By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – Sure, the Seattle SuperSonics have problems. They’ve lost four of their last five games, injuries are ongoing, and the starting power forward is again playing with maddening inconsistency.
Still, it could be worse.
Just ask the Miami Heat.
While the Sonics will limp into tonight’s game at KeyArena, Miami will arrive on life support. The Heat has lost 12 straight games and 14 of 16 this season. Figured to be an Eastern Conference contender, Miami now sits squarely in the Atlantic Division basement, owner of the worst record in the league.
Every NBA season has its surprises, of course, but Miami’s misfortunes are astonishing. The Heat, after all, won 50 or more games in each of the last four full NBA seasons (Miami was 33-17 in 1999, the lockout year), including a stretch of four consecutive division titles.
“It’s a mess,” Heat coach Pat Riley told the Hartford Courant recently. “We’ve always been able to come out of training camp with things in sync and jump on the league early. We’d get a cushion that way, but now our backs are to the wall.”
A month ago, Miami was showing no signs of imminent collapse. The Heat won its season-opener against Toronto, dropped consecutive games to Cleveland and Atlanta, then notched an 87-85 overtime victory vs. the Sonics on Nov. 6.
No one knew that the win against Seattle would be Miami’s last for awhile.
Since then, the losses have come at home and on the road, in blowouts and in nail-biters. The only common thread has been the outcome.
The last three games have been particularly grim. On Saturday, Miami suffered a 78-72 loss to Chicago, the team with the NBA’s next-to-worst record. The next night, visiting Washington (hardly a league power, even with Michael Jordan), smacked the Heat 84-75. And on Tuesday, Miami opened a three-game West Coast road swing with an 87-83 loss to the historically awful Los Angeles Clippers.
Counting tonight’s contest, Miami has 31 games remaining before the All-Star break. The Heat needs to go 22-9 in those games to slip over .500 at the NBA intermission.
“I think we still have an opportunity to turn it around,” guard Eddie Jones told the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “We set goals for ourselves now and we want to be out of this (slump) in two months. We’re gonna come out of this and come out of this fighting.”
Injuries and illness have been major factors in Miami’s demise. Kendall Gill, who started the team’s first four games, is on the injured list with a broken finger. Forward Brian Grant, another starter, missed eight games with a foot injury, though he is expected to be in the lineup tonight. Jones, the team’s top scorer, is hobbled by a bruised knee and is questionable tonight. Center Alonzo Mourning, a six-time NBA All-Star, has the ongoing concern of a kidney disease and missed several games with a viral infection.
Still, according to Sonics coach Nate McMillan, Miami has ample talent and an outstanding coach.
“That’s the best 2-14 team I’ve seen,” McMillan said. “They’ve had a rough start, but (Riley) is still the same man with the same mind. He’s still an excellent coach. He’s going to be on that team to continue to work its way through this (losing streak). They’re going to respond to it, and if they don’t he’ll play guys who will give an effort.”