Basketball / Sports

At halftime, questions remain for Heat

ATLANTA -- You question the Miami Heat at your own peril. Last season's questions were followed by a 27-game winning streak. Later, Game 7 questions against the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs were answered with a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals and a second consecutive NBA championship.

Yet this season, as it reaches its midpoint Monday at Philips Arena against the Atlanta Hawks, feels different. Stability has given way to injury issues and lineup permutations that constantly are evolving.

This season we've seen Dwyane Wade at the top of his game and at the end of the bench in a suit, as was the case Saturday in Charlotte. We've seen LeBron James poised for another run at Most Valuable Player and with statistical totals that are pedestrian by his standards.

We've seen Chris Bosh dominate in a victory in Portland, disappear for extended stretches, then come up big in these past two victories in Philadelphia and Charlotte.

We've seen Michael Beasley reemerge and then again be submerged in the rotation, Greg Oden reappear only to again largely disappear, Ray Allen sizzle and slump.

Questions? You bet there are questions.

1. Is "defense first" still the Heat's mantra?

At times you wouldn't know it, as the Heat have fallen to the bottom in many prime defensive metrics.

To a degree, this goes to the heart to the Heat's overall recent malaise.

Unlike teams that funnel opponents to shot-blockers, the Heat take a more aggressive stance on the perimeter, aggressively pursuing turnovers, reading, reacting and then re-setting numerous times per defensive possession.

It is an approach that requires over-the-top hustle. Again. Again. And again.

It is challenging, exhausting and stifling when practiced to perfection.

It also is the singular Heat approach most vulnerable to lack of consistent focus.

Over the second half: The past two seasons have shown that when needed, the defense will be there. There will be flashes during the balance of the regular season, fury during the playoffs.

2. Will Dwyane Wade continue to be listed as a game-time decision the balance of the season?

Saturday in Charlotte basically answered that question when it came to closing out the first half of the schedule. Now it will be curious to see if Wade plays both ends of the back-to-back set that opens Monday in Atlanta and concludes Tuesday against the Celtics.

It is a prudent approach in the wake of Wade's offseason shock-wave knee therapy, an approach that can produce extended periods of brilliance, such as when Wade was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week in December following an extended break.

The downside is that it puts added strain on the balance of the rotation.

Over the second half: Playing both nights of back-to-back games will remain the exception.

3. Will Greg Oden change the equation?

How can he not, if only for his bulk and length?

But don't overstate the impact. After four years away from the game, the minutes will have to remain measured, and likely will come in the rotation behind both Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen.

This also has to be about more than matching up against Pacers center Roy Hibbert. The Heat have to find a game for Oden that can be exported against other opponents. Oden deserves more than just being considered a Hibbert-stopper.

Over the second half: Oden will more frequently be spotted into the rotation, but likely as a ninth or 10th man.

4. Has Chris Bosh become too much of a perimeter presence?

Question No. 3 will go a long way toward answering question No. 4.

For as much as Bosh has embraced the necessity of functioning as a center, no sooner did Oden emerge as a rotation possibility then Bosh spoke of the advantages of moving back to his natural position.

With Bosh having the option to become a free agent in the offseason, his degree of comfort should not be understated. He sure seemed to enjoy draining those three 3-pointers Saturday in Charlotte.

Over the second half: Erik Spoelstra's prefers forcing opponents to match up with the Heat's unique possibilities. Little is as unique to the Heat's approach as having Bosh draw opposing big men from the paint.

5. Is too much being asked of LeBron James?

Of course it is. How can it not?

But with Wade taking his time off, with Bosh tending to float through portions of the schedule, Erik Spoelstra has to be careful not to become too reliant on James. It's not that he can't shoulder the burden, but those minutes do take a toll.

Beyond that, with James' potential impending free agency, the last thing the Heat need is for their equation to become as LeBron-centric as it was for him in Cleveland.

Over the second half: And you might just have to throw all of that out the window if there is a chance for James to secure another MVP and reinforce his legacy. He certainly seemed to enjoy getting 25 shots in his 45 minutes Saturday.

6. Will the offseason free-agency issues re-enter the discussion?

James' birthday Instagram message to Wade answered that question.

Yes, every word, every action will be parsed. How can they not, with the future of three of the game's most significant attractions involved?

Over the second half: It will be a delicate dance for Spoelstra, who has to continue to create roles that keep his stars happy; for Pat Riley, who has to provide quality support personnel; and for owner Micky Arison, who has to show that he will not allow the luxury tax to overwhelm the process.

7. Will the Feb. 20 trading deadline or the March 1 buyout eligibility deadline be factors for Pat Riley?

The trading deadline more likely would involve discarding rather than adding, with the luxury tax an overriding concern.

The buyout deadline is another story, when the labor would be cheap.

Over the second half: Keep an eye on players on expiring contracts who might be willing to give up something in buyouts in return for the opportunity to play with a contender.

8. Will the rotation stabilize?

Based on how Erik Spoelstra has maneuvered during playoff runs, he may not want that to be the case.

As long as Wade is involved in his maintenance program, it will be difficult to develop continuity. And with the possibilities with Oden yet to fully be explored, there also is question whether small ball will remain the preferred option.

At this point, it is just as possible Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley disappear from the rotation as it is they realize rotation roles.

Over the second half: This is when we will get a true read on how much trust Spoelstra has in Beasley going forward.

9. Is catching the Pacers a worthwhile or necessary pursuit?

Yes and no. If homecourt is within grasp toward the end of the season, it might be enough to pique the Heat's attention. Otherwise, two rounds of homecourt should be enough for the Heat to hone their game in time for a potential Game 7 in Indiana.

Over the second half: Ladies and gentlemen, your second-place 2013-14 Miami Heat.

10. So what about that April 11 home game against Indiana?

Purchases of Heat late-season tickets might not be the wisest of investments.

Over the second half: Figure on the maintenance program beginning before the Knicks, Nets and Pacers make their final visits of the season.

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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