It would be hard to top this five-day window of Miami Heat insanity, a wild ride even by the cartoonishly outsized standards we’ve come to expect involving the two-time defending NBA champions and most scrutinized team in American sports.
Saturday brought calamity. The loss at New Orleans continuing a recent slump found anger in the locker room going from simmer to boil. LeBron James said he was sick of excuses. Chris Bosh blasted his team’s lack of “passion.” It sounded like crisis mode.
Sunday brought a party! Give the Heat’s stars credit. Even when times are tough, these guys find time to celebrate their birthdays. Bosh turned 30 and rented out Marlins Park for an elaborate circus-themed bash featuring clowns, liquored-up snow cones, dunk tanks and capering dwarf performers.
Monday brought a victory. It was by only two points over visiting Portland, but, after seven losses in the previous 11 games, Miami’s worst slump of the Big 3 era, seldom has a Heat regular-season game felt more important. A valve seemed to turn, releasing a hiss of built-up pressure.
Tuesday brought a day of rest. This team needed one, for what was still ahead.
That’s because, now, Wednesday brings the real fun, the crescendo:
Heat at Pacers.
It’ll be another circus, but with dunks replacing dunk tanks, and bad blood instead of clowns. For Miami it will be a huge road victory restoring an all-is-well order to the season, or a loss that, chances are, will see a return of sky-is-falling angst and doubts.
What would a victory Wednesday mean?
“We need to continue to get better,” began LeBron James’ answer. “It doesn’t define our season, but the way we’ve been playing lately, it would help.”
The Pacers won the first of four season meetings, 90-84, Dec. 10 in Indiana. Miami won at home, 97-94, eight days later. After Wednesday night’s game the teams meet again, here, April 11.
“I miss the Pacers,” said Bosh with a sly grin after Monday’s game.
Call it a four-game teaser for the expected seven-game playoff series/grudge match in the Eastern Conference finals.
Three factors make Wednesday’s Heat-Pacers rematch must-watch TV.
• First, the teams’ season-long battle for the No. 1 playoff seed – meaning the home-court in that presumptive winner-take-all Game 7 – finds Indiana ahead by two games, and only one in the loss column. So Miami has a chance to move into a virtual deadlock as the season fritters to its final three weeks.
“It’s coming down to a photo finish,” as Bosh characterized Heat vs. Pacers. “Everybody was trying to make the games important back in December. Well, now they’re important.”
• A second point of intrigue Wednesday night: the unveiling of Greg Oden – unveiling in the sense Miami signed him with the Pacers in mind, as a direct counter to Roy Hibbert, and this will be Oden’s Heat debut vs. Indiana.
Hibbert, 27, is 7-2 and 290 pounds. Oden, 26, is 7-0 and 273. Close enough. Let the bangin’ begin.
“He gives us something we don’t have, so it’s encouraging,” coach Erik Spoelstra says of Oden. “The physicality. The size at the rim on both ends…”
Oden was still under wraps rehabbing his knees, the Odentein monster not yet up off the laboratory slab, for these teams’ two December meetings.
Now we’ll begin to see what impact Oden will have vs. Hibbert in Miami’s effort to neutralize the Pacers’ front-court size advantage. The Portland game Monday was Oden’s fifth start. There is no question Miami’s timetable for getting him fully ready has been a P&P strategy all the way: Pacers. Playoffs.
• Third but not least: Dwyane Wade. A sore ankle Monday caused him to miss his 19th game of the season. That’s 19 of 69, or 27.5 percent. Miami likely needs a healthy Wade to win a playoff series over Indiana and have a chance at a three-peat, so his return to the lineup Wednesday would be symbolic in a you-can-count-one me sort of way.
Wade’s 32 points vs. the Pacers led Miami’s win on Dec. 18.
The caveat on Wade – that he remains an elite player “when healthy” – has become an increasingly necessary disclaimer. One of the “excuses” James decried the Heat using surely involves the spotty availability of Wade, yet no one more than James knows the importance of a healthy Wade.
James himself has minor health issues he is playing through, and when he says things like he can’t afford to sit out and has an “obligation” to play, you wonder how much of that may be a subtle or even subconscious reference to the club’s careful handling of Wade. You wonder if perhaps that reflects a building frustration in James that his chief partner can’t always be counted on.
(OK, maybe you don’t wonder that. But I do).
How much the Heat needs Wade and how much Wade needs to prove he can still be relied upon when it matters most is why you can bet on seeing No. 3 back on the court Wednesday.
Because this isn’t just another game.
Afterward, you can be sure the winning team and losing team both will downplay the significance of the result.
They’ll probably both be lying.