Whenever anybody moans how Miami isn’t a great sports town they go right to the easy place, as if year after year of Marlins dysfunction, fire sales and wheel-spinning haven’t been a massive alienating factor begging a remedy. Too micro. Think macro.
You tell me this is a lousy sports town and I think about Homestead filling up for the NASCAR championship race every year, and Gulfstream doing the same for major thoroughbred events, and the world’s greatest tennis players about to descend on Key Biscayne.
I think about what it felt like for Hurricanes-Notre Dame football here last November, and how Greater Miami is about to become one of only 10 U.S. metropolitan areas with all four major pro team sports plus Major League Soccer.
And I think of days like this, nights like this.
The Miami Heat host the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night and the Florida Panthers concurrently host the Montreal Canadiens — both local teams trying to bolster strong bids to make the playoffs. Then, for a late nightcap, Miami Hurricanes’ men’s basketball plays its Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament opener vs. rival North Carolina in Brooklyn.
History is in play. We have had all three teams for 25 years (since the Panthers arrived in 1993), and, barring an unlikelihood, this will be only the third time that the Heat and Panthers both make the playoffs the same season UM hoops also makes the NCAA Tournament. It previously only happened in 1999-00 and in 2015-16.
There has never been a season in which the Heat and Panthers both won a playoff series and UM won a game in the NCAAs.
Could this finally be the year?
Better question: Won’t it be fun finding out?
Energized by the return of Dwyane Wade, the Heat sits seventh in the NBA East in jockeying for eight playoff spots. With 17 games left in the regular season entering Thursday night, Miami has a 97.8 percent chance to reach the postseason, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projections.
Tonight’s opponent, Philly, sits just above in sixth place, so a Heat win here would enhance the chances of moving further up for an (ostensibly) easier first-round draw in the postseason. The Heat is only three games out of fourth place, which would earn home-court advantage. But let’s say the Heat stays in the 6th-to-8th range and faces a top-three seed in the first round. Well, Miami is 3-2 combined against current No. 1 Toronto and No. 2 Boston this season.
The Heat is 0-2 vs. No. 3 Cleveland, although facing LeBron James in the first round would be the most anticipated, delicious matchup of all — something to hope for, not wish against.
The Panthers presently sit in ninth place in the NHL East in the battle for eight playoff spots, two points off pace but with three games in the hand over the team now eighth.
Computer projections put Florida’s playoff likelihood in the 64-percent to 71-percent range. Bolstered by the return from injury of goaltender Roberto Luongo, the Cats have been super-hot lately, winning 13 of the past 17 games entering Thursday, and scoring at least one point in seven straight.
In all likelihood the Cats would face top seeds Tampa Bay or Boston if they qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament. They have yet to face Boston but will four times down the stretch. They are 1-3 vs. Tampa, but the only recent meeting was Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime loss despite Nick Bjugstad’s hat trick. Florida, as good as any team in the NHL since Jan. 30, would be a tough first-round out for anybody.
Hurricanes men’s basketball enters the ACC Tournament on the wing of four consecutive wins by a combined eight points, a clutch finish that assured there will be good news and an NCAA Tournament invite on Selection Sunday. The big finish included a 91-88 win at then-No. 9 North Carolina, a feat Miami must repeat Thursday night to advance. UM is two ACC wins from playing in the conference championship game — and greatly enhancing its seeding for March Madness.
The odds might be against South Florida history being made — Heat and Panthers both winning a playoff series, UM winning at least once in the NCAAs — but I wouldn’t bet a lot against it, either.
No matter what happens from here, the Heat, Panthers and Canes all have enjoyed seasons that have earned our attention as we plow into spring. There are reasons to be excited that don’t rely on the Marlins and that don’t wait for football.
And if we’re still debating whether Miami is a great sports town, your honor, I’d submit Thursday night as evidence.