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First Quarter Progress Report: Injuries, poor defense mar good start for Heat

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Injuries to Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Norris Cole, Chris Andersen and Josh McRoberts have derailed a 5-2 start for the Heat.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Let's roll the clocks back to Nov. 9. The Miami Heat had just blown out the Dallas Mavericks, whose record now stands at 16-6, on the road. Luol Deng, Miami's biggest free-agent signing in the aftermath of LeBron James' departure, dropped 30 points. Mario Chalmers was relishing his role as a backup two-guard. Miami's offense was great, with increased ball movement helping to compensate for the lack of an otherworldly player like James. Chris Bosh had put together his best start to the season in a Heat jersey. Dwyane Wade had played well throughout a four-game-in-five-night stretch -- something he never did last year.

What a difference a month makes, huh?

In Miami's very next game, Wade injured himself in an embarrassing loss to the depleted Indiana Pacers in which the Pacers won the rebounding battle 53-28. The Heat's franchise player missed nearly four weeks of action with a pulled hamstring, and Miami's offense suffered. Aside from some promising performances from Mario Chalmers, Miami didn't inspire much confidence in Wade's absence. In fact, other contributors like Deng and Chris Andersen soon went down with injuries of their own.

In his return, Wade put on a brilliant fourth-quarter show in Madison Square Garden to defeat the languishing New York Knicks. But since then, the Heat have suffered four straight blowout losses thanks to a horrid level of defense. Now, none of that optimism surrounding the auspicious start to the season remains.

First, let's put this in perspective. Miami has a totally different team this year. Two of Miami's rotation players -- James Ennis and Shabazz Napier -- are rookies. Sometimes, rookies make mistakes like throwing a behind-the-back pass to an opponent on a fast-break that creates a three-point play in transition for the other team. Pat Riley's top free-agent signings, Deng and Josh McRoberts, have not been able to fully integrate themselves into the Heat offense after injuries.

And despite how bad the Heat look now, this team can still turn the season around. At the All-Star break during the 2009-10 season, Miami was a game below .500. The Heat ended the season on a tear, finishing with a 47-35 record. And Miami is still in the East, in which several teams aren't even trying to win. Cole and Deng returned for the Heat against Memphis yesterday.

But the Heat won't turn around the defense until it plays better defense. Four straight blowout losses should let Erik Spoelstra know that this team isn't equipped to play the aggressive trapping style of defense that the Big 3-era teams played. Spoelstra should change his defense to the more conservative, traditional style of his teams in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Andersen will help on his own when he returns, but Miami's 26th-rated defensive efficiency should signal that structural changes are needed.

FINAL GRADE: C