This isn’t 2011 anymore. Aside from that being the most obvious thing I could possibly type, what it means is that the Miami Heat, for all its talent, cannot simply rely on said talent to make the NBA Finals. Even Dwyane Wade in a recent interview mentioned how the team lacked a cohesiveness that season and made the Finals despite it (and lost the Finals because of it).
But after three seasons, a procession of knee procedures and an all-embracing brotherhooding, the Heat are cohesive if nothing else. This was proven when Wade returned to the starting lineup after missing nine-straight games and didn’t miss a beat, as if he had been bopping his head along with the music in a closed off room at LIV Night Club all along. It was proven when the team opted not to trade Udonis Haslem for Evan Turner.
Erik Spoelstra has led a change in sentiment that may best be illustrated by the expression on LeBron James’ inconsistently-bearded face. In 2011-12, the look was anger. In 2012-13, LeBron took on a look of comfort and in 2013-14 he was flat out having fun.
This season? Well, this time the look is of insouciance. When in season’s past it wasn’t clear who was holding the leash, it seems as if Spo and LeBron speak telekinetically of a mutual sharing of disinterest for this regular season — a six-month family reunion of NBA teams and they just can’t wait until the kids go to sleep and the grown ups can go out at night and get the real party started.
Spoelstra’s message is seen on LeBron’s face. Get through this regular season to a respectable degree, he promises, and he will make sure LeBron gets the support he needs to make it through another complete post-season. A healthy Wade, an energized Haslem, a fully-acclimated Chris Andersen and a cast of three-point shooters.
After a week’s use of PTO, that is.
That’s where we are at now. LeBron gets the final week of the regular season off and Chris Bosh gets to join him while Wade uses games against the Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers as a model preseason.
This is new for the Big Three and for Spoelstra, who have referred to the season as a marathon and a process repeatedly, just as ex-Finals opponent the San Antonio Spurs have for what seems like forever.
The Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich have mastered this regular season carousel. Spoelstra wants to master it to, and while one would think simple mimicry would suffice, Spoelstra has gone in a different direction. A different process to matriculate through the process.
No player on the Spurs is averaging more than 30 minutes per game. A bit of conservation here and there like turning the water off while brushing your teeth. The Spurs’ Big Three of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan have played together for 1,338 minutes this season.
The Heat’s Big Three, however, averages more than 30 minutes per game (and Mario Chalmers is just a hair short at 29.8) and have played just 1,035 minutes together this season, nearly 600 fewer minutes than last season, per nbawowy.com. Rather than conserve on a daily basis, Spoelstra gives full days off, then asks for everything when you’re at work. This latest minutes restriction of Wade is singular, and only because he must balance getting Wade back in a groove and conserving his moves for the games that matter.
Popovich’s team will finish with, by far, the league’s best record. The Heat gave up a shot at the No. 1 seed in a bad Eastern Conference with losses to the Hawks and Wizards. The weird thing is, the Heat don’t seem to care about home-court advantage. At all. As if it doesn’t exist. Four years ago, the Heat players frantically kept up with the standings on their phones, always keeping tabs on their seeding status. Now they redirect questions regarding seeding as effectively as a LeBron court-width pass turns around a defense on a dime.
It seems incongruent that a team could simply prioritize rest over seeding when the No. 1 seed is within reach with just three games left in the season. Either the Heat know something we don’t, are supremely confident in their abilities to win on the road (22-19 this season) or, basely, are so bored by the process that they don’t care either way. How else do you explain losses to the Celtics, Kings, Jazz and getting swept by the Nets?
But as the sun starts to set on this regular season, and the kids drift to sleep with visions of Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker dancing through their heads, the Heat finally begin to wake up. The nightmare is over and the Heat rise after toiling through a six-month Hell they occupy only to transcend into the after-season, where they once again have a chance at the divinity of the NBA’s ultimate prosperity.
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