Early in the year, it didn’t look like they would ever get here.
Miami struggled in close games. They struggled against good teams. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh played next to each other, not with each other. They took a mountain of criticism.
They weathered it. They matured as a team. They started to figure things out.
Monday night they announced their official arrival.
It’s not just that they won a 98-90 overtime playoff game in the Boston Garden, but how they did it. Playing off each other, interacting and using their athleticism to play good team defense.
The Heat are here. They are contenders. They very likely will come out of the East and may win it all.
“We all know, we struggled earlier in the year trying to find our identity,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “Trying to find execution, what we can run, what works for us, where guys are comfortable and we can use their strengths. I think if we didn’t go through all those struggles at the end of games against good teams we probably wouldn’t feel as confident as we do.”
One play in the overtime, the Heat’s second possession, seemed to sum up how far they have come.
Early in the season, it was always LeBron with the ball in his hands late, but one of the lessons learned is how it works better with Wade handling the ball. They ran the Wade/LeBron pick-and-roll, with LeBron setting the pick, Wade came off it but LeBron had virtually slipped it early and was rolling toward the basket. Wade hit LeBron with a bounce pass in the paint and that forced Kevin Garnett to rotate over — then James hit Bosh, who was cutting on the baseline to the basket, with the pass for a easy lay in.
All of the big three touched the ball in quick succession. It’s indefensible. It’s what everyone else in the league feared, that they would start playing off each other well.
Spoelstra seems to keep the Wade/LeBron pick-and-roll in his back pocket, using it sparingly on big occasions. As if he used it too much teams might figure out how to defend it. He broke it out in overtime Monday night and it worked brilliantly.
First overtime possession, Wade came off the pick and slid the ball to LeBron, who isolated on Pierce on the left side and hit a ridiculous fade away over him. (That was not so much the pick-and-roll and mostly just LeBron.) Then came the quick-passing play described above.
The next time Wade went too quickly but still the threat of the play let him get deep into the lane, where he missed an eight-foot floater he normally drains. Wade made up for that a little bit later with a ridiculous three-point shot with West in his face.
But it’s more than that.
On the key basket of the overtime, the Heat ran LeBron off a Bosh pick and the Celtics switched it, happy to have Garnett locked in on LeBron. KG did his job and forced LeBron into a long, contested two that came up short — but the switch meant Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were left to box out Bosh, they couldn’t. He got the dagger tip in. (Sure, you can have a dagger tip in, why not?) The Heat are exploiting the mismatches they create now.
On the other end of the floor, the Heat had a pressure defense that was forcing Celtics turnovers in overtime. Miami’s defense forced the Celtics to shoot 1-for-6 in the extra period. They forced three turnovers. They shut down the Celtics. Granted the Celtics were without Rondo, but the Heat had a part of that too playing physical with him all night.
The Heat are up 3-1 in this series, and they are going to win it. Because they are the better team, the team that creates mismatches and executes under pressure.
They are what everyone hoped or feared they would become — maybe the best team in the NBA.