So one year ago on this date the Heat was sailing 20 games into what would be a near-record 27-game winning streak, and it was terrible. Whoa. Wait. For Miami it was terrific, of course. But for everybody else, for the NBA, a repeat championship by the rampaging Heat had grown so inevitable the drama was sucked from the season.
Year 1 of the Big 3 era had been nothing but drama because America hated LeBron James, the Heat were villains booed nationwide and the mocking joy elsewhere was palpable when Miami fell short.
Year 2 found the intensity just as high because now the pressure was really on LeBron and the Heat to make this work and win a championship. And howling media-ites such as Stephen A. Smith, Charles Barkley, Michael Wilbon and Skip Bayless had shovels in hand, eagerly ready to bury Pat Riley’s grand experiment as an audacious failure.
Year 3, last season, was much less fun because Miami had won its championship, was steaming to a second in a row and the critics and doubters all had laryngitis. We forgot how much fun it was to be hated, how much the doubt made the winning sweeter. The media wolves were wandering aimlessly by now, muttering to themselves, denied their raison d’etre: Heat-bashing.
Now it’s Year 4 and it’s starting to be fun again!
Thank you, losses. And welcome back, critics. Y’all look good. Well-rested!
Miami has lost four of its past five games — its worst stretch since losing five in a row and six of seven a bit over three years ago — and fresh drama (meaning doubts about a Heat three-peat) breathes back into the season.
In this five-game lull, it now seems relevant to note with foreboding, LeBron has averaged a mere and mortal 20 points per game ever since his epic 61-point night.
Now, a stat like this — Miami ranks 30th, dead last, in rebounding — seems more appropriate to utter with hand-wringing than it did, say, during the recent eight-game winning streak.
I have no evidence to back my conspiracy theory that new NBA commissioner Adam Silver has “arranged” for this Heat downturn, but there is little doubt Silver must think it good for the league.
Suddenly obstacles to a Heat three-peat seem to have multiplied.
(And, no, I am not including Phil Jackson’s reported alliance with the Knicks. It probably is not a good sign that Phil wonders if taking the job means he’d have to live in New York. Even worse, it means he’d have to attend Knicks games.)
Heat vs. Pacers remains the presumed Eastern Conference finals, but recent results suggest Chicago and Brooklyn are teams the Heat would rather not face en route to Indiana. And out west San Antonio and Oklahoma City both have better records than Miami, plus the incentive of having lost to the Heat in the past two NBA Finals. (And the Los Angeles Clippers might be even better than the Spurs and Thunder.)
As Chris Bosh put it Wednesday night, with such succinct eloquence:
“It’s extremely tough trying to do this thing again.”
And, I might add, more fun to watch when it is extremely tough. Or at least when it seems that it is.
Heat fans are understandably cocky, having attended two championship parades in a row, and with LeBron repping them. But not many Heat fans I know are all that cocky-certain of a three-peat. It is in this gray area where drama foments, and where four losses in five games turn up the doubt a bit.
The expectations for this team — championship or bust, win everything or you’ve failed — are extraordinary on two fronts.
First, the Heat’s Big 3 era of James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh has delivered us a sustained run of success at this level such as South Florida hasn’t seen since the 1971-73 Dolphins played in three consecutive Super Bowls and won two.
Second, in the present context, marvel at how little was made earlier this week when the Heat officially clinched a playoff spot. Was that even news? It’s like Tiger Woods breaking 90. Now compare that to the parades that erupt on the rare occasions when the Dolphins, Marlins or Panthers make the playoffs — if your memory will cast back that far.
Most of us here in Miami believe the Heat losing four of its past five doesn’t mean much, and that a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance remains beyond likely.
Consternation has its place, though, and it is the external doubts creeping back in that make this whole thing fun again.
Four losses in five games!? Must mean the Heat suddenly turned tired, distracted, old or bored. Right?
Barkley, Bayless, et al, must feel like starving men who have been tossed a crumb, but they should make a point to sate themselves now and take their shots while they can.
Before the playoffs start, in other words.