104-97, and a possible schism developing between coach Erik Spoelstra and Heat mainstay Dwyane Wade.
As Miami suffered a lethargic start resulting in a 19-point deficit after three quarters of play, Spoelstra was struggling for answers. A loss would mean their stranglehold on the Eastern Conference would dwindle to just 0.5 games over the New York Knicks. Not to mention it'd put them another half-game closer to the surging Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics.
The Heat responded, trimming the once 21-point deficit to just a two-point margin. But there were some rumblings for Spoelstra to call in the supporting cast for James, no matter how special he looked on this night (32 points and six assists in 43-plus minutes). ESPN.com's Michael Wallace:
OK. Spoelstra needs to get Bosh and Wade in. Proved his point. Reserves battled hard for 8 mins. I like his guts, tho.— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) January 15, 2013
But Spoelstra continued riding the hot hands of Rashard Lewis (13 points) and Ray Allen (10)—an opportunity afforded the coach thanks to James' nearly unprecedented performance:
LeBron guarding Favors then Al Jefferson, running the offense and anchoring 22-9 run w/o Wade-Bosh on court. Insane.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) January 15, 2013
All the while Wade continued to sit, never stepping foot on the floor for the game's final 12 minutes.
Miami needed size, as they once again were dominated on the boards, this time by a 40-23 margin. But Wade had been as effective a rebounder as Spoelstra had at his disposal, corralling a team-high (along with Udonis Haslem) five rebounds.
In reality, Wade's individual performance produced little to be construed as bench-worthy. He finished the night with 11 points (on 5-of-11 shooting) and four assists to two turnovers.
Yet, he was the one that Spoelstra singled out. Bosh returned to the floor for the game's final 40 seconds, despite the fact that he'd managed only a single rebound in 26 minutes of work prior. Wade was one Spoelstra made the scapegoat for the team-wide struggles felt both in this game and during the team's recent rough patch.
When prodded for the reasoning behind the move, Wade sounded flabbergasted:
Wade: "Coach makes the calls. I'm just a player." #heat— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 15, 2013
This wasn't the first time that Wade and Spoelstra have seemingly failed to see eye-to-eye. But this time just had a different feeling about it:
Spoelstra & Wade had their differences before. Normal stuff. Even publicly. Just look at the Indy series. But still ...— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) January 15, 2013
Had Wade underperformed during the game, the move would be understandable. Had he failed to bring the requisite rebounding effort needed to help stem the team's woes on the glass, there would have been a tangible, recognizable reasoning to Spoelstra's thought process.
But without some concrete evidence behind the move (it's not as if Wade's presence would've limited James' effectiveness, after all), perhaps there's a darkness looming around the corner:
Heat has always been a tight-knit squad. Team doesn't fracture. But have to wonder if Spo just lost a bit of Wade.— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) January 15, 2013
If Miami had escaped Utah with the victory, this perhaps wouldn't carry the same weight. Winning cures all ills, right?
But Spoelstra took a massive roll of the dice, and the gamble failed—the Heat lost. Wade did manage to accomplish one thing before Spoelstra pulled him from the floor, however.
During an awkward break from play in the third quarter, Wade flexed a bit of his muscle and seemingly at least assisted on the removal of a raucous court-side fan.
For his part, Wade suggested no involvement in the altercation. Joseph Goodman, Heat beat reporter for the Miami Herald:
I asked Wade about the fan incident. He said the fan was kicked out for saying something to the official.— Joseph Goodman (@MiamiHeraldHeat) January 15, 2013
There are some definite areas of improvement if the Heat hope to relive that championship euphoria that overflowed the franchise some seven months ago.
But it's hard to imagine a successful solution that doesn't involve a steady dose of Dwyane Wade.