For a team that won 27 games in a row during the regular season, it's difficult to fathom how the Miami Heat have suddenly turned into one of the most wildly inconsistent outfits in recent memory. Yet here they are, having alternated wins and losses over their last 11 playoff games and locked in a 2-2 tie with the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals.
There are any number of exhaustive statistical approaches that might help pin down an explanation for the Heat's roller-coaster efforts recently, but most of them end up showing the same thing: When Miami gets stellar statistical performances from its Big Three and a good all-around defensive effort from the entire team, it wins.
Similarly, when the Heat have won in this postseason, they've held opponents to 41 percent shooting. When they've lost, opponents have hit more than 47 percent of their shots.
Oh sure, we could go deeper into the strategic elements that have helped the Heat bounce back after losses. Just recently, James confidently attacked San Antonio's sagging defense in Game 4 after looking totally confused and hesitant in Game 3.
Thanks to that tweak (and a couple of others), the Heat followed up a 36-point loss with a 16-point win.
Stepping back, the huge swings in margin of victory support the notion that the Heat just don't approach their opponents with the same urgency after a win as they do after a loss. In games immediately following a postseason win, the Heat actually have a negative average point differential (that 36-point drubbing in Game 3 didn't help).
But after they lose, the Heat win their next game by an average of 20.7 points.
It's easy to say that Miami plays better in wins than it does in losses; what's harder to figure out is the motivation (or lack thereof) that contributes to such disparate and unpredictable performances. It certainly seems like the Heat take a vastly different approach to games when coming off a loss than they do after notching a win.
After such a phenomenal regular season, shouldn't the Heat have this whole consistency thing nailed down by now? What gives?
For a better understanding of some of the mental elements behind the Heat's puzzling inconsistency, I checked in with Art Rondeau, who specializes in the psychological side of the game. He's a peak performance coach who has worked with collegiate and professional athletes. He's also a certified trainer in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
According to Rondeau, there are a couple of factors that could explain why the Heat respond so forcefully after losses, but don't seem to sustain that same approach after wins. In fact, a look back at what very well could have been a loss against the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals helps illustrate that a literal defeat (and not a close call) seems to be necessary for Miami to respond in the subsequent game.
Some of it could very well be a 'whack in the back of the head' type of thing. The loss wakes them up to the reality that they're at risk in the series. What supports this idea is Game 1 against Indiana. In many ways, except for the final score, that was a Heat loss. Almost losing didn't cause them to come out and dominate in Game 2. But when they actually lost Game 2, they came out and won Game 3 by 18 points. The loss, not their level of play, was the motivator.
So perhaps the Heat simply need a very specific wake-up call in order to play their best. You wouldn't think a team as good as the Heat—who have enjoyed three straight runs to the finals—would need to get knocked down in order to stand up and fight, but if you think about it, there's some sense to that theory.
Miami spent its 66-win season coasting for long stretches. Even within their 27-game winning streak, there were a number of close calls that the Heat answered only when absolutely necessary. Miami was down huge to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it snatched a victory with a blistering late surge.
Earlier in the year, the Heat laid off the gas and ended up in double overtime against the lowly Sacramento Kings. James went bonkers and won that game on his own, but only after Miami was on the brink of an embarrassing loss.
These examples don't line up perfectly with the win-loss-win-loss pattern that has emerged during the playoffs, but they do illustrate a crucial point: The Heat know they can flip a switch.
But they haven't shown the ability to flip that switch in the playoffs unless the preceding conditions were just right. In this case, those conditions clearly include a recent loss.
Rondeau noted: "Something seems to be different after the losses that really cranks them up...A lot of teams are stronger when their backs are against the wall."
Maybe that's it. Maybe the Heat need to feel the urgency of a loss in order to muster maximum mental focus in their next game.
Getting back to something Rondeau said about the Indiana series, it seems like there's a way for the "whack in the head" to turn into more of a "slap in the face." In one sense, it describes the Heat's abrupt realization that they need to play better after a loss. Think of it as a reminder of Miami's mortality—which is something the team probably tends to forget about.
But in another way, the slap in the face Miami gets with a loss could refer to the team's desire to avenge a defeat that made them look bad. The Heat might be viewing their losses as personal affronts.
Rondeau noted that there's a possibility that the Heat could be trying to restore their image by coming on strong after losing.
Winning by 18 immediately following a loss might not just be because of having their backs against the wall. The Heat view themselves as a dominating team. A loss means they were dominated to some degree. Part of them kicking it into overdrive the next game might be to prove that they are who they think they are. There are plenty of examples of teams and players finding an extra gear after they've made a mistake or lost a game they felt they should have won.
So, perhaps the Heat are merely a defiant bunch who only respond when their pride has been wounded. You'd think they wouldn't need personal sleights to motivate themselves at this stage, but the game tape speaks for itself: They come out fighting after a defeat.
After wins, they've been going through the motions.
It's interesting to note that Rondeau sees a way for the Spurs to take advantage of Miami's up-and-down game. Apparently, a little dash of unpredictability could get the Heat—even the supercharged post-loss version—off their game.
If the Spurs win Game 5, the Heat would face elimination in Games 6 and 7. The Heat would, rightly, be confident with their ability to win big after a loss. They'd also most likely expect that the Spurs would come out strong and do certain things that they've seen from reviewing game film. So even if the Spurs score points doing what the Heat expect, the Heat would be confident because the Spurs are doing what the Heat expect. But if the Spurs come out strong and do things that the Heat aren't expecting, it could set the Heat back on their heels, change their confidence to uncertainty ('what are they going to do next?'), and pave the way for the Spurs to win the game.
At the same time, the Spurs' fate could be strongly tied to which of Rondeau's possible motivations is really the source of Miami's peaks and valleys.
If the Heat are motivated to take it up a notch by being in pressure situations, which is highly likely, that's worse for the Spurs than if the Heat were only motivated by looking bad. Assuming that the pattern holds and the Spurs win Game 5, the Heat would have their backs to the wall in both Games 6 and 7. But if the Heat were only motivated by looking bad (very, very doubtful), then we'd expect them to be very motivated in Game 6 and not as much in Game 7. If it's a combination of both, the Spurs may actually have a better chance in Game 7 than in Game 6.
The Heat won't be able to get away with alternating wins and losses from here on out. They'll need to make a few tactical adjustments, but it's going to be just as important for them to isolate the sources of their post-loss motivation.
If they can find and use those motivators in every game that remains in the NBA Finals, the Heat should be able to break their on-and-off streak en route to a title. James, for one, is acutely aware of the Heat's troubling inconsistency. Apparently, he's fed up.
It's a little late in the game for "a ha" moments. But better late than never. Nothing's certain, though, and the Spurs have shown that they cannot be taken lightly.
The last two (or three) games of the finals are going to be an epic battle, but the more interesting—and unpredictable—fight is actually going on in the minds of the Heat players.