Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that the Miami Heat would not be the No. 1 seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference for the first time in three seasons. In fact, the Heat was not the East's top seed in 2012, the Chicago Bulls were.
The facts show the Miami Heat has been the NBA’s best team the past four seasons. You just can’t argue with four straight first-place finishes in the Southeast Division, three consecutive Eastern Conference titles and back-to-back NBA championships. But you can question whether the Heat can keep it going.
After showing signs of wear in last season’s playoffs, the Heat has struggled down the stretch this season and continued to play poorly Monday night in the Wizards’ 114-93 blowout victory at Verizon Center. The playoff-bound Wizards are no longer a joke, all-stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh were given the night off and Miami isn’t overly concerned about the regular season. The Heat was built to earn its money on the league’s biggest stage.
That established, there’s something wrong if a two-time defending NBA champion looks like the Washington Generals for much of its next-to-last tuneup for the postseason while trailing by as many as 36 points. The Heat will not be seeded first in the East when postseason play begins this weekend. The hungry Indiana Pacers, who pushed the Heat in last June’s grueling series for the East title, will have the top spot.
To return to the Finals, the Heat may have to win a decisive Game 7 on the Pacers’ home court. However, with the way it’s playing, the Heat shouldn’t look that far down the road. Although Miami figures it will flip a switch this weekend, it may experience a power shortage. Fact is, Miami is an old team.
In his 10th season in the league, James is as good as it gets. The four-time league MVP recently acknowledged he has not been as consistent as Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant, considered the leading candidate for this season’s MVP award, but there isn’t a better all-around player than James. Dwyane Wade still is one of the best, too. He just hasn’t had as many chances to show it while resting his aching knees throughout the season.
After Wade experienced severe knee pain during the 2013 playoffs, the Heat’s training staff developed a program designed to help him enter this postseason in top form. Wade has missed 28 games this season, most of which were scheduled in an effort to reduce the wear and tear on his knees. Clearly the Heat, which has dropped four of five as it prepares to finish the season Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers, has missed the future Hall of Famer.
With Wade delivering strong closing performances in the playoffs last season, the Heat schooled the upstart Pacers in a Game 7 to reach the Finals and outlasted the San Antonio Spurs, its sage counterparts in the West, in a seven-game thriller to win the franchise’s third NBA championship. Bosh and forward Udonis Haslem are in their 10th seasons. Key reserves Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen are finishing their 17th, 12th and 11th seasons, respectively. Obviously, there’s a lot to be said for experience. The Heat has know-how.
The Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant led Los Angeles Lakers teams had a lot of it as well. Beginning in the 1999-2000 season, the Lakers won three straight NBA titles. During their run, the Lakers played 58 postseason games, which had a cumulative effect.
The grind of an 82-game marathon takes a lot out of a team. Often, the emotion of postseason games takes whatever may be left. And during its reign, the Heat already has played nine more games than the Lakers did.
Any NBA executive, coach or player worth his salt will tell you that no matter how much talent the Heat has — and no one would dispute it has a lot — winning an NBA championship requires a level of commitment few have. Wizards Coach Randy Wittman explained it well.
“It’s hard to win one world championship, let alone what they’ve done in winning back-to-back [championships] and being there [three] years in a row to the Finals,” Wittman said. “These guys are good. [James and Wade] are going to be first-ballot Hall of Famers. It’s about how they approach this game.
“The thing that always stands out about guys like them, the great players, [is that] they take their profession seriously. It pays off. But am I surprised? Yeah. I’m surprised because it’s hard to win and to continue to win. That just tells you who they are.”
Not surprisingly, the Heat is playing it cool. The team has overcome too much to start panicking. And it sure sounds convincing when players say they’re not concerned about their late-season slide, the Pacers having home court advantage in the East or the Spurs rolling out West. Wade spoke for the group.
“This is the team we have,” Wade said. “For the most part, we’ve been right there in the thick of the race all season [for] the best record in the Eastern Conference. Yeah, we’ve got a team that’s very hungry over there in Indiana.
“That’s a team that’s had this goal of winning a championship. We’re a team that has been there three years in a row and trying to go for four years in a row now. I think we’ve done okay. Could we do better? You always can do better. But we’ve done a pretty decent job.”
Actually, the Heat has done much better than decent. And if this is the closing act for this version of the team, believe this much: The Heat will do everything it can to make it a great one.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.