After one of the most interesting regular seasons in years, it was almost as if the NBA managed to ensure compelling postseason openers.
The first weekend of play was NCAA tournament-esque, featuring intense rallies, game-winning three-pointers and historic losses. From Los Angeles to Boston, the games were as exciting as they were unpredictable.
And for Miami, this should be its moment. The Heat is well positioned to win a championship during a postseason in which no team has an aura of invincibility. LeBron James, 26, Dwyane Wade, 29, and Chris Bosh, 27, give the Heat the young star power needed for what it was built to accomplish.
Forget about Miami’s occasional struggles in the previous 82-game marathon. Now, it’s a sprint to 16 victories.
The faster format better suits Miami’s front-heavy roster. The Big Three wasn’t good enough to make Miami the league’s best team in the regular season — but the trio could put the Heat on top at the end.
No surprises. Just too much skill for the 76ers to overcome at a time of year when coaches no longer worry as much about managing minutes, referees generally call fewer fouls and the stage is too big for some.
Chicago — the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team — rallied to overcome a late deficit against eighth-seeded Indiana in its first game. Third-seeded Boston needed a three-pointer from Ray Allen, the game’s all-time leader in threes, to hold off New York.
San Antonio and Los Angeles — the Western Conference’s Nos. 1 and 2 teams — lost on their home courts. It marked the first time since 1984 that the top two seeds from the same conference lost playoff openers.
The Spurs, Lakers and Celtics are old teams, albeit still talented ones. Derrick Rose, 22, who’s expected to win the most valuable player award, leads the rising Bulls, but the Heat is the only team with three superstars under 30.
Although Kobe Bryant supporters would disagree, James is the league’s most talented player. Just ask NBA officials.
Wade is widely considered a top-five performer and Bosh is among the elite as well. The Heat’s overall lack of talent and depth behind them was the biggest factor in a season-high five-game losing streak spanning late February and early March.
The losing stirred increased media coverage of the league’s most scrutinized franchise, and hope of a complete collapse among Miami’s detractors.
There’s still a lot of resentment and jealously in the league toward Miami because of James’s poorly handled exit from Cleveland and team President Pat Riley’s success in luring James and Bosh to the Heat last summer while also retaining Wade. But instead of fading, Miami finished 15-3.
The impressive stretch raised the Heat’s confidence level to “an all-time high,” James said recently. “Everyone is comfortable. Everyone knows their role and we know what’s our identity. And that’s playing together.”
Despite some inevitable bumps while James and Bosh learned to fit in with Wade, the Heat won 58 games, the Southeast Division title and earned the No. 2 seed in the East. That’s a highly successful regular season by any criteria.
The potential for bigger rewards is within the Heat’s grasp, in part, because it’s no longer dealing with the grind of a long season. The finish line is in sight, as is the trophy James, Wade and Bosh joined forces to win.
Wade was selected the Finals MVP after leading the Heat to its only NBA championship during the 2005-06 season. He averaged 34.7 points as Miami overcame an 0-2 deficit and defeated Dallas in six games.
Wade deservedly developed a reputation as one of the league’s clutch performers, “and, yeah, I definitely consider myself a leader,” Wade said recently. “I know a lot of times, the team follows my lead, my energy. So I try to give them that.”
People tend to forget James has been outstanding in the postseason — or they choose to ignore his accomplishments out of dislike for him.
Although he played poorly and appeared disinterested in Cleveland’s East semifinals loss to Boston last season, James has averaged 29.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists in 72 career postseason games.
James’s playoff scoring average ranks third all-time in NBA history. Against Detroit in the 2006-07 East finals, James led Cleveland from an 0-2 deficit to win the series in six games and had one of the NBA’s greatest individual performance in Game 5.
He set a franchise record with 48 points and had nine rebounds and seven assists in a double-overtime win. James scored the Cavaliers’ final 25 points and 29 of their last 30. San Antonio, which won the West that season, was far superior to Cleveland and swept in the Finals.
Despite never winning a championship, James led the Cavaliers to new heights with a relatively weak supporting casts. He didn’t sign with Miami to ride Wade’s coattails in the postseason. It’s about collaboration.
“I know a lot about winning ballgames,” the reigning two-time MVP said. “He [Wade] has gotten to the mountaintop, and I’m trying to get there, so he knows what it takes. But we’re just trying to follow each other’s lead every night.”
The tools are in place. The setting seems right. The Heat got what it wanted. It just has to get it done.