Loss to Sixers brings out flop sweat in Heat

If the Heat knock out the 76ers, they will face the playoff-tested Boston Celtics in the second round. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

This is hardly a panic situation for the Miami Heat. That will come later, somewhere down the postseason line when they face more than just the challenge of beating the 76ers once in three remaining games. Still, you can imagine what it will be like when the panic arrives.

All credit to the Sixers for what they were able to do on Sunday against the Heat in staving off elimination and a first-round playoff sweep. The Sixers had to endure the crushing loss of yet another big, early lead. They had to survive a 22-2 stretch in which Miami nearly ran them out of their own building. And they had to fashion a comeback from six points down in the final 90 seconds of the game against a great defensive close-out team.

The Sixers did every bit of it and more to earn the 86-82 win that sends the series back to Miami on Wednesday night for Game 5. They got huge shots at the end from Evan Turner and Lou Williams, and a big defensive combination by Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand on LeBron James during Miami's last meaningful possession. They survived despite shooting poorly from the floor and turning over the ball too often.

Other teams might have quit on the thing, but the Sixers didn't and they get all the credit and one more trip to Florida for the effort. People can say a lot of things about them, but they can't say they were swept.

What people might be saying about the Miami Heat, however, is just a low whisper now, but it will get louder before these playoffs are finished. Theirs is a roster that was artificially assembled to accommodate vanity and if it stumbles, as it stumbles, the criticism will grow deafening. Not now, not in this series - unless they lose another game - but soon enough.

Beyond the Sixers, the Boston Celtics are waiting. The Celtics had their own stumbling moments early in their series against the Knicks, but completed the sweep on Sunday with an authoritative thumping. Now they wait and watch, measuring the Heat not by what they do against the Sixers, but by what they expect next time around.

Already, in the moments of tension, there are quick words between Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the court, and those long stretches when the Big Three are harassed into relying on the Whatever Two happen to be out there with them.

The other two starters in Sunday's game - Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Bibby - combined to shoot 0 for 9 and score just one point. It wasn't the lineup that was on the court most of the game, but it was the lineup that started it and helped put Miami into a 16-point deficit.

"We don't have an energy lineup at the start," Wade said. "We've got to do a better job of making shots with that lineup. It's not a lineup where we get out and go. We've got to do a better job of knowing our strengths in that lineup and playing to them."

Well, any time, guys. If the Heat don't know their strengths by now, they will be reminded of their weaknesses repeatedly. In this series, the Sixers are outscoring the Heat, 99-77, in the first quarters of the game - including 28-16 on Sunday - and Miami has turned around to outscore the Sixers, 125-77, in the second quarters.

"We have to stop digging holes for ourselves," Bosh said. "We have to figure that out, sit down and talk about it. We really can't afford to spot teams [big leads] because as it gets tougher, those deficits are going to be tougher to come back from."

He didn't come out and say it, but "as it gets tougher," means having to do it against teams other than the Sixers.

"We have to trust each other. It's easy to trust each other when you're up 2-0, or 3-0, but when it's time to close teams out, when it's time to get to those other elite teams, we're going to have to trust each other," Bosh said.

Yes, those other elite teams will be waiting and they will have fewer holes to exploit than the Sixers, who have to make up in scrappiness what they lack in ability. Coming back from 16 down against those teams won't be a joke, and it won't always happen.

"It's probably no more than that," coach Erik Spoelstra said, asked if the slow starts were due a general lethargy. "You see a different energy in the second quarter when we're a desperate team. We have to find a way to have that desperation for 48 minutes."

But it's so hard to do so when you think you're good enough to coast for a while and turn it on when necessary. The Heat haven't just read their headlines this season. They wrote them, too, creating this overblown reality where a normal team used to exist.

So, what have they got? They've got the Big Three, and the Big Three is very, very good. But is it enough, and will it be enough when the real panic time arrives and the whispers have grown into shouts and the whole thing threatens to come apart? It hasn't happened in this series, and probably won't, but you can see the smoke rising in the distance.

"We have enough," Spoelstra said. "We've proven we have enough."

No, not yet, buddy. The proving part is still to come.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/post_patterns