Still can’t know if the Heat will make the NBA playoffs this season or not, but if it doesn’t, this was the next best thing, an evening when electric ambience ricocheted in the downtown bayside arena as a full house watched the Heat parlay a playoff atmosphere into the team’s best and biggest performance of the season.
And if it does make the playoffs, well, this will have been the springboard.
The Heat walloped LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers 106-92, led by Dwyane Wade’s determined 32 points, and if you were a Heat fan Monday night, it was nothing short of exhilarating. It was a night you wanted to capture and keep, like magic in a genie’s lamp.
The clock wound down with fans lavishing a howling standing ovation for the bounce in Wade’s step and the slump in LeBron’s.
“It’s about fighting for the playoffs. We’re in, we’re out, we’re in, we’re out — we needed this,” Wade said afterward. “We know when we play the way we did [Monday night], we can beat anybody.”
Call it the LeBron Effect.
He helped lift Miami the previous four seasons.
He hasn’t stopped.
James still is lifting Miami, inspiring the Heat to find its elusive higher gear, and inspiring Wade, at 33, to channel the greatness still in him.
“He understands moments as well as any player in this league,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Wade. “He was vintage.”
The moment, the occasion, was not lost on any Heat player or fan.
“There’s a human element to this game,” as Spoelstra put it. “I don’t think our guys had to look at the calendar to see who we were playing.”
Return of LeBron I — his first time back in Miami since leaving for Cleveland last summer — happened Christmas Day, decorated with a buildup of anticipation. What would the crowd’s reaction be? The game lived up to the expectations. Heat fans graciously (for the most part) cheered LeBron, and Wade outscored him 31-30 to lead a 10-point Heat win.
Monday night’s Return of LeBron II was supposed to be anticlimactic by comparison. It wasn’t.
The intensity was greater. Everything felt more real.
The crowd was not obliged this time to follow the cue of a feel-good thanks-for-the-memories video and be magnanimous to James, as it was on Christmas.
This time the reaction to him was more mixed, noticeably heavier with booing.
This time fans seemed to delight in chiding LeBron as he repeatedly complained to the referees about non-calls with that just-bit-a-lemon look he can get when frustrated.
This time, the Heat was fighting for its season’s life, in a four-team scrum for the final one or two Eastern Conference playoff spots as the postseason chugs ever nearer.
Christmas was about hoopla, this was about hoops.
That was about the pomp, this was about the circumstance.
“Wherever LeBron goes, attention follows,” Wade had said. “The excitement of beating him and beating his team is always going to be there. And we’re a team fighting for the playoffs.”
Miami played beautiful basketball all over the floor Monday night.
Wade has seldom looked better. He was 13-for-18 shooting. Even had a dunk. He is averaging 28.7 points over his past six games.
Ascending Hassan Whiteside had 16 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
Mad-dashing Goran Dragic had 20 points and nine assists.
Don’t-forget-about me Mario Chalmers had 16 off the bench.
Luol Deng’s ferocious defense helped hold LeBron to 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting until a too-late fourth-quarter outburst.
Heat, rising, everywhere you looked.
There was this one sequence when Wade scooped up a block by Whiteside, drove the length of the floor and dished back to Deng, who found a wide-open Dragic for a field goal. Nice. Very.
This is what this team can be. And might be, next season.
The Heat’s immediate past has been all about suffering the biggest loss in the NBA — losing LeBron in free agency to his hometown Cavaliers. That loss still remains “shocking to me that it happened,” club president Pat Riley said just last week.
The Heat’s present has too often been about too many smaller losses this season, a losing record, a scramble to make the playoffs for a franchise that reached the previous four consecutive NBA Finals and came away with a pair of championships.
There is every reason to think, though, that this team’s future can be bright.
Monday’s performance showed why.
So did what was left on Chris Bosh’s locker-room chair before the game: A large hand-drawn placard that read, “Get Well Soon,” and contained best wishes written by local school kids.
The night served to remind how good Miami is capable of being even without Bosh, and thus how good they might be with him. With everyone healthy, and with the cohesion only playing together can bring.
Bosh is an All-Star who does a little of everything and a lot of what’s needed. Wade, so efficient, is proving he has plenty of prime left. Whiteside, the young 7-footer, has huge potential only his own temperament can thwart. Deng is the selfless dirty-work guy. And Dragic, a steal of an acquisition, looks like the long-sought point guard answer … with an exclamation point.
This is a starting five you can work with, and win with.
Nights like Monday make that dreaming a little easier.