There was a time, not long ago, when the Heat stood proudly as the most polarizing squad in all of sports, beloved within the boundaries of its homegrown plus bandwagon fan base, loathed by all others.
It was us against them. All of them.
It is not that way anymore.
These days, it is us against us.
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The Heat is still plenty polarizing, but on an individual and internal, rather than collective and external, basis. All season, the team’s most passionate followers have engaged in an ongoing battle of blame assessment on social media, as part of an unofficial Heat civil war. Erik Spoelstra. Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh. Goran Dragic. Hassan Whiteside. Luol Deng. Even Pat Riley. Each has impassioned detractors, who rush to smartphones and tablets and laptops to single out a culprit for whatever goes wrong — a zero sum game where one person’s emergence means another’s suffering.
Now it’s happening even with stuff going right.
It’s time to stop picking sides, and take a quick peek at the bright side. The Heat’s two-game winning streak without Wade and Bosh — including one without Whiteside — should be cause for celebration rather than consternation, recrimination and separation. This has been a validating stretch for some, and that makes it a promising precursor to the stretch run. Two wins don’t mean the Heat is better without either Wade or Bosh; they just give Spoelstra more evidence to present to those and other players, of better ways to incorporate everyone.
It’s one thing, after all, to say it.
Everyone needed to see it.
So, maybe the Whiteside, Bosh and Wade absences were actually blessings in deep disguise — provided Bosh comes back before season’s end.
This period has been constructive and instructive.
It has been constructive for the confidence of Goran Dragic and Luol Deng, in particular, and should swell the confidence of others in them, since both are now doing what they insisted they could, if given greater chance to play to their particular strengths. In the two wins, they’ve combined for 98 points, 33 rebounds and 22 assists, production it has typically taken them roughly four games to achieve.
The breakout has come, in part, because Dragic is playing with more willing runners, including some usually on the second unit, which should compel Spoelstra to stagger his minutes, more frequently splitting him from Wade, something that, because of the style clash, seemed sensible starting in training camp.
The breakout has come, in part, because Deng has been dynamic as a speed “power” forward, which is where he belongs in the modern game. And if Bosh returns, you could see a repeat of the 2012 playoffs. After Bosh, then the power forward, tore an abdominal muscle. Spoelstra tinkered until he settled on undersized Shane Battier in the “four” spot. When Bosh came back, Spoelstra plugged him in at center, leaving Battier alone. This time, Bosh could slide in for Amar’e Stoudemire, especially with Whiteside thriving in a reserve role.
(Ideally, Saturday was instructive for Whiteside as well, showing him that he can still generate eye-popping, salary-popping numbers off the bench, getting more touches per minute and surrounded by ballhandlers, including Josh McRoberts, who are content getting him posted in great position and getting out of the way.)
The breakout has come, in part, because of a Spoelstra tweak, authorizing the forwards — whether Deng, McRoberts or Justise Winslow — to push the pace, rather than just giving it to a guard and trudging to a corner. Miami has posted two of its four highest-scoring games (115 and 114), while averaging 102.9 possessions per 48 minutes, compared with 94.7 before the All-Star break.
And so, naturally, here come the concerns, especially about Wade’s imminent return, as if he’s entirely oblivious to what has occurred in his absence. He has spent his entire career adjusting — whether as a rookie adjusting to a position he has never played (point guard) or a champion superstar accommodating LeBron James by playing more off the ball. Yes, he’s more methodical these days, and no, Dragic and Deng aren’t James.
Yet he has set this sacrifice example, again and again, and this one hardly ranks highest among them. A little more sprinting with Dragic or others early. A little looser leash on the ball at the end, but not too loose, because he’s still the Heat’s best option when it matters most; his continuing crunch-time effectiveness is largely responsible for Miami’s 13-3 record in games decided by five points or fewer or in overtime.
It’s almost offensive to assume he won’t bend at all, after he has seen how well the Heat has played offensively without him.
The true key to Miami’s recent success?
“We’re not thinking,” Deng said.
They’re just playing.
Soon, Wade will be, too.
No need to overthink this either.
“I think we’re going to be OK,” Dragic said. “I’m not worried.”
If he’s at peace, maybe Heat supporters can find some, too.
Monday: Pacers at Heat
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 Spanish.
Series: Pacers lead 60-42.
Scouting report: Miami, coming off two of its four highest-scoring games of the season, needs this win before Golden State visits on Wednesday. Indiana has won two of the first three meetings, with Paul George averaging 30.3 points, so the Heat needs to even the season series to avoid a potential tiebreaker deficit. Dwyane Wade (knee) is questionable for the Heat.