Dwyane Wade is calling this “the last dance” -- his final Heat season playing before Miami fans.
It began Saturday. The dance was not a waltz. It was exhausting. It was exhilarating. It was all of that, in waves.
It was a crushing and bad loss in Miami’s 31st home opener, 113-112 to Charlotte, but also one noble in its improbable Heat comeback from a 26-point third quarter hole.
Mostly, it was D-Wade, reminding us why we’ll miss him.
It was Wade, off the bench with a team-high 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, including his first two 3-point shots of the season in the closing minutes.
This was just the start, suggesting it’s going to be a wild ride, indeed.
The Heat finds itself living in the Curse of Pretty Good right now, or of trying to get there. Seemingly about a thousand miles from the next championship parade down BIscayne Boulevard. The immediate upside that fans are left to hope their team can creep up into the mid-40s on season victories and maybe win a playoff series.
Optimism for that and something less both presented themselves in Saturday’s home opener, a dispiriting loss to a Hornets team Miami thought itself better than only to be schooled otherwise. The sold-out home crowd came looking for a party of a start to Wade’s farewell season only to depart far too quietly into the night, left to wonder what has happened to the team that sat atop the sport in the king’s chair in 2011-14 .
The is life in the modern NBA when one superteam at a time reigns and it’s Golden State’s time and that’s it. No complaints from South Florida, please. Miami invented the template with the Big 3, and now is left to navigate forward with something closer to the Big Nada. Miami is today a starless team in a star-dependent league, apart from the used-to-be-glow of the 36-year-old Wade, who now comes in off the bench.
As if to verify that Miami is trying to win with a patchwork of effort, coaching, depth and “culture,” the Heat’s early-season starting lineup features zero first-round draft picks.
Most teams pretty good or better have a reliable go-to presence. Charlotte has Kemba Walker. Miami hopes somebody will shine each night, never quite sure who that reliably might be. The Heat’s late, failed effort to trade for available Jimmy Butler further reminded that Pat Riley from his high perch sees exactly what his team is missing.
Wade, even at his age, was almost it Saturday. Almost.
The Heat at 1-2 with 79 games to play, the team in the Curse of Pretty Good or trying to get there, presents a particular challenge for Miami fans who’d grown accustomed to national relevance.
It isn’t all bad. It forces one to not fast-forward to the assumed eventuality -- NBA Finals or bust! -- but to instead enjoy the mystery and the hidden corners on the long ride to whatever fate holds.
Reasons to watch along the way:
1. Wade and Udonis Haslem’s long goodbye, of which Saturday night was quite literally the beginning of the end. Wade entered the game mid-first quarter to a standing ovation. Later there was a vintage minute when he scored on reverse layup that left him sprawled on his back, and then on a fall-away baseline jumper. He finished strong to mint his best game of the newborn season.
“Heat Nation, what up?” Wade spoke to the adoring crowd before the game, Haslem at his side. “My brother and I want to thank each and every one of you guys. It’s meant so much to us.”
Vintage Wade or less, winning season or not, the epic heft of Wade and Haslem’s final home game will grow as it nears by degrees, the emotional pull of the season.
2. The Heat, of the franchise pedigree, even fighting the Curse of Pretty Good, might still be the surest bet to make the playoffs of any major South Florida team. Would you bet the Dolphins, Panthers , Marlins or Heat right now? Exactly.. As they showed in fighting back from a 26-point hole Saturday, this team will compete..
3. Can Josh Richardson grow into stardom? He seemed cast for the role the first two games, seemingly anointed by Wade.
“They’re telling me to be aggressive,” Richardson says.
Haslem on J-Rich: “He’s stepping up on offense and still taking the challenge defensively. Guys do not do that in this league anymore.”
Saturday, the (apparent) chosen one was quiet with seven points.
4. Will young Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow blossom? Along with Richardson, these are the two who must become stars if the Heat is to grow to win big with the present nucleus. Adebayo is the man who must make Hassan Whiteside expendable when his contract expires after next season. The team just reinvested in Winslow, extending his rookie contract by three years.
5. Full health, please. And will Dion WEaiters ever play again?
Where it ends, nobody knows.
The surest bet?
Through the tears of farewell or the memories he’s yet to create, Dwyane Wade will be the Heat’s star. Again.