There was almost nothing surprising about the Miami Heat’s casual vaporization of the Wolves on Tuesday. (Well I guess that the Lebron/Anthony Tolliver faux-beef was a little surprising–since when do the oligarchs of our pop consciousness care about mild, self-deprecating parody?) A thirty point win seemed almost inevitable. Magnificent performances by Wade and James are part of the routine. I understand this much.
What was really startling for me was simply that this team exists at all. This off-season, I got used to thinking of this Miami Heat pop-cultural phenomenon as just another high-gloss TV show, heavy on the melodrama, heavy on the pyro. This had to be just another shimmering refraction of the simulacra, right? Maybe the renegade handiwork of an undernourished, over-caffeinated video game programmer or the projected viral video of some nerdy twelve-year-old’s ultimate basketball fantasy (“wouldn’t it be awethome if…!?”)? They weren’t gonna, like, actually show up at actual basketball arenas and play real NBA games against other flesh-and-blood humans were they?
But sure enough, there they were: Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, all wearing the same uniform and taking the same floor as our Wolves, a crew of NBA neophytes and non-celebrities if there ever was one. Given that our young bunch was squaring off against a mythic Superteam, its kind of hard to make any firm judgments about the Wolves’ performance. Kevin Love is struggling to bring his defense up to Kurt Rambis’ standards? Well, checking Bosh one-on-one and attempting to rotate to Wade’s baseline drives sure isn’t gonna cast the most forgiving light on that effort.
And sure, at many points in the first half, the Wolves moved the ball more quickly and decisively than at any other point this year so far. But the frantic pace at which they had to play to stay even a half-step ahead of Miami’s ravenous help-and-recover defense, took its toll at the basket. The Wolves brought great energy to the task of creating open shots, but they never could find the balance or composure to hit any of them. And you think extreme defensive effort is a necessity right? Well a team this talented can use that effort against you. It seemed that every hard rotation, every trap and double-team resulted in an open three-point shooter or weakside cutter. The Wolves would have had to play nearly perfect defense to slow this team. Needless to say, that wasn’t happening.
Which brings us to some of the real wonders and terrors of playing the Heat. The first is that, as Tom Haberstroh of the The Heat Index pointed out today, Miami almost never plays a five-man lineup that does not include one of the ten best players in the game. For some reason, this is even more disturbingly impressive to me than the idea of all three stars playing together. Haberstroh continues:
But some of LeBron’s most effective moments in a Heat uniform have come when he’s played with the so-called second unit, one that closely resembles his former digs in Cleveland. In fact, when LeBron goes to work without Bosh and Wade, the Heat have outscored opponents by five points in just over 25 minutes of play. It’s a reminder that even when the Heat let off the gas, they’re still deploying the game’s most talented basketball player.
In other words, the weakest lineup you’re likely to face is some version of last year’s Cavs or Heat. And certainly Lebron’s work with the “second unit” against the Wolves–a heady mix of deft pick-and-roll passing, drives-and-kicks and the obligatory impossible 20-foot fades–was pretty overwhelming.
This was to be expected I guess. But Wade was the real stunner. Lebron’s ridiculous power and speed allow him to operate within totally foreign concepts of space. The old physical rules do not apply. Wade works within more familiar spatial territory, but he discovers new ground within it. With his immense gifts of vision, quickness and balance, Wade creates angles through the lane, space between and around players that seem obvious in retrospect–once he’s finished easily at the rim–but that are impossible to us normal people to imagine or foresee. It was astonishing to watch Wade play within the expanded space created by the Heat’s three-point shooters and the attention commanded by Lebron. With just the slightest stretching of the defense, just the slightest gain in maneuvering room, the game, for Wade, become frighteningly easy.
Even without Martell Webster, without Beasley, the Wolves gave this game a pretty good old try, at least until that blistering third quarter made their best efforts moot. Deep down, though, they seemed to be sharing my exact thoughts: I can’t believe this is really happening.