Dwyane Wade has officially become the cherry on top.
The Miami Heat looked just fine without him Friday night, and they've held their own in his absence recently, going 7-4 in their last 11 games when he's sat out. If the rest of the league isn't scared, it should be. This isn't a slumping club. It's not confronting some newfound, poorly timed mediocrity.
It's just waiting to get healthy.
Not that it needed its full arsenal against the Indiana Pacers on Friday. The second half was as one-sided as they come, with LeBron James and co. running up and down the floor like they were conducting drills.
The playoffs won't always be that easy, but they won't be as hard as some might like to believe. The Heat are still the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. It's not that some things never change—it's just that this one hasn't changed quite yet.
We'll hear plenty over the coming weeks about how the Brooklyn Nets have beaten Miami four times, but it's worth remembering three of those games were decided by one point. The fourth came in overtime. Wade didn't play in two of the contests.
We should know better. The Pacers are still the biggest threat to Miami returning to the NBA Finals, and they're looking like less and less of a threat by the day.
Let's start with King James' latest masterpiece, description courtesy of ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh:
Without Dwyane Wade for the ninth consecutive game, James took the steering wheel from the opening tip, scoring 10 points in the first six minutes on a series of circus shots. James' jump shot was blistering hot in this one. He had more energy than the Pacers combined, even after the Indy starting five rested last game.
Over his last five games, James is averaging 34.8 points per contest. It might not be enough to snatch the MVP trophy away from Kevin Durant, but it's a timely display nonetheless. James is gearing up for the postseason and reminding us that the only MVP that really matters is the one they hand out after the NBA Finals.
Regular-season accolades are nice and all. James knows all about those too. But he's getting ready for something bigger.
Perhaps the single biggest problem for the rest of the East is that James isn't scared of anything anymore. He's not worried about perception. He's not a bad guy trying to shed labels. He's not a hero challenged by the clutch.
He already has two titles to his name. Whereas you could once hope that the pressure would get to him, now you just have to watch as he dissects defensive looks and picks his moments. He does it meticulously, without the slightest hint of anxiety.
The cool, calm and collected King has no equal in the Eastern Conference. Worrying about his strength and athleticism and basketball IQ is old news. Now you have to worry about his psychological prowess, the fact that he's seen it all, the indisputable reality that he's been tested.
And passed those tests.
The Heat are a step above right now. Their ostensible obstacle to the NBA Finals is looking a step slow. We'll again turn to Haberstroh for the postmortem:
The Pacers' offense needs a lifeline. Almost no pick-and-roll actions to be seen. No penetration into the lane whatsoever. Tons of Hail Mary 3-pointers from Paul George at the end of the shot clock. Aside from some midrange jumpers from David West, the Pacers looked lost out there. Frank Vogel has some work to do before the playoffs begin. Back to the drawing board.
Since the beginning of March, the Pacers are just 10-13. It's as if they're starring in their own documentary on how to lose a No. 1 seed. But with losing that seed went all of their momentum. It'll be tough to recover too, even with a good showing in the first round—which is by no means a given.
This isn't just about psychology and intangibles. There are good reasons to believe the Pacers are simply outmatched by their South Beach rival.
When running down the generic list of things that make the Heat so awe-inspiring, you typically get to things like their speed, pace and aggressiveness. Miami knows how to turn defense into offense. It knows how to dictate tempo running the full-court and executing in the half-court with swift side-to-side passing and penetration.
The easy explanation is that they're just too athletic, but the story goes beyond that. The Heat have shooters (Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers), and that creates space for James to do 36 points worth of damage.
Good as Indiana's defense is supposed to be, there's only so much you can do about such a multifaceted attack. And the Pacers aren't doing it.
Credit Erik Spoelstra.
He's done wonders getting his team to jell from day one. Now is no different, even when a few challenges threatened to derail things. He never overreacted, nor did he ignore the work to be done. Chris Bosh describes the happy medium, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
He knows he has to meet us halfway. He wants to work, we wanna chill, but we’re going to have to work to get everything down, to get our timing down and to get our chemistry down.
Spoelstra has his finger on his team's pulse, and he responds appropriately. He doesn't come to the table with an inflexible agenda. He's not here to impose some predetermined conception of what it means to be the Miami Heat.
But he isn't a pushover.
That's not an easy balance to master, but it seems like Spoelstra does it time and again. When he needs to light a fire under his team, he's not afraid. When he needs to let them relax, he's happy to accommodate.
That's one hell of a way to solicit buy-in.
That tone has translated into a healthy but not obsessive respect for wins in the regular season's waning moments. Just listen to Bosh (again, courtesy of Skolnick):
We are in a very unique position, where just have to make sure we do what we can to win. We don't want to burn ourselves out trying to do that. But I think we can get it done without burning ourselves out mentally and physically.
Burn out. Sounds like a good way to describe the Pacers.
But not Miami, not at the moment. After three straight seasons competing in the NBA Finals, this team is still somehow touting its "mental and physical" freshness.
You can't ask for a better mindset going into the playoffs, and that's bad news for the rest of the league. We know the Heat have the talent and the system to beat anyone. The only question is if they can stay healthy and keep it together.
So far, so good. When Wade returns to action, good luck finding any cracks in this armor.