When the Miami Heat have officially flipped their switch, there's no mistaking what just happened.
Their defense dials in, devouring opposing offenses until they stop attacking altogether. Their offense dizzies with ball movement, dropping long-range bombs or throwing demoralizing dunks down a defense's throat.
At the start of the season, these game-changing moments come in spurts, if they ever come at all. As the campaign progresses, though, these dominant displays start making their appearances longer and far more frequent.
Vulnerabilities are masked, or erased altogether. Worries of complacency vanish. Hoop heads can't help but wonder—might that "not one, not two, not three..." prediction have actually been a prophecy?
Before chasing rings four, five and six, the Heat need to secure No. 3 first. Considering Miami would be just the third franchise in NBA history to pull off a three-peat, that's far from a formality.
As the postseason race approaches, though, we're getting more evidence of just how possible that outcome really is. After the Heat gave the Oklahoma City Thunder a humbling 103-81 loss Thursday, guard Dwyane Wade sensed the pieces were falling into place.
"You can see the resolve," Wade said, per Cliff Brunt of the Associated Press (via NBA.com). "You can see the chemistry. You can see a team that's gearing up for the second half of the season."
So, we haven't seen Miami at its best? Scoring five wins against Western Conference playoff teams in a six-game road trip was just one big tune-up for what's still to come?
It's incredible to think considering just what it is we have witnessed, but more than likely accurate based on what we know.
External pressures won't rattle this team, no matter how much we try to speculate about this core's uncertain future. Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh can all opt out of their contracts this offseason, meaning there's a chance the Heatles as we know them are headed toward extinction.
Tension should be growing. Performances should suffer.
It isn't, and they aren't.
Even with the historical ramifications of this season, and the unsolved puzzles this summer will present, it's hard to imagine a team any looser than this group:
Chemistry isn't something that can be manufactured. It has to grow organically. When it does, though, as it has in Miami, the results can be brilliant.
"It's not made up, they root for each other, it's genuine, and it's really a beautiful thing for young fans to see," three-time NBA champion and current NBA TV analyst Rick Fox said, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "It shows other teams, young teams, what it can look like, what it should look like."
When that fun intertwines with success, that's when special things can happen.
The Heat will get serious for the stretch run, but there's a certain enjoyment that can't be lost. With two titles, three Finals appearances and 67 postseason games over the past three seasons, the Heat know all about the grind lying ahead.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of keeping things fresh and avoiding getting bogged down by the Groundhog Day banality of another playoff push. Uncorking mind-boggling highlights should help with that challenge.
So, too, will finding ways to raise a bar already set atop the hoops world.
Last season, Miami caught a midseason second wind thanks to two historic streaks.
James etched his name in the record books for pouring in 30-plus points on 60-plus-percent shooting in six straight games. That surge sent the team on a torrid run as the Heat went on to win 27 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in league history.
With a top gear unmatched by their peers, the Heat sometimes need to challenge themselves. Once those numbers start sending people to the history books, that's as good a sign as any that Miami's broken into its championship stride.
The dramatics may be saved for a later date, but the Heat are making subtle entries on the stat sheet that suggest this team is closing in on its top speed:
Well, not all of them have been subtle:
This is what Heat fans have been waiting to see.
Established elites striving for something more. An offensive juggernaut extending its wrath to the defensive end.
The Heat have been uncharacteristically generous at that end for most of the season. Miami sits 14th in defensive rating (103.0 points allowed per 100 possessions), which would be its first finish outside the top seven in the Big Three era.
In their last two games, though, the Heat have stunted two of the league's most efficient offenses. The first, the Dallas Mavericks, shot 40 percent from the field and coughed up 16 turnovers. The second, OKC, had a 37.8 percent conversion rate from the field and 20 giveaways.
This is starting to look like Erik Spoelstra's defense. We've all seen how much damage this team can do at that end of the floor:
Rising to the occasion is nothing new for Miami, but once it's stringing performances like this together, we'll know the sprint has started.
It's not just about toppling the heavyweights, it's refusing to lower the bar against inferior competition. The Heat won't turn heads by knocking off bottom feeders, but putting them to bed early in the game will be a clear indication of this team's championship-level hunger.
The Wade of old—as opposed to the old Wade—also needs to be a regular part of this late-season push. He's proven he still has the touch (24 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds against OKC), but he'll need to show elite-level efforts more often. Spoelstra can't burn him out before the season's over, but his activity level will tell you plenty about how serious this team is getting:
The Heat don't need to hit full-throttle before the second season starts, but they'll need something close to it to a) reclaim home-court advantage from the Indiana Pacers and b) pick up some extra fuel ahead of another prolonged playoff stay.
There are lessons to be learned over the next two months, but legacies to be written shortly thereafter.
Spoelstra will set out on this high-wire act of revving his team to high gear without overheating the engine. That means monitoring James' minutes even if it costs him some MVP votes, practicing patience with Wade and Greg Oden even if it hurts Miami in the loss column and setting his playoff rotation without burning any insurance bridges he might need down the line.
There is no way to pinpoint Miami's floored pedal, but you know it when you see it.
It's abundantly clear at both ends of the floor, regardless of the competition. It's championship-level execution from the opening tip through the final horn.
It's business as usual for the two-time defending champs, who know that business always starts booming around this time of year in South Beach.
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