FreeDarko's Bethlehem Shoals, a regular contributor to NBA FanHouse and co-author of The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History (visit the FreeDarko store, too!), is keeping a game-by-game diary of the Heat's season — the one you're pretending not to care about.
Results: Heat 96, Magic 70; Heat 101, Nets 78
"Sometimes, I'm being a bit too unselfish. But there's never a time we can't be motivated going into an arena." — LeBron James
Two games this weekend, two drastically similar results. On Friday, the Heat blew out the Magic, one of a handful of other contending teams in this league; on Sunday, they went to Newark for a ritual dissection of the Nets, who last season nearly finished with the worst record in NBA history.
It's no secret that, at least for the time being, the Heat are a work in progress. Which is to say that process, as much as anything, is the major selling point of their televised games. It's become abundantly clear that to watch Miami now is to watch a team gradually figuring itself out. You watch the Heat for signs of life or weakness or for decisive moments that reveal what shape this juggernaut will ultimately take. Any one of these things will inevitably lead to wild over-reaction and premature judgment, because we really have no stomach for flux. In his Friday column, Bill Simmons did a tremendous job of parsing the dynamics and personality quirks at play with this team. However, he couldn't resist a slew of dogmatic predictions and projections, most of which were left shredded on the floor by the end of that night's game.
They blow out the Magic, then they bury the Nets. The margin of victory was almost identical, and in both games, the outcome was decided well before the final buzzer sounded. If watching the Heat is all about monitoring their condition, what are we to do with a series of nearly identical outcomes? Miami might very well blow out everyone they face, on their way to 70 wins and a championship. The real story, though, will lie — as Satan always tells me — in the details.
Against Orlando, we got exactly one net quarter of the kind of spellbinding interplay that, let's face it, we all really want to see out of this team. Otherwise, the Heat depended on stolid team defense (this bunch might be more like the 2007-08 Celtics than we thought), locked-in role players, and pseudo-point LeBron hitting the open man. After the Boston loss, Tom Ziller ruefully asked if a little bit of this team, or even fragments, might go a long way — and still disappoint us. Here, Wade once again outscored James, which for some reporters offered yet another handy fuck-you to volley in the direction of America's most-hated athlete. Going off Simmons's piece, I noticed James loosen up and smile from the bench; on the court, he was deliberate, measured, as he looked to acclimate himself to a new role. As BS wrote, quite smartly, "Neither Wade nor LeBron have ever been allowed to think, 'I'll get mine later.'" Jarring as it might be to see LeBron James have to try — even as a rookie, he could fit himself effortlessly into the flow of a game — I can buy the notion that James will evolve gradually, rather than decide overnight that Magic Johnson better watch his ass.
The New Jersey game was another blowout, and it offered a prime chance for the Heat to crack things wide open. But again with the discipline! True, James pushed the tempo here and there, and for the most part he looked like the floor general we'd like the team to have. I noticed Wade and James each guard two men at once on one possession, a neat trick that nonetheless didn't come off as showy. (The two also connected on a full-speed alley-oop layup that in a few weeks, with a little better timing, will be the sort of play that brings Kevin Harlan to orgasm.) But throughout, there was that same slit-eyed seriousness of purpose. If this team is establishing itself from the bottom up, it's also turning its games into a study in basketball forbearance — for players and fans alike. Same plot, same tone — the process is exacting, even excruciating. When LeBron tweeted, "Lock down city!" after Sunday's win, it was hard not to see the double meaning. Yet each game gives you just enough to blow the latest slate of pronouncements out of the water. But only just enough.
As one prickly friend said to me last night, "People need to start giving me reasons to watch, rather than tracking games after the fact." He's right, and I've been as guilty of it as anyone else; it's a whole theory of sports based around the question, "Are we there yet?" The depressing part is that I don't really know whether the Heat should be on your viewing docket, unless you consider yourself some stripe of NBA journalist. I like to think that this will change very soon. Or maybe it won't, if this team is taking things as seriously as they appear to be. Maybe this team is so determined to be great that it's willing to be dull all season long.
Last week, a pal in Miami watched Erik Spoelstra pick up a chicken salad sandwich to go like it was a belt of suicide explosives. Fun has no place in Miami until they're absolutely ready to relax. With Riley pulling the strings, that day may never come. As someone obliged to watch every single Heat game, I can't say I'm thrilled about this prospect. Then again, it's the kind of strategy that, more than anything else, will give them the best chance at fulfilling expectations — and at being taken seriously as a basketball phenomenon.
Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com and a regular contributor to NBA FanHouse. You can buy The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and lots of other stuff at the FreeDarko store.
Photo of Dwyane Wade's crazy-ass Halloween costume via The Basketball Jones