Greg Cote

The Heat team we saw can beat anybody in the East, LeBron included

Dwayne Wade lifts his hands in the air after starters sit on the bench and a fresh squad scores late in the fourth quarter.The Miami Heat played against the Charlotte Hornets in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs on Sunday April 17, 2016.
Dwayne Wade lifts his hands in the air after starters sit on the bench and a fresh squad scores late in the fourth quarter.The Miami Heat played against the Charlotte Hornets in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs on Sunday April 17, 2016. cjuste@miamiherald.com

If you thought you knew for sure how good this Miami Heat team was, or what it was capable of in this postseason, well, you didn’t. You can’t have. How could you? Even the team entered these playoffs, this test, still trying to find out about itself.

Only four nights earlier, remember, the Heat said goodbye to the regular season cloaked in epic embarrassment, with an NBA season-worst 26-point blown lead in a second-half collapse in Boston that included a franchise-worst five-point third quarter.

You didn’t know they could be that bad.

Four nights later, the Heat said hello to the playoffs Sunday with a performance as massively impressive as perhaps any we have seen all season — a game nearly as perfect as the previous one had been putrid.

Did you know they could be this good?

Now you know.

You just saw it.

The Heat swamped the Charlotte Hornets here Sunday, 123-91, in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference first-round series, and it was so fine, so sublime, that fans had to wish Miami could bottle the power of the night and sip from it as needed.

“A perfect game on both ends,” guard Goran Dragic called it. “Everything was crisp. Nice. Everybody was in the right spot.”

Said Dwyane Wade: “We played the game we wanted to play 100 percent.”

From unfathomable collapse to giddily surreal excellence in a span of four days! And one led to the other. Why do you think the Heat kept the gas pedal pressed hard Sunday, never letting up?

“The Boston game helped us a lot,” center Hassan Whiteside said.

Wade elaborated: “That game was good for us. Moments like that, even though they suck at the time, are learning moments. We talked about that at halftime [Sunday].”

Somewhere in-between the two extremes separated by four nights we’d find the real Heat, of course.

Neither the pratfall that ended the regular season nor the soaring triumph that began the postseason has changed the reality of this Heat team:

It was capable of losing in this first round best-of-7. Still could.

And it is capable of beating any Eastern Conference team in its path including, yes, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Sunday’s Miami Heat, that is.

The team that set an all-time franchise playoff records for most points in a game, in a quarter (41 in the first) and most field goals made (49).

The team that shot 58 percent from the field including 50 percent on threes.

The team that got 52 combined points on a surreal 20-for-24 combined shooting from Luol Deng (31 points, 11-for-13) and Whiteside (21 points, 9-for-11).

Deng set a club record for most points in his Heat playoff debut. Oh, and happy birthday, Lu. He turned 31 Saturday, scored 31 Sunday.

Whiteside? His cash register rang a little louder. He’s a player Miami must pay big this summer to keep.

In postgame interviews, the fun-loving Whiteside was trying to keep a constant smile from crawling across his face. He grew up in Charlotte and called making his playoff debut against his hometown team “a surreal chapter in my life.” He raved about Sunday’s “White Hot” sellout crowd of nearly 20,000.

“My last name being Whiteside,” he said, “I really loved seeing all the white!”

(Quick aside: Club president Pat Riley had a perfect opportunity to blend in by wearing a Don Johnson-styled ’80s white linen suit, but instead wore his traditional black suit, standing out in the crowd like a hockey puck on a snow bank.)

Every Heater to a man expects a different Charlotte back here for Game 2 Wednesday night than the awful version we saw Sunday.

“They’ll have a response,” as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra put it.

Even a 32-point win is still just a 1-0 series.

This continues to be an opening series, and a postseason, that feels different for Miami. There is an anxious, nerve-pounding sort of excitement, like being pushed blindfolded into an unfamiliar room. You might get through unscathed or you might tumble down a flight of stairs — you just don’t know.

The Heat has not begun an NBA postseason with this kind of uncertainty since 2010.

Prior to missing the playoffs altogether last year, a franchise aberration, the first round was strictly perfunctory in 2011-14, the LeBron years with the four consecutive Finals appearances and two championships. Playoff intensity? Hardly. Dominant Miami blitzed through those four first rounds with a combined record of 16-2. No challenge. No doubt.

The challenge in this series may yet come. Guaranteed that will be Spoelstra’s preach to his team between now and Wednesday. The Boston lesson: No letup.

Appreciate was has just begun again, South Florida.

The Heat is the sure thing on the top tier of Miami sports, the only one — as close to an annual playoff guarantee as we have. This is the team’s 19th playoff year in 28 seasons. Contrast that to the Dolphins (16 in 50 seasons), the Panthers (five in 22) and the Marlins (two in 23).

None of the Heat’s previous 39 playoff series has begun more impressively than this one did.

“We know how good we can be,” Deng said.

The Heat showed its fans, and itself, on Sunday night.

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