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.
Spoelstra is this season’s NBA Coach of the Year.
I should say he won’t be, but …
“He should be,” Stan Van Gundy said just Wednesday on 790 The Ticket.
Denver’s George Karl probably will win that trophy because voters are conditioned. They don’t reward coaches of great teams that are great. They reward coaches of teams that exceeded expectations.
The thing is, sometimes the best race car on the track also has the best driver. Sometimes the best horse also has the jockey who ran the best race.
It wouldn’t be right to penalize Spoelstra because he started with the best team — not when he made it even better. Not when his Heat exceeded expectations even when those expectations started so high.
A league-best and franchise-record 66-16 record, a 37-4 home record, an 18-1 finish on the road and that history-challenging, 27-game winning streak form a pretty solid body of work to present to a Coach of the Year committee.
So does Spolestra’s maneuvering and massaging of the rotation after the Big 3 of James, Wade and Chris Bosh and fourth starter Mario Chalmers. Haslem, Shane Battier and lately Mike Miller all have had major stretches as starters. Allen and Andersen have been essential off the bench. Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis have had their moments.
The metamorphosis since last season has seen Miami with deeper talent overall. Critics still question if the Heat has enough size and rebounding, but the composite is a team that enters these playoffs as a prohibitive favorite to a degree seldom seen in any season in any sport.
Wade was even asked the other day about the possibility Miami might sweep all four playoff series and make a golden 16-0 run to another title. Crazy.
It sure wasn’t like this one year ago.
No aura of dominance enveloped the Heat entering the 2012 playoffs.
The team’s record in the lockout-shortened season was only fourth-best in the NBA. LeBron still was shadowed by the can’t-win-the-big-one nonsense, because, well, he had not won the big one yet. And Miami’s path through the playoffs hardly made the case for dominance.
The Heat trailed Indiana 2 games to 1. Then faced two elimination games against Boston. Then lost the Finals opener to Oklahoma City.
If anything, the Heat felt like underdogs much of last postseason, or at least like a team running uphill.
“We’ll never be the underdogs,” Spoelstra guessed.
The Heat feels as if it will be a repeat champion not because it is entitled, but because it thinks it is better than everybody else. The regular season bore witness. The real proving starts Sunday.
“A lot of people say the hardest thing is to win your first championship. I think the hardest thing is to win another one, and then another one,” Wade said this week. “You can get that first one. You give it your all because it’s something you always dreamed of. But after you get to that mountaintop, now what do you pull [motivation] from? The hardest thing is to come back with that same intensity.”
This Heat team pulls that intensity from more than 60 years of NBA champions, from past great teams that distinguished themselves over time and resonate across time.
This Miami team wants to do more than win.
It wants to reign.
As Wade put it, “This is historic, what we are embarking on.”
Let it begin.
Let’s see where it ends.