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.
Result: Heat 96, Lakers 80
After losing, a noticeably pissed and demented Kobe Bryant told reporters that the game didn't mean a thing. The Heat, not the Lakers, were the team most invested in Saturday's outcome. To an extent — if you scrape away all the shell-shock — Kobe had a point. Los Angeles won a title last year, and the year before. Taking your time can be a fatal snare in the NBA, but championship squads also have far less to prove. They come into cities with a target on their back, so they say, and yet nothing can rip that banner down from the rafters. Nothing until May, that is.
The Heat, on the other hand, are constantly being assessed. We don't just want to measure how good they are, but also how well-rounded, convincing, upbeat, and just generally beneficial to their own lives and the lives of others they are. The season is for them (for them for us, maybe) an endless series of tests, like something out of a Greek myth if Greek myths were manufactured on an internet deadline. Following the Heat has gone from vaguely sleazy to a justifiably complex form of survey design. If this team is indeed going to live up to its potential, it has to overcome not only the league's best teams, but also the public's skepticism.
The Christmas Day win over the Lakers punched through some sort of wall and turned a nervous question about the Heat — "Are they up there with the Lakers?" — into a show of force. Whether or not L.A. has rounded into form, the Heat neutralized Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. There are bumps in the road, and internal glitches ... and then there's two of the game's best players being reduced to bumbling wrecks. And what made it possible, aside from the interior defense of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier, was that the Heat scared the Lakers. Kobe Bryant doesn't exactly get shook, but even he's subject to uncertainty.
The defense and three-point shooting are talked about as a necessary foundation, but really, they're insurance. With the Heat, the threats — of James and Wade getting out on a break, of the offense suddenly switching from one superstar to the other, of Mike Miller one day cracking the rotation — make as much of a difference as what actually happens. There is no reason that this team shouldn't always be playing from a position of strength. Searching for answers, or quite visibly working out chemistry in public, was always a waste of time. Since day one, they have been able to unleash either James or Wade in the halfcourt or slaughter teams in transition.
The Heat's mistake was acting like they had something to prove — when, all along, it's been other teams who should be worried. Anxiety, paranoia, traces of Cold War hysteria and war games that take on a life of their own ... this is the new mythology of the Heat. We can continue to look to them for evidence that their overall quality of life is rising or falling. Or, like other NBA teams, we can acknowledge that this team isn't rocket science. It's all excess and implication, redundant and at times barely rising above the level of a blunt instrument. You can see the Heat's season as trading in detail, piling up bits and scraps of conclusions. Increasingly, they're content to see themselves as a storm of rhetorical questions.
Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com. He also writes The Works column for NBA FanHouse (read the Christmas column!) You can buy The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and lots of other stuff at the FreeDarko store.
Photo by the Los Angeles Times's Wally Skalij