AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — It has often seemed as if something's been missing this season for the Miami Heat, but late Wednesday night in Indianapolis, the absence of one emotion was actually most welcome.
There was, at long last, an absolute absence of ambivalence.
The Heat hardly did everything right in their 84-83 loss to the Indiana Pacers, but at least they appeared to acutely care about anything and everything that went wrong, whether due to their own shaky hands or due to outside forces—those in the home whites and those with the whistles. In that sense, the subsequent hurt seemed to be healthy, a sign that perhaps Miami has simply been saving its passion for the spring.
The question now is whether it is sustainable for the regular season's final three weeks, and in that sense, neither the schedule nor the standings will be of any help.
Miami players have acknowledged the difficulty in matching the motivation of also-ran opponents, and this trip concludes with contests against dreary opponents in barren buildings, Friday against the Pistons and Saturday against the Bucks. Friday's game coincides with Michigan and Michigan State playing in the NCAA tournament, so silence is more likely in the Palace than malice.
Then there are the standings. Chris Bosh chose not to concede the East race, saying, "We still have a shot, we still have another date with them, and we still have a schedule to play, and they do as well"—but everything points to Miami settling into the No. 2 seed and a first-round series with Charlotte. Trailing by three full games and assured of losing the tiebreaker—due to conference record even if Miami earns a 2-2 split of the season series—the Heat would need to go 10-2 if Indiana goes 5-5.
That may seem achievable to those who watched the Heat win 27 straight last season and then 12 of 14 in November. But Miami is 5-8 in its past 13, and none of the five wins were by double digits. And while many of the remaining games look winnable—one with Detroit, two with Milwaukee, one with Philadelphia, one with Atlanta, one with New York—maintenance may take even more precedence as the postseason nears. And the Heat have enough losses to bad teams (Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Utah, Sacramento, Denver, New Orleans) that you can't pencil them in for anything.
So how can Miami find meaning when it finds itself stuck in a seed?
Maybe Erik Spoelstra, who has given his players copies of Clutch and Mindset and Outliers and The Energy Bus in recent seasons, can find something appropriately inspirational on a bookshelf. More likely, he'll ask them to find some fire inside themselves, to understand that if they drag to the finish of this drag of a season, they might not be able to summon the necessary spirit and confidence for the playoffs.
Yes, confidence—because there are signs that it's cracking, maybe not individually, but collectively, with players starting to doubt the team's collective capability. As Bosh noted following the lamentable loss to New Orleans, the team needs to start reminding itself what it can do.
Since he said that, Miami barely survived a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback from a short-handed Portland squad and then got nipped in Indianapolis. So whatever doubts existed haven't had reason to evaporate. And several players, starting with Shane Battier (given a DNP on Wednesday) and Greg Oden (yanked from the starting spot to start Wednesday's second half), have less cause for self-assurance, especially with LeBron James calling for Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis to become part of the rotation.
At the end of last season, so many Heat players were playing well—coming out of a near-record winning streak—that Miami took nine of its last 10 even after Spoelstra started sitting regulars regularly, and then it seemed a shame that any of the supersubs would need to sit once the playoffs started.
Lately, it's been hard to find five who are faring well.
So that should be the goal now—for a few more guys to get themselves going before the Heat bid the fondest of farewells to their seemingly endless, too often joyless regular season.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.