MIAMI — Heat coach Erik Spoelstra took a seat at the edge of Miami’s practice floor Wednesday afternoon, a grim expression on his face until LeBron James walked over a few seconds later.
They chatted. They nodded. They laughed.
For a moment, the first debacle of the Heat season seemed forgotten.
The aftershocks of a 116-114 overtime loss to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night — a game where Miami led by 22 points in the second quarter, 21 early in the third and even by eight with 29 seconds left in regulation, before Paul Millsap hit three straight 3-pointers to force overtime on his way to a 46-point effort — were still there on Wednesday, which was expected.
They might not be totally gone by Thursday night, either, when Miami faces Boston for the second time this season.
“We still have a long way to go,” James said, “to be the team we want to be.”
And that had been the Heat mantra long before Tuesday’s collapse. Ever since training camp, even before, Spoelstra has been talking about the process of turning a roster of talent into a talented team. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had played together before, yes, but never in a system like Miami’s, and certainly not while trying to fit a slew of new pieces together.
The Jazz exploited Miami’s inexperience together in the second half and overtime on Tuesday, sending Miami to its third loss in eight games so far, and the Celtics will try to do it again Thursday.
“It’s just going to take time,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before his team practiced in Miami on Wednesday. “They’re going to have great nights, and then they’re going to have nights where they struggle. To me, I’ve always thought in the first year we won, it always came toward the end of games more, the execution, the timing, the speed. It just takes time.”
Entering Wednesday, the Heat had the 10th-best record in the NBA — maybe most surprisingly, just a half-game ahead of Cleveland, the team James scorned so he could chase a championship in Miami.
By no means have the Heat shown that those title plans are farfetched. But that “process” the Heat are speaking of is ongoing, and won’t end anytime soon.
“It hurts. It hurts to take time. No one wants to go through the process,” Wade said. “But it’s life. Everyone has to go through the process. No question, we understand that we’re a very good defensive team. We understand that our offense is coming along. And sometimes you take those things for granted.”
What galled Spoelstra most about Tuesday’s loss wasn’t the offense, and how it is or isn’t coming along.
It was the defense — which apparently got left behind in the locker room at halftime.
Consider these Jazz numbers:
— They scored 84 points after halftime, more than Orlando and New Jersey scored in entire games against Miami this season;
— They shot 63 percent in the final 29 minutes, their 32 field goals in that span more than Miami yielded in three other games;
— They connected on 20 of 28 shots inside the paint, after going 8-for-21 from the lane in the first half.
“Where do you want to start? It was a layup drill there in the third quarter,” Spoelstra said. “We understand that. We’re a much better defensive team.”
Against the Celtics, they’ll have to be, or else they could be just a game over .500 by close of business on Thursday.
Boston has already topped the 100-point mark four times this season, winning each of those games, and shot 46 percent against Miami in the season-opener on Oct. 26, an 88-80 Celtics victory.
And yes, the Celtics took note of what the Jazz did on Miami’s court.
“Utah’s one of the best teams in the league,” Celtics guard Ray Allen said. “If you don’t execute down the stretch … then the momentum goes in the other direction. That’s kind of how I look at it. You can make those flaws against some of the teams that are under .500 and won’t make the playoffs.”
So on Wednesday, the Heat went to work correcting some of those flaws. Practice wasn’t about the Celtics; it was about the Heat, watching film, individual meetings, all things to further dissect what went wrong against Utah.
“There’s a lot of teams that would love to be 5-3,” James said. “But we’re one of those teams that’s not ever satisfied. We want to continue to get better. We know in the games we lost, we had a chance, and we’ve got to continue to build from the mistakes we had in those games.”
Shaq may play vs. Heat
MIAMI — Shaquille O’Neal has returned to practice with the Boston Celtics after missing five games with a bruised right knee.
O’Neal says he still has some pain, particularly just below the knee, but might return when the Celtics face the Miami Heat on Thursday night. He’s averaging 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds this season in limited action.
O’Neal says he’s “feeling better.” He wore a leg sleeve and knee pads to protect himself from further problems Wednesday.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers says he hasn’t decided whether Shaquille O’Neal or Jermaine O’Neal, who has pain in his left knee, will play Thursday.
Says Rivers: “Likely neither … maybe both … who knows?”