Ethan J. Skolnick

The Heat has good cause to celebrate after winning tough-fought series

Miami Heat's Gerald Green bumps with Goran Dragic after Dragic made a big dunk in the third quarter as they play the Charlotte Hornets in Round 1, Game 7 of the NBA PLayoffs at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, May 1, 2016.
Miami Heat's Gerald Green bumps with Goran Dragic after Dragic made a big dunk in the third quarter as they play the Charlotte Hornets in Round 1, Game 7 of the NBA PLayoffs at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, May 1, 2016.

Dwyane Wade had too much on his mind Sunday to worry about whatever had been trickling down his face. So the Miami Heat guard hadn’t the slightest clue, not until ABC’s Doris Burke referenced it in an interview after the Heat had routed the Hornets, 106-73, about the Internet’s obsession with apparent leakage from his eye during the national anthem.

A tear?

From someone who’s played in five NBA Finals and won three rings? Who was playing in the sixth Game 7 of his 13-year career? For just the first round?

“Just sweating,” Wade claimed later. “Focused.”

Maybe so. Maybe so, even if his wife wasn’t buying it; his wife, Gabrielle Union, tweeted that the love between characters Rayna James and Deacon Claiborne on the television show Nashville produces “the same effect when we watch.” Maybe so, even if he was somewhat less convincing later, when shown a zoomed-in screenshot of his face. “Somebody doctored that!” Wade said. “Man, it looks like I was crying. Unless I had an out-of-body experience that I don’t know about. I won championships and I never cried!”

This wasn’t a championship, not close. It’s simply a ticket to the second round, against either Toronto or Indiana, and the Heat has been to the second round in eight different postseasons since drafting Wade in 2003. Still, it would have been understandable for him and the Heat to be emotional before, during and after, in light of all they’ve had to overcome, and not just in a series against a scrappy opponent.

“We have been through a lot this year,” said coach Erik Spoelstra, who should be included in that accounting. “And we’re still standing.”

Seemingly standing stronger.

“They made us better,” Spoelstra said of the Hornets, who set an NBA record for fewest turnovers in a seven-game series. “I think our basketball needed to go through this.”

This was a series that seemed gone after Game 5, with Miami losing at home by two and losing its collective mind about the officiating, a series that required Wade to connect on his first two three-pointers of the calendar year 2016 to survive Game 6; and a series that seemed to require more from Goran Dragic, in particular, than the Heat had been getting.

So it is significant not only that the Heat prevailed, but the way it did, with Wade, on a short turnaround, minimally taxed on offense (11 shots, 12 points) as several others did their share.

The contribution from Luol Deng was expected. The veteran came into the game averaging 8.5 points in the first quarter in this series and tallied a quick seven on Sunday; this compelled Wade to call the former Bull’s post-All-Star-break emergence, in the indefinite absence of Chris Bosh, “the most important thing to salvage this season.”

But Miami needed more from someone else, and that someone on Sunday was the Slovenian southpaw who had struggled to contain Kemba Walker, to get any benefit from the officiating, and to consistently piece the Hornets’ paint-packing defense.

It’s no secret this season has been challenging for Dragic, who has admitted he erred by not playing with the Slovenian national team to get in shape; who has been transitioning his young family to South Florida; who didn’t get to push pace as he preferred earlier this season; and who still tends to be too deferential at times to Wade and the Heat’s other veterans.

But while teammates admire Wade, they also seem to adore Dragic, and that was evident again Sunday after his second slam of the season. By then, he had already scored 19 points with a series of darting dashes and dazzling spins. The dunk, though, with the Heat already ahead by 22, was an emphatic and euphoric release of a fortnight’s frustration.

And, as Dragic bounced back to the bench, his teammates, first Gerald Green and Josh Richardson, bumped him all the way to the second round.

“We put the ball in his hands,” Spoelstra said. “He had the most energy today.”

Dragic led the Heat with 25 while Walker scored nine.

“Every team faces those tough times,” Dragic said. “We know those tough times are going to come. We just stuck together and helped each other.”

What is this team? It’s still not entirely clear. This is an accidental assemblage with a couple of old standbys (Wade and Udonis Haslem); a miracle find (Hassan Whiteside, who played really big for stretches Sunday even if he didn’t post his biggest statline); a pair of virtually unflappable rookies (Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, who shook off shoulder trouble); a pair of veterans who are trying to prove what they’re still worth (Deng and Joe Johnson); and others (from Gerald Green to Amar’e Stoudemire to Tyler Johnson to Josh McRoberts) whom Spoelstra has chosen to trust from time to time.

“The group cares about each other,” Spoelstra said.

Now this group gets to keep playing a little longer together, starting Tuesday.

“I am not a prophet or anything, but I knew we were winning this game,” Wade said. “I’m just really proud of my guys.”

And really hungry for the barbecue waiting at his house. If any tears were shed there, surely it was due to the smoke from the grill.

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