I saw it in his face and I knew they’d made it. Not there, not yet. Not even close. But they had definitely made the transition from a squad of precocious punks to a legitimate team on the rise. Dwyane Wade’s animal cry to the rafters of the A.A. Arena and the accompanying look of elation on his face in the closing minutes of the Heat’s 96-84 victory over the New Jersey Nets said it all. The Heat are hot and they know it. They love it, too.
They may only be taking a 42-40 record into the postseason, but basketball is a game of momentum, both within and between contests, and it is momentum which is Miami’s closest ally at this point as they ride the wave of their league-best 17-4 run to close out the season. However, the streaks have been friend and foe to Miami this year. They fell into the quicksand shortly into the first game of the season, during which both Wade and Odom left the court before the final buzzer due to injury. They then spent a further six games unceremoniously dragging themselves out of the mire, eventually becoming the last team in the league to win a game as they topped a scrappy Cleveland side. February brought with it a five- and a three-game losing streak which spilled over into March. All in all, the season held six slips of three games or more for the Heat.
If they had composed themselves and staved off the dreaded tailspins which came with the crushing losses, we could be talking about their fifty-win season right now. Think about that for a second. Fifty wins. Five zero. Fifty would have given them the Atlantic crown, home court over all but two of the east’s teams and a first-round matchup with the unpredictable Knicks. A fantastic thought to some, but by no means impossible. Wins over Sacramento, Dallas and Memphis weren’t sneaky wins to the Heat; they were windows to the future, the ghosts of the Miami yet to come. Tell them they’re nothing but hot air, pretenders who got lucky, and they’ll take no heed. In fact, they’ll probably just dunk on you a little harder. It is exactly that attitude which makes them so dangerous entering the playoffs. A team with a knowledge of how good they could be can cause a few problems. A team with a belief in their strength as a unit, however, can be downright hazardous. Miami is quite clearly the latter, and whether they’re really as good as they think they are is academic. If they keep the faith, miracles can happen.
Assuming they keep their current nucleus, they have a strong foundation for what could one day become a championship contender. What’s plain to see is that they already have a wealth of talent through the middle three spots in Jones, Odom and Wade. Although Jones is aging, he is not ostensibly ailing and it’s likely he’ll maintain his 15-plus scoring average for at least a few more seasons. With Odom’s newfound maturity has come a corresponding development in his game as he has shown flashes of the brilliance expected of the player once touted as "The Next Magic". As for Wade, the athletic ‘tweener, the sky isn’t even a limit as he outran, out-jumped and outperformed opponents all year long to become the third rookie identifiable by one name.
Look a little deeper into their roster and you’ll find the rough diamonds that are Haslem and Alston. One came to the league via the streets of New York and Fresno, shedding his alter ego, Skip, to become a reliable point. The other came via Florida and B-league France, shedding nearly seventy pounds to become the promising rookie who had his opponents seeing double-double through the first quarter of the season. Had he started all year, he would easily have averaged 12 and 10. Alston averaged a solid 10 and 5 despite being the sixth man for two-thirds of the season and showed the composure required of an N.B.A. guard. Expect his numbers, minutes and starts to all increase steadily over the next few years. Add to that Brian Grant, a team-first, rugged veteran who averaged 10 and 10 last year and Caron Butler, who averaged 15 and 5 as a rookie before assuming a diminished role on this season’s improved team and you have a squad which is about two hundred games away from being the crew to answer to in the east.
There are always going to be critics, those who point to their youth and inexperience and doubt their ability to be anything more than a promising squad, always waiting for their time as Odom’s Clippers of the past were. Just remember that next year they’ll be playing in the anaemic South-eastern Division, the title of which comes with an instant #2 seeding. Miami as soon-to-be contenders?
You’d better believe it, because they do.