Something strange is happening with the way we react to the Miami Heat. With much anticipation, the Heat lumbered out of the gate last season to a pedestrian 10-8 record going into December (this being after, of course, the Decision and the preseason championship parade complete with pyrotechnics and awkward dancing from the three surprisingly uncoordinated members of the South Beach Dream Team) and the world rejoiced in their relative failure. The atmosphere in sports bars after they dropped yet another game (and the Heat’s three stars wandered listlessly to the dressing room) was nothing short of euphoric. A Heat loss was the surest guarantee that a party was, in fact, about to go down.
Since the All Star break this year, they’ve experienced the same lethargic, frazzled play that plagued them in November 2010, yet the Schadenfreude-tinted fanfare has been largely absent. Even Dan Gilbert – he of the pained breakup note – has been so silent as to ruin my speculation that one might find him, after Heat losses, tucked away in a marble glossed office, feverishly pleasuring himself to LeBron James’ tepid box score lines. Granted, the magnitude of this uninspired skid isn’t nearly as big as last season’s – the Heat are, after all, still the no. 2 seed in the East with a 44-17 record and the skid is only 9-6 in the last couple weeks (even including their recent 4 game win streak) – but they sure picked a shitty time to start dragging ass.
I can’t figure out whether our charitable reaction to the notion that the NBA’s championship favorites and (aside from the Trayvon Martin hoodie pre-game “protest”) resident villains are on the verge of an early playoff flameout owes to (1) a waning interest in the league after the lockout and subsequent Stern Veto, (2) the fact that people have accepted that the bilious Decision happened and moved on, or if, (3) after losing to Dallas in the particular fashion they lost to Dallas, we just not interested in the Heat anymore.
I mean, those four NBA Finals losses did force pundits to taper their expectations – backing away from preseason predictions the Heat would win go on to win (at least) a half-dozen titles over the next decade and Hulk smash the Bulls 72-win record– heading into this truncated season. No one fooled themselves as to how good James, Wade and Bosh are – or at least should have – but whatever those ’96 Bulls had (a cigar-chomping type-A maniac for one) these Heat just don’t have it and no matter how good they look, how unbeatable they seem, we’re all consciously or unconsciously waiting for their inevitable collapse.
LeBron has been labeled as a 36 minute player, and after the OT loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night, I can’t help wondering if he’s not starting to buy into it too. Wade has looked more inspired complaining about not having his 14 million dollar salary padded by a stipend for repping his country in the Olympics than he has, many times, on the court (unless we count his violent, party-crashing defense on Kobe during the All Star game). And Bosh is, well, Bosh. The allure, the mystique of this juggernaut, appears gone.
Nevertheless, LeBron is still the best player in the league, riding yet another MVP caliber season (27.0 PPG 7.9 RPG 6.4 APG on .531/.366/.764 shooting splits), Wade, providing he isn’t on his way to being washed up, is still one of the top 8 players in the league (22.5 PPG 4.9 RPG 4.7 APG, which are all down from last season I should add) and Bosh remains
as solid and uninspiring (17.9 PPG 7.7 RPG) as we all expected of him. If coach Eric Spoelstra can trick their retched bench into playing half decent, I can’t imagine how they will miss the finals.
Still, the naysayers will point out that Wade and Bosh are both banged up and they’ll have to go through a surging Celtics and/or a deep and disciplined Bulls team (with or without Rose). I have my doubts as to whether Miami can beat any of the Western Conference contenders in a seven game series. But knowing a little about James, and his seeming propensity to wilt beneath pressure, I think the lack of scrutiny and venom directed towards this team might be the best thing to happen to them.