HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — This is the Miami Heat team general managers around the NBA hoped they’d never see.
LeBron James at the zenith of his basketball powers, Dwyane Wade doing his best to match LeBron play for jaw-dropping play and Chris Bosh ready at all times to take advantage of the attention being paid to those superstars. The supporting cast, led by Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Ray Allen and others appear to be settled in and braced for whatever comes their way between now and The Finals.
Sure, we’re still two months away from the end of the regular season. And anything can happen between now and The Finals. But you’re lying to yourself if you don’t admit that the Heat look like a team without a true equal in this league right now. Everyone else, even the mightiest of the mighty from the Western Conference, seem to be playing for second place.
The San Antonio Spurs looked like they were on a collision course for a while, but that was before Tony Parker went down with an injury and we learned he’d miss the next month with that sprained ankle.
Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder have shown themselves to a worthy foe, but they don’t appear to be appreciably better than the team the Heat took apart in The Finals last year (when Wade and Bosh were playing injured). Plus, the Heat swept the regular-season series with them after a 4-1 victory in The Finals last season.
Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks waxed the Heat twice earlier this season and had them on the ropes early Sunday at Madison Square Garden before folding under the relentless pressure the Heat applied.
The Indiana Pacers believe themselves to be a worthy adversary for the reigning champs. And we’ll find out for sure Sunday night in Miami when these two play their final regular season game. But believing you are ready and actually being ready for the challenge of dethroning this Heat team are two different things.
If you don’t believe it, check with the Boston Celtics, who possess all the confidence needed but lack the raw materials to complete the task.
Kobe Bryant and the reconstructed Los Angeles Lakers were built to deal with any team, including the Heat. But we all know how that plan has worked out to date.
We’d even held out hope that the Los Angeles Clippers, as fresh a story as we’ve had in the league in years, could vault themselves into the conversation of elite teams that could contend with the Heat. But we’ve seen the separation between Chris Paul and his crew and the truly elite outfits in some of their recent head-to-head matchups.
Have the Heat reached that point when they no longer need to look over their shoulder to see where the rest of the pack is in relation to them? Are they racing against history and their own dreams of a dynasty as opposed to the other teams with title dreams?
If the answer to those questions is yes, the Heat can point to one crucial change in their chemistry and makeup that has led them to their current dominant state of being (they’re going for a franchise-record 15th straight win tonight at Minnesota, 8 p.m. ET on NBA TV).
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has found the perfect mix to surround James with. Spoelstra has a system that allows the most dynamic and dominant force in the game today the freedoms to not only assert himself when need be (as he did in the fourth quarters in weekend wins over the Memphis Grizzlies and Knicks), but also to play his game without the need to conform to anyone else’s notion of what a superstar of his caliber in this situation should be.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports breaks it down beautifully here:
For everyone else who insists that Heat president Pat Riley is vital to James’ future, make no mistake: Staying with coach Erik Spoelstra will mean even more to James’ future.
Spoelstra’s been tough enough to stand firm with a mercurial star, and innovative enough to expand the Heat’s offense and defense to deepen James’ impact on winning and losing.
Before Miami, James could be so easily distracted in the 24-7 news cycle of minutiae. These days, ESPN analysts are baiting him with a $1 million offer to participate in the dunk contest on All-Star weekend. This isn’t the 1980s and early ’90s, when even superstars needed All-Star weekend to market themselves.
Those days are over, and James has come to understand that with him, less is more. Once, the contest was necessary for Michael Jordan, but today’s stars – least of all James – don’t need it.
“Right now, it doesn’t stand anywhere,” James said Sunday. “Right now, I’m focused on what we’re doing as a team.”
That would be focused on steamrolling the competition and running away from the pack, two things that have come into clear focus in recent weeks.
When they were introduced to the public, the Heat stars predicted they’d win multiple titles during their time together. Well, we’re not ready to hand over any hardware before it’s time … but surely you can understand why they’d be confident right now.