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LeBron, Heat playing the trying game

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 7, 2011 01:37 PM

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It's official -- the Heat has been remade in the image of LeBron James. His decision has become their burden, and it's taking down an entire team.

It started on a Sunday in Boston three weeks ago and boiled over yesterday in a nationally televised 87-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls, the team's fourth straight loss and fifth in six games. It was yet another game in which the hated Heat couldn't hold a double-digit lead, and this time they couldn't hold back their tears either. You almost feel bad for James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Their coronation has become a pity party.

"Inside our locker room, we stick together, we're like brothers," said Wade. "We win together, we lose together. Outside, the Miami Heat are exactly what everyone wanted, losing games. The world is better now since the Heat is losing."

The Big Three in Miami is not LeBron, Wade and Bosh. It's anguish, frustration and doubt. Failure, which wasn't supposed to be an option, is now a harsh reality.

The Heat's shortcomings against the NBA's elite (1-9 against the five teams in the league with better records than their own) have resulted in a Miami meltdown, replete with sobbing on South Beach.

Now more than ever the Heat really has become LeBron's team. Like LeBron they are enormously talented, mentally fragile, overly concerned with public perception and opinion and pressing too hard to live up to hype they created.

People have LeBron and the Heat all wrong. They're not entitled, presumptuous or oblivious. They don't expect anything to be handed to them. Quite the opposite, they're all too eager to please, to earn your affection and approval, to prove they're worthy. They may be the jeunesse dorée of the NBA, but they want respect paid the old fashioned way -- they want to earn it.

But like an unfortunate soul stuck in quicksand, the harder they try the deeper they sink.

It's a sports epiphany that was reached about LeBron the last time the Heat played the Celtics, an 85-82 Boston victory at the Garden Feb. 13.

The teams entered that game with near identical records. Miami was 39-14 and the Celtics 38-14. It was the Heat's chance to silence its detractors and stake their claim as the new "it" team of the East. James went to the free throw line, his team down 83-81, with 12 seconds left. He missed the first free throw and an opportunity to tie the game.

At that moment it was clear that James is the new Alex Rodriguez, or at least the pre-2009 postseason A-Rod. He wants so badly to be right that he's all wrong. He missed a free throw he could have made in his sleep because he simply wanted it too bad.

That's the problem for the entire Heat team and why it can't close out good teams down the stretch, why every last-second shot or buzzer beater goes awry.

James is the Miami Vice that is squeezing the life out of the Heat. His desire to win a title is so great, his need to prove his worth so profound that it is actually having the opposite effect on both his own fortune and his team's. That's why Miami has a disappointing 14-18 against teams with winning records.

The Nike commercial he filmed firing back at his critics and mocking his own move to Miami was a window into his fragile psyche. Why even respond to the criticism? Players like Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce are fueled by others' disdain. James wants to turn it into accolades. He is the very definition of "tries too hard" at this point in his career.

Since that confidence-shaking lost opportunity against the Celtics, Miami and Boston have gone in opposite directions. The Celtics have won seven of eight since, despite shipping off Kendrick Perkins, remixing their chemistry and enduring more hobbled hoopsters. Miami has gone 4-5 and here are the teams the Heat has beaten: Indiana, Toronto, Sacramento and Washington, not a winning record in the bunch.

Here are the teams it has lost to: Chicago (twice), New York, Orlando and San Antonio.

In professional sports the margin between winning and losing is so slim that it's very hard to deliver when every game is a referendum on your career path, when every last-second shot is a defining moment in the making, when every win or loss affects your legacy (in your mind).

With a stronger head coach in place than Erik Spoelstra this might not be a problem, but Spoelstra has never been through this before either. He does not have the domineering personality of a Phil Jackson or a Doc Rivers. He erred in revealing that crying took place in the Miami locker room after yesterday's defeat, opening his team and its unholy trinity up to more derision and criticism when all he was trying to do was humanize them to the haters.

After the game Spoelstra said it was not a matter of effort with his team. Actually it is, coach. They're trying too hard, just like their best player.

The most dominant personality on the Heat is James and the team is taking on his traits. Instead of blending in with Wade and Bosh and forming a new team, James has brought his championship baggage with him to South Beach.

This is great for the Celtics because in trading Perkins they sacrificed perhaps their biggest advantage over Miami -- chemistry. While Rivers integrates new players and experiments with new lineups, Miami at this point in the season should be a well-oiled machine. But the Heat is far from it.

They're a fragile bunch of front-runners desperately trying to find acceptance among the NBA's championship contenders. They want a seat at the cool kid's table.

Enjoy this while you can because eventually James and the Heat will figure out that the only thing worse than not trying at all is trying too hard.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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