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Many bumps on new road

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 12, 2010

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MIAMI — Perhaps it was the season-opening loss to the Celtics or the surprising loss at New Orleans. Those were hints that this Big Three model is not as easy to assemble as it looks on the box.

On that box are images of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, smiling, slapping hands, dressed in their crisp, white-and-green home uniforms, ready to demolish another opponent.

But the box doesn’t reveal how difficult and time-consuming the assembly is. The Miami Heat are learning that lesson. Many expected that the Larry O’Brien Trophy would be stored in the Miami team shop the moment LeBron James and Chris Bosh committed to joining Dwyane Wade.

The road to dominance has been bumpy at best. The Heat dropped to a pedestrian 5-4 after their 112-107 loss to the Celtics at AmericanAirlines Arena last night. They never led in the game and appeared timid and uninterested until late in the fourth quarter.

James, despite a near triple-double (35 points, 10 rebounds 9 assists), is reluctant to spend entire games at point forward, although he is by far the Heat’s best distributor. Bosh, who appears lost as the third option, finished with 15 points in 35 minutes, while Wade missed early shots, never got into an offensive flow and then stood and watched James do his Magic Johnson impression.

The team is taking a public beating. Once expected to challenge the 1995-96 Bulls NBA record of 72 wins, such a prediction is now laughable. The Heat now have the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference, and four of their five wins have come against New Jersey, Philadelphia and Minnesota.

“It’s reality now,’’ James said. “Initially when this team was put together, we were excited. We know how good we can be. These tests right here show us how far we got to go. Right now, we’re talented enough to play against these teams, but the chemistry level isn’t up to these better teams in the league right now. That’s why it’s difficult for us to stay on point throughout the game.’’

Four losses in the first nine games have forced South Florida to pull the plug on the party music and seriously ponder whether the Heat can become title contenders.

“We know it’s going to be a process, and that’s the No. 1 thing we keep harping on,’’ James said. “It can be frustrating because there’s a lot of guys here with pride, a lot of guys here that want to win. You get to a point where you try to rush the process. We just can’t do that.

“We’re talented enough to win some games, a lot of games. But no matter how much talent we have, this is a team game.’’

Moments later, James examined the box score, looked at his stat line but glanced to the left and saw his minutes played (44). And he then expressed his first public disagreement with coach Erik Spoelstra.

It probably won’t be the last.

“I think Coach Spoe, he’s trying to figure out the minutes, trying to figure out exactly the lineups that he wants to play,’’ he said. “For myself, 44 minutes is too much. I think Spoe knows that. I think 40 minutes for D-Wade is too much. We have to have as much energy we can to finish games out.’’

When Pat Riley committed 65 percent of the team’s salary cap to three players, there was almost certainly a drop-off expected among the remaining 12 players, and that has been the case.

Spoelstra starts Joel Anthony, but doesn’t trust the inexperienced big man, playing him just 7 minutes, 52 seconds.

He opted for rugged Udonis Haslem alongside Bosh, making for a perimeter-oriented and undersized frontline. Glen Davis and Shaquille O’Neal combined for 16 rebounds, despite each playing with major foul trouble.

It hasn’t taken long for scouts to help expose Miami’s weaknesses, and the Heat players have become resigned to the fact they are much like other top NBA teams — talented but flawed.

And right now, the Heat are several steps behind the Celtics in the Eastern Conference.

“This team [the Celtics] is the team to look at and say, ‘That’s where we need to get to,’ ’’ Wade said. “They’re the best team in the East. They got two on us right now. We are 5-4 and we can’t run from it. I think we’re better than 5-4. We’re the best 5-4 team in the league, how about that? But we’ve got a lot of work to do.’’

Spoelstra is the voice of reason because he freely admits it will take more than nine games for the Heat to become a juggernaut. And he also understands that every Miami loss will generate more questions about his ability to coach superstars, especially with Pat Riley sitting upstairs in the president’s office.

It’s in Spoelstra’s best interest to deflect all concerns about team chemistry and subpar performances, but the clock is still ticking.

“In the last 48 hours, we’re getting to know each other,’’ Spoelstra said. “This is good. This is what makes you stronger. At times it will be bumpy and this is a bumpy stretch right now. We’re much better than we played tonight. They simply outexecuted us, carved us up, and exploited us. We’re better than this. Our guys understand that.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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