Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Miami Heat ready for prime time

Dwyane Wade goes to the basket in the fourth quarter of the Miami Heat's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, December 3, 2015 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.
Dwyane Wade goes to the basket in the fourth quarter of the Miami Heat's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, December 3, 2015 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.

They all count the same, right? Just as one, whether a win or a loss, one in 82, not even one-third of a mile in a marathon. And so what happened Thursday night merely canceled out what happened Monday, a spirited 97-95 win against the contending Thunder simply evening the weekly standings score after a lethargic 105-95 loss against the middling Celtics.

Except they don’t all really count the same. Empirically, maybe. But not psychologically. Not when a franchise hasn’t played in a contest this compelling since a certain superstar fled for home. Not when the basketball nation is tuned in. Not when you’re still trying to show not just the world, but yourselves, who you are.

And so, sure, this mattered more, this testy, sweaty, gritty competition. All of it. Until the not-so-bitter end, when Dwyane Wade was weaving through defenders to finish a floater, when Chris Bosh was grabbing a critical rebound, when a teenager named Justise Winslow was denying Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s final flail went awry. Not when Wade was bouncing off the court, with a joy unseen for quite some time, as Goran Dragic, after his most complete, encouraging performance of the season, grinned widely.

And as the crowd cheered wildly.

How long has it been, since it felt like that?

“No, there was one this year actually, where I felt it was …,” Bosh said. “I mean, Philly.”

Well, that was a little different.

“How?” Bosh asked.

Because Oklahoma City is just a little better than Philadelphia.

“We won by two points, man,” Bosh said. “It was a struggle, dude. I’m just talking about the crowd. What are you talking about? The crowd and the players?”

Beating a quality team in a tight situation.

“Oh, yeah,” Bosh said, laughing. “Then that’s different. Yeah, it’s been a couple years.”

It felt a little like 2012, actually, in terms of atmosphere. No, there was no championship at stake between these teams, not this time. Only seven players, four on the Thunder side, and three on the Heat side, are even still around. But there was plenty of tension. That is typically true when Durant faces the Heat. Over the years, he has called Bosh a “fake tough guy” and questioned Wade’s place in the NBA’s elite. On Thursday, he got irritated when he felt Dragic had undercut him, as he streaked down the court, toward the baseline.

“I didn’t bump him on that play,” Dragic said.

Said Durant: “I thought he did. But I was just trying to add a little flair to the game.”

Not that it needed much. Not with the Heat missing so many free throws early, but still staying close. Not with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra tempting fate by giving Gerald Green heavy minutes, even with his shot way off — and that decision countered by Billy Donovan sticking with Dion Waiters, probably a few minutes too many. Not with Bosh, the Heat’s best big-moment shooter, missing two jumpers late, but Durant missing on the other end, as Winslow continued to work through screen after screen, staying in front of the Thunder’s star forward.

That defense?

“It was OK, I guess,” Durant said. “I like Winslow. I know he’s strong, he’s aggressive, but I felt like I got every shot that I wanted.”

He didn’t get enough to go down. Including the one with 8.9 seconds left.

“Twenty-nine seconds to go, I didn’t want to shoot a shot early,” Durant explained. “I had him shifted a little bit, I shoot 47 percent from three, I got a good look, I just missed.”

The game itself wasn’t to be.

Missed, that is.

Or, for the Heat, lost.

It was a result the Heat needed. Last season, Miami was at its worst when seen by the most, with a 6-17 record on national TV. This season, the Heat had started 1-3, and hadn’t beaten many apparent contender, losing to Atlanta and Cleveland, and beating Houston and Toronto teams that likely won’t be in the mix near the end.

“We’ve been believing in the group, but you also have to have positive reinforcement,” Bosh said. “And you have to have things to visualize what you’re thinking. And we can be like, ‘Ah, we believe in each other even though we’ve dropped a few.’ You have to actually win close games against good teams. And this was good for us. This is the evolution that we’re in now. Later, it’s going to be close games against good teams on the road. So it’s going to be little by little. But we’re getting better.”

And this was a whole lot better than beating the 76ers.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

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