WASHINGTON, D.C. — There have been 27 losses this season for the Miami Heat, and unless James Jones and Justin Hamilton and Toney Douglas torch the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, there could well be a 28th. But the standings won't record one loss they'll most welcome.
They can lose the act.
They didn't care about this regular season, not seriously, not sufficiently, not consistently. They never saw it as anything other than parsley before the prime rib, no matter how they pretended in public, simply so Heat fans wouldn't snap. Whether it's been Dwyane Wade's 28 absences, or absent-minded play from others, something's been missing.
They did just enough to not embarrass themselves, and even did just that at times, even when LeBron James and Chris Bosh were on the floor. The two All-Stars weren't participants in Monday's 114-93 loss to the Washington Wizards, in which Miami allowed Washington to make 15 of 16 shots in the second quarter.
James and Bosh arrived 45 minutes prior to tipoff, excused from action due to what Erik Spoelstra called an "extreme" schedule down the stretch, with 27 games in 47 days. Spoelstra has spoken of not using any such factors as excuses, but his knowledge of the number was indicative of the way that he managed this season.
His overriding agenda was to nurse a weary, aging roster in such a manner that his prime-time players would be ready when it really mattered. And so that's what he did, even with an outside shot at the top seed in the East, needing two wins and a Pacers stumble against Orlando.
Spoelstra prioritized rest.
He chose to place rather than push, pulling up in second.
So now we see.
Now we see if the trade the Heat made this season, time after time, will pay off in a third straight championship. Whether they can take the title with the worst winning percentage of any champion since their 2005-06 predecessors—a team on which Wade and Udonis Haslem played—finished 52-30 and started 2-2 in the first round.
Whether they can win as many as two series without the home court in Game 7, not just against Indiana should the teams meet in the Eastern Conference, but against the West representative should they advance to the NBA Finals. The Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and possibly even the Rockets would enter with that advantage.
Whether their lack of worry was warranted.
Championships have certainly changed this group, cutting their concerns. Three years and three days ago, James sat in front of his locker after a victory in Atlanta, furiously refreshing his cellphone, loudly providing updates of the Celtics' game against the Wizards, smiling broadly when Boston lost and the second seed was secured.
Monday, no Heat player—other than Charlotte native Mario Chalmers—seemed to have the the slightest concern about the Bobcats score, though a loss to Orlando could have locked up a Miami-Charlotte first-round matchup.
The Bobcats won after the locker room closed—meaning that the Heat's opponent of Charlotte or Washington won't be determined until Wednesday. Still, it's likely that the players carried on with the conversations, and the cackling, that they exhibited in the media's presence, whether trading turkey burgers, mocking Michael Beasley's jewelry or planning when to take their kids to see Rio 2.
Those are the sorts of conversations they've had in private, for six months, while Heat fans were sweating about seeding. And that's fine. Whatever they needed to get them to the finish, before the real season starts.
On the record, Ray Allen spoke of once being the fourth seed and making it to the Finals, about not worrying about seeding "as much as about the team, and what our headspace is going to the playoffs."
Wade, who played 18 minutes in his second straight start, just to get his wind, spoke of there being "no disappointment" about seeding when the playoffs start: "It will be a new season and we are looking forward to it."
Haslem spoke of "always wanting to get the No. 1 seed," but added, "at the end of the day, we're confident that we can win anywhere. Whatever we got to do is what we have to do. Wherever we got to go to get it done is where we got to go. We've got confidence in each other, we're battle-tested over the years, we've been through a lot together. We played more basketball than anybody in this entire league the past few years. We've got everything we need to be able to go into somebody else's homecourt and get games."
Well, they'll have more motivation than they've had for some time. Bosh, Shane Battier, Chalmers, Allen and others all have acknowledged that they've just been anxious to see the end.
"Felt like it dragged a little," Allen said of the season.
"Long," Chalmers said. "Especially the month of March. March and April, those two straight months."
Finally, they can spot the shore. There's a gleam of gold.
"Once we get our full group of guys back, and we get into that playoff atmosphere, and that competitive spirit starts to rise and that blood starts to boil, I anticipate us coming out and playing Miami Heat basketball, similar to the way we competed against Indiana," Haslem said. "It wasn't that long ago, even though it seems long ago, it wasn't that long ago that we showed what we're capable of, when we're focused and lock in."
So would Haslem make the exchange, the one that was at the heart of the Heat's uneven, largely uneventful regular season?
You have to go on the road to start two rounds.
But you have Wade reasonably healthy for those series.
"I would take a healthy Dwyane and a healthy team, and we can go play anywhere," Haslem said. "And I like our chances."
Those are the dice they've rolled.
Soon we see if, when the playoffs start, they finally stop rolling their eyes.
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