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Burning question

When will Heat get over hump?

By Gary Washburn
February 14, 2011

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Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was left to explain yesterday’s loss to the Celtics, as he had to do twice before this season. His words may have sounded like coachspeak, but Spoelstra appeared sincere.

However, despite his characterizing the Heat’s 85-82 defeat as a growing experience, Spoelstra can’t help but be somewhat discouraged, as Miami came to Boston with all the momentum and all the chemistry and still trailed most of the game. The Heat spent the past three months since the teams’ previous meeting in Miami stomping most of their opponents.

Miami’s Big Three had been creating the type of hysteria that was expected at the beginning of the season. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade seemingly had developed chemistry, learned each other’s tendencies, and mastered halfcourt ball movement.

But there was James yesterday, dribbling endlessly on the perimeter, searching for a crack in the defense, just as he was last May with the Cavaliers. The Celtics turned him into a freelancer while Wade continued his shooting doldrums against Boston. Bosh turned in a good game, but has there been a quieter 24 points and 10 rebounds?

The Celtics needed essentially seven players to elbow — or hard screen — the Heat back to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Nate Robinson played five first-half minutes and did not return, and Avery Bradley spent nine seconds on the court in the first quarter.

The Heat, meanwhile, were fully healthy. Sharpshooter Mike Miller, who missed the first two meetings with a fractured right thumb, was first off the bench. The Heat claimed they were a dramatically different team than in November and were ready to pounce on Boston, with little regard for its injury woes.

But what we witnessed yesterday is a team that doesn’t respond well to teams that don’t fear them.

Doc Rivers coaches circles around Spoelstra, and that mismatch is the first Miami has to figure out to unseat the Eastern Conference champs in the postseason. Spoelstra continues to believe that Miami’s talent alone is good enough to beat the Celtics, as it is with about 27 other teams.

Rivers has devised a defense that turns the Heat superstars into second-guessers. Wade spent most of his time looking for open spaces and taking bad shots. Bosh was the most effective Miami player offensively but he has yet to display the ability to carry a team down the stretch. And the Celtics have no problem leaving the game in his hands.

Miller missed the potential tying 3-pointer in the final second and then had the nerve to tell Rivers, his former coach, “Don’t leave me open like that again next time.’’ That wasn’t precisely the plan, but the Celtics are content to allow the Miami bench to respond in critical moments.

The Heat reserves were a combined 2 of 12 from the field for 8 points. So much for thriving in the spotlight.

James scored a very unassuming 22 points, unable to take over in the fourth quarter and ending his afternoon by missing the first of two free throws that could have evened the game with 12.5 seconds left. He has been in this position before, beaten by the Celtics as the prohibitive favorite, having to explain why the NBA’s most unstoppable force can’t overtake an aging bunch of help defenders.

“It’s a little bit of both,’’ James said when asked if the Heat were frustrated or making strides. “We know we’re making strides, but at the same time we’re competitors and we want to win. It’s going to take time. I got the same feeling right now as I had in my third year or my fourth year when we continued to play Detroit and we just could not get over the hump. The regular season, the playoffs, we just couldn’t get over the hump. It took a long time for us to finally get over the hump.’’

James tried to convince reporters — and perhaps himself — that this regular-season meeting paled in comparison to the playoffs. But it’s obvious James has a stigma about winning at TD Garden, and victories over Indiana, Detroit, and Charlotte are not going to prepare the Heat for a postseason series here.

“We both know we’re in each other’s way of winning the NBA championship; this is a team that everybody is trying to catch,’’ James said. “These games do count, I’m not saying the regular season is worth nothing . . . but you guys have covered the playoffs long enough to know those games are 10 times different than the regular-season games. [Yesterday’s] game will sting . . . you watch the film of some of the mistakes we made.’’

And the spin continued from Wade, who is 12 for 45 from the field in the three meetings with Boston.

“You’ve got to get over it,’’ said Wade, who was called for a flagrant foul on Kevin Garnett in the third quarter after a hard Garnett screen on Miller. “I’ve been through this before. You look down the line, everyone has been through it, MJ [Michael Jordan] went through it with the Pistons back in the day. [Getting over the hump] can happen any time. We got plenty of time, it can happen in the playoffs. That’s when we would like it to happen, anyways.’’

The Heat will play the rest of the season with the league smirking at their accomplishments. The luster of their nice run has been tarnished, and not even a late regular-season home victory over the Celtics will restore that shine. The remaining games are essentially meaningless for Miami, because its strongest message to Boston can only be delivered in the postseason.

Until then, the Heat have little else to say.

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

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