A Heat playoff run is the annual gift we slowly unwrap together, our two-month emotional thrill ride ever since LeBron James grandly announced he was taking my talents to South Beach that summer night in 2010. Well, buckle up again, South Florida. Prepare for exhilarating highs and work-productivity lows. Prepare for late nights walking drained from the downtown bayside arena. Prepare for hearts to soar or plunge on whether a basketball swishes through a nylon net or bonks off a painted rim.
Its as if the 5 ½-month regular season was a mere warmup that barely happened. Everything starts now as the Heat sets out starting here Sunday in the first playoff round vs. Charlotte to win a third straight NBA championship, that rare and magical three-peat.
The Marlins will all but disappear now from our sports landscape, blotted out by the total eclipse of the Heat. Maybe well pay fleeting heed to the Dolphins on the first day of next months NFL draft, before quickly re-immersing into the Big 3 march of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Something is different this time, though.
We are stepping onto the roller-coaster blindfolded.
We cannot know what is ahead, but we can feel it in our gut that something big may be coming, for better or worse.
Dynasty or dismantled. Won or done.
Those extremes are the possibilities in play here.
There could be the sweet stink of cigars and champagne again in a celebrating Heat locker room come June. There could be car horns honking and pots and pans banging all around Miami. There could be the civic healing power of yet another championship parade bringing our diverse and often-divisive community together like little else can.
All of that would mean Miami had become the first team since 1987 to reach four consecutive NBA Finals, and only the sixth team in the leagues 68-year history to win three straight championships. That would be a dynasty by most any definition, a one-upping of even the Dolphins back-to-back Super Bowl crowns in 1972-73.
And that, presumably, would keep this magic ride going. Because who walks away from a champion? Where could LeBron James find better or bigger elsewhere? Where would a King sit higher than atop a state-of-the-art franchise in full reign?
But what if it doesnt happen?
What if the victory cigars stay unlit, the champagne stays corked and the pots and pans stay silent? What if there is no confetti falling on waving players in a parade of double-decker buses?
What if the failure to three-peat means the end of the Big 3 era?
An end to the championship run wouldnt necessarily mean the end, period, although that certainly is more likely if these playoffs end in disappointment.
A very plausible other scenario if Miami falls short is that James, Wade and Bosh all could agree to re-up for one more season and then revisit the free-agency option in 2015.
This, in any case, is the first postseason with those kinds of what-the-future-holds stakes, this added and foreboding drama, because this is the first postseason after which James, Wade and Bosh all will decide whether to declare their free agency and entertain offers from other teams.
That is what is equal parts exhilarating and scary as this playoff run commences:
Heat fans could be on the cusp of a dynasty such as Miami has never seen in its sports history or Heat fans could be on the cusp of farewell, of The Long Goodbye.
Here is something else that is different about this Heat postseason.
A lot of people are wondering if Miami is still good enough to win it all again. Strange as it might seem, the double-defending champions are being doubted.
The Heat is coming off their worst regular-season of the four-year Big 3 era. Wade missed one-third of the season with various health issues. And NBA power has shifted to the Western Conference, where San Antonio, with the best record in the league, is the pick of many to unseat the Heat.
Miamis real challenge figures to come later, not in the first round vs. Charlotte. The Heat has won 16 consecutive games against this opponent, including a 4-0 record by a combined victory margin of 42 points this season.
The Bobcats happen to be owned by the legendary Michael Jordan. But, as Wade deadpanned, Unless hes putting on a jersey, Im not really focused on him.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstras greatest challenge this week has been to try to convince others how dangerous Charlotte is. Our last three games we had to dig back from deficits, he noted.
Miami is as healthy as it has been all season (Probably since the first day of training camp, James said), and that includes Wade, whose troublesome knees and recent strained hamstring are fine now at least FOR now.
We all feel great about where he is going into this, Spoelstra said of Wade, but theres no way to predict anything.
It is the incomparable James and a healthy Wade who give Miami a great shot at a three-peat no matter what the doubters may say.
Weve got to carry the load and set the example, James said.
The NBA postseason separates players, elevating some, shrinking others. This is the Petri dish for legends, the time of year when legacies take shape.
Wade framed it pretty well.
This is what makes elite players elite players, he said, and then added, smiling, This time of year is why they pay us the big bucks.
Let the Heats earning, and South Floridas annual thrill ride, begin.