VIDEO: D-Wade spurs Heat to hard-earned Christmas win over the Lakers
LOS ANGELES — They don’t have to see it or even acknowledge it. But it’s there, every moment of every single day for the Miami Heat. Playing on that tight-rope, before the biggest crowds in Miami and everywhere else, takes a toll on the greatest of players and teams.
The Heat needed only to look down the hall on Christmas to the other locker room, where injured Lakers superstars and future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash arrived for the days’ affair in street clothes that they would wear before, during and after the Heat’s closer-than-expected win at the Staples Center. Earlier in the day in Brooklyn, fellow aging stars (and future Hall of Famers) Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, key members of Boston’s Big 3 (along with Heat reserve Ray Allen), looked like shells of their former selves as the Chicago Bulls trounced the Nets.
James shouldn’t be consumed with his own basketball mortality since he’s at the height of his powers … and trust me, he’s not. But what’s going on around him now is a cautionary tale worth filing away. All of those aforementioned stars, Bryant in particular, have plenty of miles on their bodies. They’ve all soared to great heights in their careers, both individually and otherwise. But it all comes at a physical, mental and emotional price that those stars have to be willing to pay at some point.
James sent out a tweet last week wishing Bryant a speedy recovery from his latest setback, a fractured left knee that followed Achilles surgery that limited him to just six games this season. But that’s basically the extent of his empathy. He’s not going to let anything slow him down, not in the prime of his career and not while the Heat are in the midst of building a dynasty of their own.
“No, I don’t,” James said when asked if he ever ponders his own career clock. “I try to live in the moment. Only the Man Above knows how much time He’s going to give me with this game. Once He decides that I don’t have any more time or when that is, I’ll call it quits … none of us can play forever, though. We’ve all gotta go [sometime].”
That time isn’t anytime soon. Even with the Indiana Pacers pressing them in the Eastern Conference and challengers from Oklahoma City to San Antonio and everywhere else lining up in the Western Conference, there will be no shortage of challenges for this Heat team deal with as we progress toward the postseason.
Trying to make The Finals for a fourth straight season is taxing enough, let alone trying to win the title for the third straight season. The Heat are doing it with Dwyane Wade on a plan to measure his minutes and preserve his body for the entire (anticipated) stretch of a season that ends again in June.
As long as James is healthy and leads the way, though, the Heat don’t have the concerns about longevity that some outsiders might harbor. They also certainly don’t have any issues with sustained excellence, according to Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.
“They are the same they’ve been the last two seasons, if not better,” he said. “LeBron’s playing out of his mind. He gets better every year, which is hard to say for a guy like that. They are better. They are just laying in the weeds a little bit. But you can’t count ‘em out. They’ll be there at the end. They’ll probably have home-court advantage, if not it’ll be right there.”
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, among others, will want to have a say about who brings home that Larry O’Brien trophy as well. But only the Spurs understand exactly what the Heat have come to understand these past four seasons.
Winning and winning big is more than just a notion. It’s what James, adopting the terminology of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, calls a “process.” And one that James was much more prepared for than his coaches and Heat teammates, as James had tried unsuccessfully to climb that mountain in Cleveland before embarking again and succeeding in Miami.
That’s why the Heat, and Spoelstra in particular, know that no one in the organization can take this time or the relative good health of their stars and role players alike for granted. He knows James in the midst of his prime — “physically, mentally and emotionally” as he put it — and with good health has years of operating as the best player in basketball ahead of him.
But times haven’t always been this good in Miami. And Spoelstra has a long memory.
“We’ve been through a lot of teams in 18-plus years in Miami where we had championship-contending teams, where we had 15-win teams, we’ve had 20-, 30- and 40-win teams,” Spoelstra said. “So we’ve seen it all. And when you have a team like this that you know, as long as you have your health you have an opportunity to play for a title, and that’s all you might have is an opportunity, none of us want to take it for granted. This is a special group that we have. And you don’t know how long it will last so you want to make the most of it.”
James refusing to look beyond anything but the here and now makes much more sense after hearing Spoelstra talk about that process. It’s also why James doesn’t fret these days every time the Heat have a hiccup, or face an unsuspected test the way they did from Nick “Swaggy P” Young and the Lakers on Christmas.
He’s comfortable with where his team is right now, with the initial stages of this season’s journey already behind them.
“I don’t want to say comfortable, because I don’t ever like to be, too comfortable … [at least not] until the end, when we raise that trophy,” James said. “But I can say the process, and where we’re trying to get better right now, we’re right on point. We’ve had a couple of bumps in the road, but we’ve taken more steps forward than backward. And I’m excited about that.”