Greg Cote

Greg Cote: With regular season over, Miami Heat’s legacy to be shaped by what happens next

The Heat finished its record-setting regular season here Wednesday night, a conga line of myriad firsts and bests in this 25th franchise year, and South Florida danced to those records, didn’t we? It has been a party and a treat — sweet jam spread over 82 games across 170 days.

The club-record and NBA-best 66 victories.

The nearly impenetrable 37-4 home record.

That 27-game winning streak that challenged league history.

All of this, shepherded by LeBron James’ certain MVP award, minted the single greatest season entering a playoffs that any Miami pro team has had since the 1972 Dolphins were simply perfect.

Yes, what we have witnessed these past five-plus months has been astounding.

It has also been this:

Meaningless, without the fitting punctuation now.

Meaningless, pending what’s directly ahead.

The Heat must now do what the then 16-0 Dolphins did more than 40 years ago:

Not ruin what has been so special.

Finish this.

There is reality, and there is Heat reality.

Reality is the heartache of Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings still echoing across America and sports. It is also reality for the Heat’s Ray Allen, who had a family friend lose a leg in the blast, and whose own wife and mother would have been running in the race, he said, had he re-signed with Boston. A Miami Police Bomb Squad truck loomed outside the arena Wednesday, mirroring heightened security.

This Heat team’s own reality? It is simply that nothing but a repeat championship will satisfy.

Sports’ longest preseason has ended.

The only season that matters for this team, the playoffs, begins this weekend here vs. Milwaukee. And unless Miami has 16 more victories in it, this glowing, historic regular season will be retrofit as mere consolation for the Heat … and not very consoling at that.

That feels harsh, this idea that anything short of another title will be an unequivocal failure. It is the reality Miami has set for itself, though, and even more so because all that has been accomplished this regular season positions this Heat team as greater than ever: They’d BETTER win.

That isn’t just me framing the pressure Miami carries into these playoffs.

Dwyane Wade says it, too. Makes it pretty clear, as a matter of fact.

Wade sat relaxed and unusually reflective before his twin-locker stalls inside the downtown bayside arena before Wednesday’s game, a reserve-filled 105-93 victory over dreadful Orlando. Asked about this remarkable season as it segues to the playoffs, Wade (who would score 21 points in 23 minutes) had every chance to separate the two and say the club records already set stand on their own. Every right to as well.

Instead and without hesitation, he shook his head.

“No, it’s only capped by winning a championship,” Wade said. “You can say that’s unfair, but we’re built to win a championship. If we don’t accomplish that this year, we won’t think about the regular season. Hopefully, we can cap it off and THEN think about the historic regular season we had.”

One of the beauties of being the Heat right now is the way the regular NBA schedule was allowed to so leisurely wind down, culminating with the half-party/half-playground atmosphere of Wednesday’s Fan Appreciation Night. Wade played, but otherwise the stars took the night off. Miami’s interest in winning was, shall we say, casual. It might as well have spread beach sand on the court and had reserves playing in sunglasses and flip-flops, perhaps while sipping margaritas.

(You think that’s ridiculous? Show me a league rule that specifically prohibits the consumption of alcohol by a team playing a meaningless game – newly defined as any starting lineup that includes 40-year-old Juwan Howard. Although in fairness, Ponce de LeHoward scored 12 points Wednesday, playing like a man of, I dunno … 36?).

By weekend, of course, atmosphere and intensity will ratchet up palpably. The difference between Wednesday’s casual ribbon-and-bow atop the regular season and the coming weekend will be the difference between a fishing line gently cast and one pulled taut by a racing barracuda.

You and I might feel certain that the Bucks have about as much chance of beating Miami in a seven-game series as the Bahamas would have of beating the United States in a world war, but evidently Milwaukee did not get the memo on that.

The Bucks show surprising spunk for a No. 8 seed with a losing record, mindful of the goofy puppy that attacks the much bigger dog because he doesn’t know any better. Bucks guard Monta Ellis said earlier this year he was as good as Wade, inviting doubts about Ellis’ sanity. Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings said his team matches up well with Miami and that this was the preferred first-round matchup. (Brandon, people have been ordered to undergo Breathalyzer tests for less.)

For the Heat, though, the opponent is secondary. Playoffs are playoffs and Milwaukee just happens to be the first team standing between Miami and what it sees as its shot at history, and legacy.

“It’s a smaller, compact, 16-win season now,” Wade described the turn to the playoffs. “It’s another level. The lights are brighter. The popcorn smells fresher. You see the pregame videos, and you get goose bumps. …”

The greatest, most exciting regular season of the Heat’s first quarter century just ended.

Are you ready? Because now comes the REAL fun.

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