Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Yes, it’s early, but the Miami Heat being first in the East matters

Hassan Whiteside, Gerald Green, Chris Bosh, Tyler Johnson and Goran Dragic of the Miami Heat celebrate in the second quarter of the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Saturday, December 5, 2015.
Hassan Whiteside, Gerald Green, Chris Bosh, Tyler Johnson and Goran Dragic of the Miami Heat celebrate in the second quarter of the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Saturday, December 5, 2015.

It was once said, by someone South Florida sports fans would prefer to forget, that you are what your record says you are. No league office asks for apologies or assigns asterisks to records that were seemingly compiled with some assistance.

And this is what the Heat is today, after a 99-84 victory against the severely shorthanded Cavaliers on Saturday night:


Six games over .500.

The same number over .500 as the Cavaliers, the heavy preseason favorite.

And, as Indiana played on deep into the night in Utah, even with the Pacers, another franchise bouncing back strong after missing the 2014 playoffs.

In other words, Miami is exactly where it needed to be, in order to compete in a significantly improved Eastern Conference. Exactly where it needed to be, to create somewhat of a cushion before more challenging stretches of the schedule start.

Before some of the good breaks inevitably stop coming at this rate.

So, sure, it’s instructive to acknowledge the ongoing opponent absences, with LeBron James (rest), Kyrie Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist) all out Saturday, leaving the Cavaliers with an active payroll of $61 million rather than the league-high $110 million, roughly $17 million less than what Miami fielded without Luol Deng (hamstring). And yes, that follows the likes of Dwight Howard, Rudy Gobert and DeMarcus Cousins — and for that matter, Kobe Bryant — all missing Heat wins in AmericanAirlines Arena already.

Nor should the abundance of Heat appearances in this building be ignored either; Miami has played more home games (13) than any other East team and the second-most in the NBA, behind the Clippers (14). Plus, Miami has played just one back-to-back, losing the back end of it in Indiana, with 16 more of those grueling sets to come.

But consider the alternative.

What if Miami hadn’t exploited these advantages and had instead stumbled at the start of the season?

A few days back, Dwyane Wade was asked about the unusual schedule thus far, just in terms of the forgiving home/road split.

“I’d rather have it this way than have it front-loaded on the road with a young team early on, with a newer team,” Wade said. “That’s a recipe for disaster. We’ve built something here at home. We’ve built a confidence here at home early. You learn how to win together and then you go on the road and you’re able to use what you learned at home and you’re able to get some games.”

They’re building more than confidence — trust, habits and camaraderie. All of those were evident among Heat players Saturday, and that shouldn’t be diminished just because James wasn’t on the floor with them — at least not until he conversed with former teammates Udonis Haslem, Wade and Chris Bosh following the final buzzer.

Remember, while the Cavaliers are now 3-11 without James since he returned in the summer of 2014, the Heat was 9-9 when he was out during his four years in its organization. It’s not as if teams never win without their best player, or even — with Irving also out — their two best. It’s not as if the healthier squad never psychologically lets down. After all, we grew accustomed to seeing the Heat do that on several occasions against inferior opponents when James was on its side.

The Heat isn’t gifted enough, in its current incarnation, to approach any opponent with arrogance. It needs to come out with energy against everybody, even the weary. The crowd comically chanted “Bron is tired” in the second half, but he certainly wasn’t the only Cavalier, not after an overtime loss in New Orleans and hotel arrival around 5 a.m. The Heat made sure not to allow Cleveland to get its second wind, not until late in the second half, with the outcome long decided.

Beating Cleveland without James, Irving and Shumpert in December? That result won’t mean much if the teams meet in May. But some of the stuff you saw Saturday? Wade and Goran Dragic collaborating in halfcourt sets rather than alternating? That mattered. Gerald Green fighting through screens on defense? That mattered. Wade jumping on Josh McRoberts’ back, while Chris Andersen slow-strutted, all in celebration of a Bosh slam? That mattered too, because it showed a team that’s coming together.

Being near the top of the East? Tied with the Cavs?

Does that matter? “It’s good,” Bosh said, adding: “Of course the schedule’s been favorable, we know that, but we’ll take it. I didn’t really expect this for this team so quickly. But for one day, or two days, we’ll take it. That’s all that matters. We have to make sure we take this game by game and we take this thing seriously.”

They’ll be taken more seriously after facing more healthy stars and hostile crowds. But what they’ve done so far shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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

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