It’s no secret perennial NBA playoff teams use the loophole of “nagging injuries” to ensure their best, big-minute players take off meaningless games at the end of the regular season. Hence, it’s a good bet LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, possibly Chris Bosh and another valuable role player or two won’t play for the Miami Heat on Wednesday night, when the defending champions make their final visit to Washington this season.
Predictably, the purists and some season ticket holders become angry and feel cheated this time of year.
But I don’t know why.
Because if you really care about the NBA’s big picture and what the Heat mean to it — unless you just found out you paid to see Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis jack up jumpers instead of maybe four future Hall of Famers — you will realize this is a good thing and a deserved rest for Miami’s stars.
In fact, if you are close enough courtside at Verizon Center to speak to Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra or President Pat Riley (assuming he didn’t also stay home) or members of the watered-down roster, you might even want to thank them.
Because the entire organization did the mere impossible this year: LeBron and his team made the casual fan care about an NBA regular season, one whose annual story lines feel increasingly trumped up by the league’s network partners, to the point where many of my friends watch just to see Charles Barkley tell Kenny Smith and the rest of the TNT panel they are all crazy fools.
Really, few plots had any intrinsic meaning in November beyond: Could Dwight Howard make Kobe Bryant young again and lead the Lakers to the greatest record in history and prevent LeBron from a Heatpeat?
That lasted like two minutes.By the second week of November, then-coach Mike Brown couldn’t do anything to change the answer: No. Howard was no Shaq, Kareem, Wilt, George Mikan or, some nights, even Paul Mokeski. The Lakers’ parts don’t fit.
So that left us with slim pickings:
●Could Kevin Durant unseat LeBron as MVP? (He tried as hard as he could, but LeBron was simply spectacular),
●Were the Clippers actually now Finals-worthy? (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are still a year away.)
●And some nice, little angles that included a sporting renaissance in Brooklyn, a step-up season for the Knicks, Golden State becoming the most entertaining stop-and-pop, church-league team in the league and whether a team led by Kevin Garnett would still be (A) in contention or (B) admitted to a convalescent home.
Out of this muck stormed the Heat, challenging Wilt and Jerry’s ’72 Lakers for the longest streak in NBA annals: 33 straight wins. The Heat came up six games short, losing after 27 in a row. But this was as defining a run as any team in the past three decades has managed to pull off.
To the game’s closest observers, it was even more astounding to watch LeBron, Wade, Bosh and their teammates go all-out every night with only victory on their minds.
The truth: The best teams and best players, especially veterans, take multiple nights off from November to April. During the Lakers’ 2000-01 title run, Shaquille O’Neal let me in on a little secret: The goal for most contenders for the first 82 games isn’t to exert superiority; it’s to make sure you do enough to have at least home-court advantage for the first two playoff rounds and, most important, go into late April as healthy and harmoniously as possible. That’s how veteran teams win titles.
Despite playing in the London Olympics and having just nine days off between last year’s grind and this year’s grind, LeBron eschewed that notion and went into another gear. His team went into another gear. Did you know Miami has lost one game all season when they were playing for the second night in a row? That back-to-back stat this late in the year is beyond phenomenal.
Yes, they play in an Eastern Conference decimated this season by injuries to stars — from Derrick Rose, Andrew Bynum and Rajon Rondo to Amar’e Stoudemire, Kyrie Irving and early on John Wall. But that was all the more reason Miami had to shine, to carry the banner for what was becoming an inferior product.
The Heat defied convention, winning without a real center and worrying about prevailing in the turnover battle instead of the rebounding battle, which is suddenly a blueprint for many teams.
In less than three years, they’ve gone from Team Collusion And Those Arrogant Cats Who Took Their Talents To South Beach to the new standard-bearers for NBA excellence. If LeBron is not beloved, he is surely not as disliked. From Spoelstra on down, all the way to the guy who now has his old video coordinator job, the whole organization is basking in a championship glow.
After how well and how hard the Heat played this regular season, to take issue with its best players resting before the playoffs is so shortsighted. The primary job of any organization is to win a championship, not to merely uphold the league’s unwritten values of competing your very best on every night — nights that now include more unwatchable preseason games.
It just so happens Miami has achieved both feats in a calendar year.
If you care about the league, you will applaud the Heat’s decision to rest their Big Three and any of their other Very Good Nine. After bailing out the Lakers and most of the other 29 teams this regular season by comporting themselves as champions just as much in February and March as in June, LeBron and his team deserve the time off before they embark on their next championship run.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.