All of a sudden, December basketball matters.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the two-time defending champions have been feigning indifference, referring to this part of the regular season as just that: this part of the regular season. The game against the Indiana Pacers was just another game, no different than the one they played two nights later against the bottom-feeding Kings.
So much for that.
While coming back from a 15-point second-half deficit against the Pacers, the Heat suddenly turned the intensity meter up so high that it started shaking. Everyone was playing with unrelenting passion, and the game had a distinctive playoff feel to it as the Heat took the lead on the heels of a big run and eventually closed out the only other great team in the Eastern Conference.
Wade agreed, per Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald, saying, "You can see it in the intensity of both games (with the Pacers). Both of them were playoff-type atmosphere games and obviously it’s because of the team they are. The West has a lot of that, those type of games. So, it’s good for us."
So did James, who revealed that it's sometimes tough to work up motivation during the monotony of the regular season. Such was the case during the first half against Sacramento.
It was understandable that Miami began the contest with the Kings experiencing a bit of an emotional hangover. They'd expended quite a bit of energy and desire during the comeback against Indiana, one that made sure a five-game stretch in early December that included three losses was well behind them.
And let's put that in context for a second.
During the last two title-winning seasons, Miami has lost three games in a row only once, and there were only eight instances in which the Heat have dropped three games over a five-game stretch. That's it. The number grew to nine this December, and it was all the spark Miami needed.
So much for waiting until the playoffs to turn on the gas. Forget about treating the regular season like it didn't matter. So much for pretending not to care that each and every team was treating the defending champions like there was a bullseye squarely affixed to the back of every red and black jersey.
When Sacramento scored 36 points in the first quarter and then held a 61-57 lead with 2:30 remaining in the first half, that was all over. As Chris Bosh told the Associated Press via NBA.com, "They kind of caught us off guard, but we had to really just get used to the pace of the game and basically kind of slow it down and get what we want."
They got what they wanted. Just like they did during the game against Indiana earlier this week.
And no, I don't care that LeBron thinks there are no rivalries in the NBA.
No. No, they wouldn't.
Throughout the remaining 26:30 on Friday, the Heat just dominated the Kings. In fact, they outscored their opponents 65-42 thanks to an absolutely suffocating defense. Just take a look at how many stats the Kings recorded during the pre- and post-explosion portions of the beatdown while remembering that they had an extra 2:30 in the latter one:
Ugly, isn't it?
Well, it is if you're a fan of the Kings. But it's a thing of beauty if you support the winning side.
Not only did the Heat turn off the faucet, shutting down the perimeter and defending the interior with much more success, but they often didn't even let Sacramento get a shot up. Even with the extra 2:30, the Kings had only one more shot post-explosion, and their assist-to-turnover ratio flip-flopped in rather dramatic fashion.
Although the pace of the game didn't slow, the intensity was finally there for Miami, and that was true on offense as well. Actually, the intensity was always there on the more-glamorous end, which explains both of Ray Allen's dunks—he even cracked a smile after the second—and this masterpiece by LeBron:
But as always, it's defense where this team really separates itself. That's where they can hit the proverbial switch and assert themselves as a next-level squad.
If you want one play that can accurately sum up Miami's mentality, here it is:
That sequence started when Dwyane Wade turned the ball over with an ill-advised swing pass, but he caught up with the fast break, made a ridiculously athletic play to save the rock from going out of bounds and then hustled all the way down the court.
All the while, the Heat displayed fantastic ball movement. Count the passes. They're all beautiful, and they end with a great feed to a cutting Wade.
But the Heat do things like this on a regular basis. It's the timing that makes it such an accurate microcosm of the overall efforts.
At this stage of the contest, the Heat were up 18 points with just over nine minutes left in the game. They could easily have let the Kings score an uncontested layup before continuing to torture the Sacramento lack of a defense, but they instead gave 100 percent. Wade had every excuse in the book thanks to the decrepit state of his knees, but he didn't use any of them.
That's basically the case for the entire season: The Heat only have to try if they want to. Playing in the Eastern Conference is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it's nice to have so many easy games against lackluster teams waiting on the schedule, but it's also beneficial to enter the postseason battle-tested and ready to meet challenges.
As Shandel Richardson wrote for the Sun Sentinel before Friday's game, "Ultimately, most of the challenges have nothing to do with the Heat's opponent. The obstacle is finding motivation when the lights are dim."
Slowly but surely, the Heat are starting to realize exactly that.
It was evident during the second half against Sacramento, and that mentality must continue to be on full display throughout the rest of the season. While taking a quarter off here and there is fine—being this dominant affords a team such luxuries—Miami must keep pace with Indiana.
Even if the No. 1 seed in the East isn't the ultimate goal this season, competing for it keeps the Heat sharp for the inevitable Eastern Conference Finals clash with their biggest foe. What could be more important than that?