The basketball world might have sensed more twists and turns in the Miami Heat's road back to championship glory this season, but Erik Spoelstra's squad is simply following the same blueprint that's worked for it in the past.
Cruise control early on, full-throttle acceleration into the All-Star break. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade know exactly how this journey is supposed to go, and both superstars have laced up their sprinting shoes for the stretch run.
The first few months were nothing more than a slow ascent, but now is the time for Miami to make its rapid rise back to the top of the NBA pecking order.
"We’ve been working on it all year long; we haven’t gotten there…pushing and taking a step back, taking two steps forward,” Spoelstra said, via David J. Neal of the Miami Herald. “It’s time for us to impose our will on the season, the way we’re capable of."
The calendar has changed, but we've seen this story before. The two main characters from those title-producing tales of the past are back, hinting at a conclusion that's been replaying for two years running.
It's Good To Be the King
With four MVP awards already under his belt, it's becoming increasingly difficult for James to raise the bar.
When greatness is expected, the shock value is removed from what would otherwise be staggering statistics.
As he prepared to take the White House trip awarded only to the best of the best in mid-January, he'd made 36 appearances on the year and held the following per-game averages: 26.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.3 steals. He was shooting a mind-boggling 59.1 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from distance at the time.
Those figures aren't simply monumental; they're historically significant. Only once before in the three-point era (1979-80 and on) has a player posted at least 26 points, six rebounds and six assists while shooting at least 55 percent from the field—James himself last season.
Rather than scheduling his next crown-fitting, though, hoop heads gave nothing more than a collective "meh" at the numbers. ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh (subscription required) even wondered aloud, "Is LeBron coasting?"
Sorry, but even the Chosen One isn't skating through virtually uncharted waters.
The master self-motivator that he is, though, James apparently welcomed that unnecessary fuel. He's played 11 games since holding court with the POTUS and serving up slams for the First Lady—and he somehow upped the ante.
He's poured in at least 25 points in eight of those 11 games, averaging 27.5 over the stretch. He's bumped his rebounds to 7.5, his assists to 7.1 and his steals to 1.9. He poured in 10 of his team-high 31 points in the final five minutes of Miami's 116-112 win over the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday, overstuffing his stat sheet with 12 assists, eight rebounds, three steals and a block.
He also spent time defending all five positions and then humbly made a pitch for one of the few pieces of hardware missing from his collection.
"That’s why I should be Defensive Player of the Year,” he said, via Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post. “No one’s ever done this before.”
Unprecedented undertakings are a common theme in James' basketball story. So, too, are midseason awakenings (see: Miami's 27-game winning streak last season).
Of course, James didn't take his talents to South Beach in 2010 to do everything by himself. He came to share the floor with fellow All-Star starter Wade, whose heroic efforts are starting to make regular appearances once again.
Welcome Back, Wade
Despite repeated insurances that all's well on the Wade preservation front, it's easy to panic when the 32-year-old's troublesome knees force him off the floor.
When he was recently sidelined five times in a seven-game period, panic gave way to outright hysteria. Miami's finished. James is gone. Wade's career is over.
It was as if we'd all forgotten that Miami has had a maintenance plan in place all along. A plan that, while frustrating at times, certainly seems to be working.
If he's anywhere in the vicinity of full strength, Wade remains one of the dominant forces in this league. Since returning from that four-game absence, he's been sending out nightly reminders of that fact.
A quiet, eight-point effort (on 37.5 percent shooting) marked his return, but it's been sheer brilliance in the four games since.
James said numbers aren't needed to see Wade has started finding his groove.
"This last week or so, he’s had a bounce in his step," James said, via ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. "When he’s landing on two feet [balanced] on his jump shot, when he’s Euro-stepping, his knee is feeling pretty good. Those are two indications of how he’s feeling, for me personally."
There's an aggressiveness Wade's body has occasionally taken away from him. When his knees give him the green light, though, he's a steady stream of production at the basket:
The only players scoring more points per possession than Dwyane Wade on cuts (min 50 possessions) are Dwight Howard and Brandan Wright.— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) February 4, 2014
Health has obviously allowed this resurgence to take place, but strategy has played an arguably equal part. Spoelstra has given Wade more time on the ball, particularly with high pick-and-roll plays, a move that's put the 11-year veteran back in his comfort zone, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
It helps me a lot. I'm like a quarterback, I need to see. I need to see everything in front of me. And I'm able to be aggressive obviously for myself, but I'm also able to see where my shooters are, where my big guys are rolling. I've made the adjustment and played out of the corners and all these things as well, but where I love to play is at the top.
At the top, huh? Funny, since that seems to be the same place Miami is headed.
Stars Are Aligning
While Miami's superstars deservedly drive the conversation around this team, this is more than a three-man show.
Spoelstra might not have drawn it up that way, but the Heat's victory over the Clippers Wednesday felt like a best-case scenario. James and Wade got their numbers, but it was really a total team effort.
Chris Bosh was active as a scorer (15 points), rebounder (eight) and even a playmaker (four assists). Ray Allen (15 points), Shane Battier (14), Chris Andersen (12) and Mario Chalmers (10) all finished in double figures. Norris Cole had three thefts and a pair of assists in 17 minutes. Greg Oden grabbed three rebounds and swatted two shots in less than six minutes.
Michael Beasley, who's averaging 8.5 points on 50.4 percent shooting, never made it off the bench. Neither did Udonis Haslem (a pivotal piece of Miami's last two championship runs) or Rashard Lewis (a 15.0-points-per-game scorer for his career).
Miami is both top-heavy and deep. That's a lethal combination, and perhaps the perfect recipe to pull off the league's first successful three-peat in more than a decade.
There's still a long run left in front of them, but the Heat have found their racing shoes—and their championship stride.