Heat Strokes, Games 28-30: The Heat Go Mainstream

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 113, Knicks 91; Heat 95, Wizards 94; Mavericks 98, Heat 96
Record: 21-9

Finally, a normal weekend for the Miami Heat. On Friday, they vanquished the Knicks (mere pretenders to the throne, it seems) in what yours truly had foolishly declared the Game of the Year. Saturday, the entire league reconfigured itself in a three-team blockbuster, presumably so Orlando could muster up enough firepower to keep up with its Sunshine State neighbor. When the NBA is an arms race for offense, rather than size, I would say we're headed in the right direction — and the Heat's presence has really begun to register.

Miami began as a gross abnormality, a natural disaster, a Home Depot brought to life, set on fire, and sent marauding through Park City. Then they became basketball's answer to the Obama administration, or gossip about the royal family. At some point between Friday and now, they officially became, well, mainstream. The hordes of reporters on hand are there neither to take notes on the Second Coming, nor to script a remake of Caligula. The Miami Heat are one of the league's best teams. And, if you put together an advanced metric that took into account highlight reels and perpetual fascination, probably its most popular, whether or not anyone's ready to admit it. It's worth noting, too, that the Lakers always have a ton of press with them, and last I checked, their second-biggest name was Pau Gasol. Sometimes, just being good is good enough.

They celebrated by almost coughing one up to the Wizards. Washington may have felt free and light as air what with Gilbert Arenas gone. Then again, John Wall is out, meaning for the moment, the Wizards are in a purgatory beyond the purgatory of rebuilding. It is amazing that they even had flesh and bones on Saturday night. Can you have a chip on your shoulder if your shoulder isn't really there? Can there be a force in history that exists only in the mind of those who embody it? The answer to both is "no." Miami's victory over this wreck of a D.C. team, which came down to the last play and a non-call that went the Heat's way, was a total embarrassment. But it was encouraging, as well.

Before, the Heat were actually losing to bad teams. They were getting outplayed by shit, and they seemed helpless to prevent it. Saturday was the kind of legit, asleep-on-the-job near-loss that haunts the truly great teams. The Heat were half-there, and they didn't really get stopped by the Wizards. They just let them hang around, failed to make all the plays they could have, and probably assumed that, in the end, something would deliver them. Coasting and its hard lessons happen only to teams that should know otherwise. The Heat's losing streak was pure confusion. Even some of its resounding wins to start the year were tinkering with heavy metals. This was well-deserved hauteur.

Couple that with the Knicks win, and last week's victory in Utah, and our funny friends are well on their way to another great marker of excellence: beating other teams of quality. Against Dallas last night, they engaged in a back-and-forth slugfest that was — gasp — about two teams engaging each other, not just whether or not the Heat knew what they were doing, truly loved each other, or were thinking about what color pants to wear to the after-party at Club Toucan. There's also no shame in losing to Dallas, a club of old veterans who could pick each others' noses for breakfast without flinching or breaking focus. On top of that, the Mavs are hot shit, or maybe just hot as shit, which isn't really all that hot, these days. Sometimes, the league's best teams lose to teams on a streak like this. That's certainly preferable to the idea — whether it's in them or us — that if the Heat just concentrate and self-actualize hard enough, their opponents will go up in a mushroom cloud before the opening tip.

Yup, the Miami Heat are just another very good basketball team, subject to the same whims of an NBA season as everyone else. Now comes step two — show us that they can be something more than that.

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com. He also writes The Works column for NBA FanHouse. You can buy The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and lots of other stuff at the FreeDarko store.