Four years after their summertime cannonballs defined the term "superteam," the two-time defending champion Miami Heat remain the best in the business.
The court of public opinion says the gap between South Beach and the rest of the league is shrinking. The numbers disagree.
Miami moved to 8-1 in the postseason with Wednesday's series-closing 96-94 win over the Brooklyn Nets. The Heat didn't shoot well (43.3 percent from the field, 31.0 percent from deep), had no real balance (only four players scored more than five points) and dug themselves an eight-point hole with less than three minutes left on the clock.
But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had a simple message for his team during a late timeout, per Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press:
"You guys are built for this."
With literally no time to spare, the Heat calmly flipped the switch they've kept at their disposal throughout the Big Three era. Their defense tightened, their offense flowed with ruthless precision and Ray Allen, again, proved there is such a thing as the clutch gene.
"It's always been like that for us," LeBron James said, via Greg Cote of the Miami Herald. "It's never been easy for us."
Miami has made a habit of finding narrow escapes and surviving heart-pumping finishes. Yet the excitement comes from the process, not the actual conclusion. That part of the ride is predetermined—or at least it's seemed that way since James and Chris Bosh migrated to Miami in 2010:
Heat's Big 3 have played 14 playoff series. They're 13-1.— Chris Palmer (@ChrisPalmerNBA) May 15, 2014
This current squad is supposed to be vulnerable. That's the narrative analysts have tried to sell, at least.
The hoops world has worried about the health of Dwyane Wade, the fluctuations in Bosh's box scores, the heavy lifting James is forced to do on a nightly basis and the lack of steady support around Miami's three-headed monster. Those concerns only increased after the Heat racked up a relatively unimpressive 54 wins in the regular season (12 fewer than 2012-13, tied for fifth-most in the NBA).
For some reason, a team that's only measured in playoff successes or failures was now being picked apart over its performance in an 82-game race it clearly had no desire to run. Obvious disinterest was somehow received publicly as a disadvantage, with many wondering if the physical and mental exhaustion of making three consecutive NBA Finals runs had caught up to the champs.
Everyone seemed concerned. Well, except for the guys in the locker room.
"On the outside, there’s more doubt," Udonis Haslem said before the playoffs began, via ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. “Within here, we're still confident in one another. We still know what we can do."
What the Heat can do, it seems, is something no other NBA team can match. Miami has a single blemish on its playoff record. No one else has fewer than four. It has averaged a plus-7.3 point differential over its first nine games. The San Antonio Spurs (plus-6.8) are the only other team with a differential above plus-3.1.
This isn't vulnerable. Not by a long shot. What's scary, though, is that this isn't Miami's best, either.
The Heat are doing what they need to do to survive. Lately, that's meant treading water for the first three frames, then unleashing a game-changing barrage of blistering offense and suffocating defense when it really counts. The top gear flashed in these quick bursts is simply unmatched across this playoff field. NBA.com advanced stats writer John Schuhmann laid out just how dominant the Heat are in the fourth quarter:
Heat by quarter in series: 1st: +3 2nd: -3 3rd: -5 4th: +32— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) May 15, 2014
Frankly, this is an art form Miami has been perfecting over the past four seasons.
The Heat know their limits better than any team in the league. They understand when half-speed is good enough and how to shift to full throttle when needed. The team that's too top-heavy to stay upright and too tired to keep climbing has been running opponents out of the gym when it gets down to winning time:
Heat 4th-quarter offensive efficiency, last 4 postseasons: pic.twitter.com/xSY52yBUfK— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) May 15, 2014
It's remarkable to watch, yet not the least bit surprising.
This is how championship teams are supposed to look, even ones still waking up from an 82-game slumber.
"I wasn't thinking so much, 'When the playoffs get here, everything's gonna change,'" Bosh said, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "That's kind of a dangerous way to think. But I knew we were going to do a better job of focusing. And just really locking in. And that's all it takes."
It sounds simple, and that's exactly how it's looked.
Two top-tier defenses have game-planned to contain James, and the best player on the planet has validated that title with playoff averages of 30 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists. Wade (17.9 points on 50 percent shooting) and Bosh (14.6 on 51 percent shooting) have masterfully provided efficient support. Miami has struggled to find a reliable fourth scorer, yet it's played only three single-digit games so far.
The Heat have yet to break a sweat, because they know it's too early for that. The first two rounds aren't about surviving, they're about imposing one's will and advancing as quickly and painlessly as possible. Heavy playoff mileage is unavoidable considering what this group has accomplished, but it has evaded unnecessarily lengthy trips during the early rounds:
Heat are now 32-7 in first- and second-round playoff games over the last four years.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) May 15, 2014
There's been a very business-like feel to Miami's surgical slicing through the opening two rounds.
The Heat don't ride the postseason roller coaster. Their highs draw little more than a golf clap. Their lows—or singular low, I suppose—are subtle reminders, not causes for concern.
They know this stage and what it takes to perform at this level. That knowledge keeps this group cool, collected and concentrated under any circumstances, as Schuhmann explained in an article on NBA.com:
In their fourth season together, the Heat know exactly who they are. They have the best player in the league, who draws the attention of the entire defense. He doesn’t force anything and he trusts his teammates. As a group, they take what the defense gives them.
More importantly, the Heat don’t panic. And when you have talent, teamwork and resolve, you win big games.
The Heat should know that. Those two banners they've added to the AmericanAirlines Arena rafters over the past two seasons share the same sentiment.
Miami has defensive gaps to fill, reliable rotation roles to be claimed. It's hard to say anything is wrong, though, for a team with five double-digit wins and a single loss in nine playoff outings.
This group has yet to get a true test from the Eastern Conference, and it's hard to say with any certainty one will be coming in the conference finals. The West will still put up its best in the NBA Finals, a group that's sure to be tested but probably more physically and mentally tried than Miami.
The Heat's roster reads like an embarrassment of riches—at least at the top, which is all that matters in a superstars league—just as it did when it first came together. Whatever athleticism has been lost since has been replaced with wisdom, poise and trust.
That's a championship concoction, and Miami recognizes it as such. It's separating from the pack now and still several mph short of its top speed.