Udonis Haslem, eyewitness, was talking this week about his Heat teammate, LeBron James. He was talking more broadly about the phenomenon of how an athlete, if he is great enough, rare enough, can seem to reach a mountaintop and then somehow keep climbing.
“He gets better. He came here as the best three years ago, and came back better the next year. And now this season he’s better again,” Haslem said. “I’ve been in this game a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like him. I’m scared to see what he might be next year.”
Here is what’s scariest, at least for the rest of the NBA as these playoffs commence with Miami’s first-round Game 1 vs. Milwaukee here Sunday:
Haslem might have been describing this Heat team as a whole, not just its top player.
The best got better.
The champions improved.
No ceiling is high enough for this team with the talent and drive to dream itself as a dynasty. No ceiling is high enough for this organization with the splendid arrogance to believe the best is just the beginning — reflected in president Pat Riley recently saying he envisioned a sustained, decade-plus run of excellence.
We have never had a ballsier team than the 1980s Miami Hurricanes in football. Those guys liked to say they invented swagger and were personified by receiver Michael Irvin half-saying/half-preaching, “We’ll tell you we’re gonna kick you’re [butt], and then we’ll kick you’re [butt] and then we’ll remind you we kicked you’re [butt]!”
These Heat guys don’t say it like that. Oh, but they play it like that. They believe it.
These guys have grand designs on someday being considered among the great teams of all time.
“It’s about understanding the opportunity we have,” as Dwyane Wade put it. “This kind of team, this kind of moment, does not come around often.”
Our 1972 Dolphins like to say to this day, as the ultimate argument-ender, “You can’t beat perfection.”
I’m not sure the Heat believes that.
They had a champion team, and then fixed what wasn’t broken. There was a bit of daring there. Some risk.
Into a proven formula that had succeeded, they added aging sharpshooter Ray Allen, and spark-off-the-bench big man Chris “Birdman” Andersen. Allen plays with that perpetual sneer and sinks three-point baskets better than anybody, ever. And Andersen, whom you might have known only as a body of tattoos topped by a Mohawk until you noticed him muscling rebounds and giving Miami bursts of low-post offense it never had in the likes of Joel Anthony, Dexter Pittman, Rony Turiaf, et al.
Miami is 39-3 since Andersen, “Bird,” was signed. Maybe half-facetiously (or maybe not!), Wade this week called Andersen the team’s most valuable player of the second half of the season.
“I told Birdman he should have gone upstairs and renegotiated his deal,” Wade joked. “We haven’t played with a center like him, what he brings, in awhile.”
It was the vision of the upstairs man, Pat Riley, that brought in Allen and Andersen after he saw what others didn’t: that a team good enough to win it all last year, wasn’t good enough. Could be better.
Erik Spoelstra was the man who had to make Riley’s vision work. “Spo” had to integrate the egos, divide the minutes, make sure the chemistry stayed right and re-jigger how the Heat defined itself. He introduced “positionless basketball.” It sounded like lunacy, until it worked.