This is a good party. Please don’t misunderstand. A bottle of wine with friends at a fine steakhouse. Really nice. But it just pales so much compared to the previous one, after which you awoke wearing a feather boa and two different colors of lipstick on your chest, with no memory and no pants.
Admit it. You actually miss the hate, right? For two years, unrelenting waves of laughter and poison lapped upon South Florida’s shores, strewn across our sports landscape like hypodermic needles littering a beach. Every Heat game had pain and consequences and fear and doubt, and it felt so bad, and it felt so good. Heat players actually cried after a regular-season loss. Remember that? Is it odd to miss a perspective-less media laughing in your crying face?
America was watching, and America was mocking, but that noise is so very far away, all the way on the other side of the country, threatening to drown the Lakers now. This Heat regular season feels like walking on stage after Louis CK has taken all the laughter, like being handed a guitar by Jimi Hendrix, like dating a woman just dumped by The Dos Equis Most Interesting Man In The World.
It is so much more interesting to watch a champion fight than it is to watch a champion yawn. It can be argued that bandwagon South Florida has never cared about sports as much as it has cared about the Heat the past two years, us-against-the-world a very real thing instead of contrived athletic cliché. It made us unreasonable and irrational and emotional. We are no longer these things, and have to wait long months to be them again.
All the loud critics have dispersed like cockroaches when the lights come on, leaving you no one to fumigate with your rage and defiance. All of a sudden, Charles Barkley won’t shut up about how LeBron James is the greatest basketball player in the world, right up there with Michael Jordan. It is confusing. After throwing things at him outside the arena, are you supposed to like him now? You could cast a net over America without ensnaring a single LeBron critic now, although Skip Bayless might jump into that net voluntarily just to say that he did.
If what happened the other day against Golden State, allowing an absurd, easy basket with less than a second left to lose at home, had happened at any point in the previous two seasons, we would have traded Dwyane Wade, fired Erik Spoelstra and wondered whether LeBron was clutch as America howled at South Florida’s misery. But now, spoiled and satiated, not unlike our team, we shrug our shoulders and try to TiVo fast-forward through the next 60 games. Perspective isn’t what you usually find at the best parties.
Once upon a time, a stretch of wheezing victories over Cleveland, Milwaukee and a shell of a San Antonio team, coupled with losses to Golden State and Washington, would have felt apocalyptic. Now, as the Spurs revealed to all by sending their stars home before the Miami game, we know these 82 games don’t actually matter. But wasn’t it better when you felt like they did? Yeah, we were living a lie, deluded and manic, thinking Game 36 somehow meant something, but now we’ve traded an asylum for a library, and sanity might be vastly more reasonable but it is also vastly less fun.
It is crazy when you think about it. One game. That’s really all the difference in the world for this team. One game. Truth is, if Miami had lost Game 6 at Boston last season, this team would be exactly the same, every bit as good, but what you’d be hearing today, at 15-6, is that the pieces don’t fit and that Pat Riley needs to coach again and that LeBron is going to opt out in 2014 as one of the greatest failures in the history of the game. And echoing laughter. You’d hear a lot of that, too. That one game — and Udonis Haslem, even with all that street cred, admits that what he felt on that bus headed to Boston’s arena was fear — is the only reason we can look at what is happening now and say South Florida’s basketball team is bored instead of broken.
Like a mechanic with no deadline, Spoelstra can spend months and months tinkering with this luxury vehicle as it coasts. The team appears to have traded defense for offense, a curious change, especially for a champion. Shots from outside? Too many. Free throws? Too few. Playing defense and getting free throws, those things are hard. Shooting threes is fun. So Miami is taking five more threes a game than it did last season. The media tries to manufacture fake concern in the place of the real concern that consumed the past two seasons. If the fans and media care less, then so, too, does the team.
Enter the Knicks to the rescue. Who thought anyone in these parts would ever be grateful for them? The loud, obnoxious Knicks fan (forgive the redundancy) contaminates our area like a viral strain. Only one thing people in sports dislike more than arrogance. Unearned arrogance. And Knicks fans are awfully loud with a team that has won a single playoff game in a decade.
But there is this feeling that the Knicks might be good, finally. Carmelo Anthony is playing the best ball of his career. Four guys on the team are shooting 40 percent from three-point range in a league where 10 teams don’t have one guy doing that. The Knicks are built like those 2010 Mavericks that beat the Heat, with Anthony playing the role of Dirk Nowitzki. They’ve blown out Miami twice and have the best record in the East.
Heat fans would laugh in your face at the suggestion of doubt, even though they are just one Game 6 loss in Boston from doubting.
But drama and doubt have been vanquished in these parts, just like the critics, just like every NBA team, and quiet, reasonable parties are never quite as fun as the careening, noisy ones.