Earlier this morning, Ian made a bold claim:
The Heat are toast, and they represent no threat to the Pistons for the Eastern Conference crown (now Jersey, on the other hand…).
If last night's game is any indication of the mindset of the Heat — and of course it is — Miami is so worried about beating the Pistons physically — and the refs verbally — that they've sacrificed their cool and ceded the psychological edge in the rivalry.
Is this a case of an over-confident Pistons fan spouting off? Or does he spit the truth? Just a quick glance at Miami's newspapers this morning suggests it's the latter. From Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote:
The Heat is not just Shaq and D-Wade, chilling as that is to fathom, although their combined 57 points Thursday lent credence to the notion the Heat pretty much is just Shaq and D-Wade.
The championship blueprint coach Pat Riley conceived counts as important the notable spare parts, too. All of them.
But here is the worst part right now if you are a Heat fan. Or Riley.
Detroit owns you.
Blame the injuries if you must, stretching from last year's playoffs on through to Thursday night, but it doesn't alter that bottom line.
Detroit owns you.
Thursday made it 3-1 Pistons in the season series, the one Miami win coming when Wade made a miracle by scoring the Heat's final 17 points.
It wasn't playoff intensity, but it was a pretty fair facsimile for early April. Rasheed Wallace was leaping to block Heat shots taken after the whistle, just for spite.
Late in the first half Wade body-blocked Tayshaun Prince, drawing a charging foul, then shook his head ''no'' as he stared down at Prince, then stepped over him.
Less than a minute later, Wade fouled Rip Hamilton with such will that a referee sprinted at Wade to separate them, shouting, ''Stop!'' at the Heat's phenom.
This was a game both teams wanted, badly.
And the team that usually prevails in this series did again.
When Cote says "the team that usually prevails," he's not just talking about how the Pistons went 3-1 against the Heat this year, or 4-3 against the Heat in the Finals. No, he's talking about how the Heat have won just five out of their last 18 games against the Pistons. And people want to call this a rivalry?
Sure, the Heat could just brush this game off as a meaningless regular season game, but at least one player admits to taking it to heart:
''It means a whole heck of a lot,'' said Anderson, who played 19 minutes and had two points, five rebounds and three assists Thursday. "Especially when you're trying to win and you can't beat a team that knows how to beat you when it's time. You don't just click it on and say, `Yeah, we can beat you when we want to.' You've got to find a way of beating people and you have to change things.
"A friend of mine told me one thing: If nothing changes, nothing changes. And it's obvious something hasn't changed yet.''
Pat Riley thinks he knows what the problem is, and if he's right, it'll be awfully hard for him to fix it without a degree in psychology:
'The guys in our locker room who are veterans, who have been around for a long time, they've got to deeply somewhere believe that they're entitled,'' Riley said. 'Until they feel, `Hey look, I deserve one of these, I want one of these,' and they do all the things they need to do to get one, it's not going to happen.''
A feeling of entitlement or not, the Heat will need to break a pattern -- Miami is 5-13 against this group of Pistons in the past three seasons, including the postseason -- if it meets Detroit in the playoffs a second straight season.
The Pistons are confidently wrapping up what could be their best season in franchise history (they just set the team record with their 27th road win last night), while the Heat, 75 games into the season, have yet to convince their coach that they even want to win. Sure, Miami has the second-best record in the East, but that's largely a function of feasting on bottom-feeders: they've gone 12-1 in their division so far, a division which features teams with three of the worst five records (Orlando, Atlanta and Charlotte) in the East. (How's the Central Division? As of today, all five teams are in line to make the playoffs.)
According to last night's telecast on TNT, the Heat have a losing record against all teams .500 or betterCan anyone remember (or find) the exact record? this year, not to mention a pathetic 2-12 against the top five teams in the league: Detroit (1-3), San Antonio (0-2), Dallas (0-2), Phoenix (0-2) and New Jersey (1-3). And yes, I'm including the Nets in "the top five teams in the league" -- they trail Miami by two and a half games in the standings, but with eight games left to play they have a very real chance of swoooping in and stealing the No. 2 seed in the East. New Jersey has won 14 straight. Miami? They've lost five of their past nine.
Yes, the Heat feature Dwyane Wade, one of the most exciting players in the league. But he's young and can be rattled. And Shaq? He's rarely more than a big name, or as Ian told me this morning, "a slow 18 and 9 guy."
Prediction time: Miami has gone 1-2 against the Pacers this season. If Miami holds onto the two-seed and Indy holds onto the seven-seed, I have three words for you: "one and done." The Heat are not nearly as good as a lot of people pump them up to be, and in a seven-game series I wouldn't be surprised to see a team like the Pacers stun them. Everyone will call it an upset, but it won't be. The Heat are just 13-11 against the other seven Eastern teams currently in line to make the playoffs, and they'll need to play better than they have all year if they have any hope of winning a single playoff series.