Greg Cote

For Heat, meeting and beating LeBron in playoffs would mean successful season

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James reacts after dunking during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 13, 2016.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James reacts after dunking during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 13, 2016. AP

It is so, so different right now with the Heat than with Miami’s other major pro teams, from an organizational standpoint and also, without much doubt, from the vantage of fans. It is a matter of focus and aim.

The Marlins, Panthers and Dolphins — with their combined playoff drought of 23 seasons — just want to find the playoffs again and don’t much care where the map leads them. Does a man dying of thirst complain the water he is handed is from the tap and not cold enough? For these three teams, simply reaching the postseason again would constitute a victory and all but merit a parade.

For the Heat, though, what this NBA season is now about and whether it will be judged a success for Miami is more fine-tuned:

Meet — and beat — LeBron James in the playoffs.

Yeah, the Cleveland Cavaliers, too, I suppose.

But mostly LeBron.

There wasn’t the chance last year, the first season after James’ defection, because Miami missed the postseason, an aberration that won’t be repeated. That only further whetted the appetite for what’s ahead. Nobody in Miami, least of all Pat Riley, has forgotten the way LeBron left.

Now a Heat-Cavs playoff collision seems quite likely. It would be bracketed as a likely second-round matchup if Miami were the No. 4 or 5 seed. It would have to wait until the Eastern Conference finals to happen if the Heat entered seeded No. 3 or No. 6.

In either case, all of the pressure would be on LeBron — every inch and ounce of it. The chance to eliminate LeBron’s top-seeded Cavs would be the incentive for Miami and the prize for its fans.

Let’s be realistic.

This would be the Heat’s championship series.

Nobody this season is beating Golden State or San Antonio, whichever emerges from what should be a gigantic Western Conference finals. The Spurs entered the weekend 60-11 and thoroughly overshadowed because the defending-champion Warriors were 64-7 and bearing down in Chicago’s 1995-96 NBA record of 72 victories.

The Warriors and Spurs were a combined 69-0 at home. That’s insane — and bad for basketball, the gulf between them and anybody coming out of the East.

It is fitting that Madame Tussauds next week will unveil a wax likeness of Golden State star Stephen Curry at its Fisherman’s Wharf museum. Might as well dip the whole team in bronze, or depict it on a pedestal in marble.

Maybe LeBron had Golden State’s seemingly impenetrable dominance in mind when he recently dreamed out loud about forming a super team and uniting with friends Dwyane Wade (again), Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul.

“I really hope that before our career is over we can all play together,” James told Bleacher Report. “Maybe one or two seasons — me, Melo, D. Wade, C.P. I would actually take a pay cut to do that. It would be pretty cool. I’ve definitely had thoughts about it.”

(You wonder if it occurred to LeBron that, even if he beat astronomical odds and assembled that team, it would begin next season with Anthony aged 32, Paul 31, LeBron almost 32, Wade pushing 35, and all of them beyond their best days.)

You get the feeling that LeBron is distracted. Dissatisfied. That his mind is wandering. For example, last week he briefly unfollowed the Cavaliers on Twitter, and then seemed surprised to be asked about it.

I mean, who talks aloud during a season about forming a whole new super team with your buds?

You get the feeling James is keeping alive his bromance with Wade because he longs for what he had here. Not just Wade’s counsel and friendship, but the Heat’s culture and class, from Micky Arison to Riley to Andy Ellisburg to Erik Spoelstra to the locker room. He has none of it in Cleveland.

Wade, asked about that, had the perfect Heat response.

“I’m focused on my teammates right here,” he said. “It has nothing to do with what we’re trying to do in here.”

What the Heat is trying to do is get back to the NBA Finals and, ideally, to go through Cleveland to get there.

Even if a humbling loss to Golden State or San Antonio awaited, eliminating LeBron along the way would make it all worthwhile.

It would mean the season had been won.

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