This was the epic Miami Heat that showed up to overwhelm the Indiana Pacers 114-96 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. It was a statement victory with all the splendor of a team built around its superstar, Lebron James.
Whatever allegiances basketball fans may have, the Heat are a reminder that basketball beauty transcends every era. The true basketball dilettante will savor the sport's artistry in recognizing the most fundamental principle that has been passed down and embraced by the very best dynasties: ball movement.
Magic Johnson’s mid-80s Showtime Lakers spread the ball around with its lethal fastbreak as they ran through the league, routinely posting 35-point quarters.
Larry Bird’s breathtaking 1986 squad passed and posted up points with unmatchable results. They dissected defenses with plays that often resembled the Harlem Globetrotters.
The 1990s Chicago Bulls became great through Coach Phil Jackson’s system of inclusion. It allowed Michael Jordan to flash his individual scoring talents while feeding the support of efficient and role-playing teammates.
James’ Heat are their own version of throwback and cutting edge basketball, leafing through pages of Red Holzman’s playbook.
There were countless reasons why the Pacers had very little chance in Game 3.
Time and again the Heat set things up by passing the ball around the perimeter as if they were playing a game of "keep away." Early on, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem knocked down jump shots the way supporting players like Michael Cooper, Jamal Wilkes and the aging Bob McAdoo once did for the Lakers.
Meanwhile, the Heat found cracks in the Pacers' defense with more passing to a cutting Chris Anderson, who sliced his way to the hoop repeatedly with the energy that Dennis Rodman once gave to the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls. (Sorry San Antonio, but you might want to reach for the Tylenol in thinking about your troubled relationship with Rodman.)
Dwayne Wade also reached back for another high-energy performance with his slashing penetration.
But James was the most dominated player of all with only 22 points. Nobody since Magic and Larry has dominated the game so thoroughly without needing the ball to shoot and score (Tim Duncan is a distant second place). He didn't even scowl when Mario Chalmers tried to tap into his inner-Tony Parker with the game well in hand.
Instead, there was James, doing his more athletic Larry Bird impression by backing down a hapless Paul George before flicking in left-handed bank shots. James’ eyes were all the time surveying his teammates, ready to deliver a money pass for a gym jumper should the help come caving in.
Never mind the occasional steal, dunk, pass, rebound or jump shot. Two plays early in the fourth quarter showed his superstar’s patience and understanding of what it is to be one of the truly special basketball superstars ever to play the game.
In one instance, he hustled to the top of the arc to set a screen for a struggling Ray Allen, who found the space to finally bury a three-point shot. Don’t think that will not mean something for Allen and his confidence for the games ahead. Yes, Allen can shoot, but he knows it was his MVP teammate who planted his body for the blue collar effort.
Another time, James penetrated to the hole and may have been able to finish or at least draw the foul. Instead he found Anderson cutting once again. The crisp pass drew another foul, once again stretching and frustrating the Pacers defense and once again involving another teammate. James went over and slapped hands with Anderson in full tribute.
Little plays again and again. Pass. Cut. Defend. Help each other. It’s why many of us watch basketball.
Sure, the offensive pace and scoring were fun to watch. Great offense is still the specialty feature we all hope to see when NBA artists become choreographers on the hardwood canvas.
The Heat know the series is only half over, and their offensive masterpiece may need a hard hat to grind out Game 4. Each game shifts into new patterns as if an entirely new portrait must be painted again.
But for one night of beautiful basketball, the Heat took another step into the timeless corridor of the sport's greatness.