The narrative during the first month of the Heat's season was how the second unit arguably was good enough to contend for a playoff berth of its own in the Eastern Conference.
That's when Ray Allen and Norris Cole were coming off the bench at guard, Michael Beasley and Rashard Lewis at forward, and Chris Andersen at center.
Based on how that group was playing at the time, and based on where the non-Heat/Indiana Pacers element of the conference stood, it was a cogent argument.
And then the Dwyane Wade maintenance program became more than the occasional missed game. And then Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers began to miss time.
And then it became as difficult to define any cohesive unit, first, second or otherwise.
That doesn't mean the depth isn't there. It just means amid the meandering start to the new year, one of the contributing factors has been a support system that has been asked to do more than merely support.
As a matter of perspective, the Heat's primary -- and seemingly preferred -- starting lineup of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Wade, Battier and Chalmers has opened just 16 of the Heat's 43 games.
The trickle down has been less continuity throughout the rotation, with, to a degree, players such as Allen, Beasley and Lewis losing their way along the way.
"When Dwyane Wade comes back, and hopefully he'll be back soon, we've just got to rebuild that chemistry and get that rhythm with the second team," Lewis said amid this two-day break that ends with Sunday's nationally televised game against the San Antonio Spurs at AmericanAirlines Arena.
To outsiders, the ripple effect of Wade's absence resonates beyond the starting five.
NBA TV's Greg Anthony said among the reasons the Heat have lacked the championship definition they previously displayed has been uneven bench play.
"That speaks to the supporting cast a year ago," Pat Riley's former New York Knicks point guard said. "When you don't have Wade out there, you're asking those other guys to do more. And at this stage of Ray Allen's career, that's asking a lot."
With Allen already having made eight starts after making none last season, the early-season chemistry he had forged with the second unit has been sacrificed.
"We were already really used to playing with Ray," Lewis said. "Ray being a starter changes things up a little bit chemistry-wise."
With Battier a full-time starter this season after playing three-quarters of his regular-season games off the bench last season, there isn't a defensive stopper in reserve at Erik Spoelstra's disposal.
And with Beasley somewhat on the downswing and Greg Oden only now beginning his comeback, it could be argued that the only true bench consistency has come from Birdman.
"You're going to have to see more energy guys like Chris Andersen come in and keep infusing energy, holding this team afloat until they can get everybody back and play well," NBA TV and TNT analyst Chris Webber, the former Sacramento Kings forward, said.
With a full deck, the Heat largely have played well, with a 13-3 record with that preferred starting lineup of James, Wade, Bosh, Chalmers and Battier.
But among the reasons, beyond the obvious absence of Wade, there is an .813 winning percentage with that grouping compared to the overall .721 is a second unit that is defined and cohesive, with players playing within their lanes.
"We can get back to it," Cole said, "and we're going to have to, to keep that balance."
In the lane
BUYOUT BARGAIN?: Among those potentially at the top of the buyout list following the Feb. 20 trading deadline figures to be former Heat forward Caron Butler, who is earning $8 million in the final season on his contract while playing reduced minutes for the Milwaukee Bucks behind breakout rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo. "We've sat down privately and I've had conversations with his representative," Bucks coach Larry Drew told the Journal Sentinel. "I understand his unhappiness about his playing time." While Butler, at 33, is not the defender he once was, he certainly could help bolster the depth of a contender, such as the Heat. Of his future, Butler said, "I know I'll be in a good situation, because it can't get worse. If something was to happen, I know I will be going somewhere pretty good."
INJURY WATCH: So how will the ongoing uncertainty of Dwyane Wade's knee issues impact LeBron James' potential offseason free agency? NBA TV's Greg Anthony is not sure this is the time for such a Heat debate. "It's all going to be dependent on what they do in the postseason," Pat Riley's former New York Knicks point guard said. "If they win a championship, it's a moot point. If they don't win a championship, that's where the concern starts."
BARKLEY'S BEEF: To Charles Barkley, the Heat's recent uneven play is about more than midseason malaise or championship fatigue. "Miami is not coasting," he said during Thursday's TNT telecast. "This team has some flaws. LeBron has to play at a super high level when they play against elite teams. They are not very big. They are going to struggle against big teams. LeBron has so much pressure on him every night. He is the leading rebounder, leading assist guy. They don't coast; they just have some flaws and some teams are able to exploit them."
SILVER LINING: Joel Anthony not only literally came out of mothballs to play Tuesday for the Boston Celtics against the Heat (his first action since playing for the Heat against the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 7), but now his winter gear also gets to come out of mothballs. "I only go back to Montreal in the summertime, so I had to dust off some winter stuff that was way back in the closet," he told the Boston Herald. "Fortunately I had some things, and I'll finally be able to put them to good use again."
STILL GAME: Give credit to the Chicago Bulls and the way their coach Tom Thibodeau can continue to motivate. Forward Taj Gibson said he still can see the team giving the Heat a fight in the playoffs, even in the wake of the Luol Deng trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers. "We feel like we have enough talent to be right up there in the top three of the East," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "So I feel like we've got a good shot. When it comes to playoffs, it's all about matchups and experience." The reality is that Gibson, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler remain challenges to the Heat.
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