WASHINGTON DC — While the Orlando Magic were busy realigning themselves to meet the rising threat coming out of Miami, the Heat found an unsuspecting way to add to its month-long bonding process.
A comeback win — as in down five with 32 seconds left — that capped a crazy night against the Washington Wizards.
The final score was 95-94, but the real mark of the match was that the Heat turned what could have been a lazy-affair into a hard-fought, if ugly, win that continues their transformation from disaster-under-the-spotlight to a team suddenly in sync.
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Afterward, the players chest-bumped and hugged as if they’d just pulled out a playoff win. Lost for a second was the fact they’d dusted off a trade- and injury-depleted team with three times as many losses as wins.
“It was a celebration of, ‘We found a way to win being down five with 30 second to go, being down four with 16 seconds to go’ and just willing victory out like that,” said LeBron James, who had 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists. “Wins like that, you don’t just walk off the court.”
No, wins like that you don’t. You hug. You smile. You feel that sense that something special is taking hold.
The Heat did not need another 10-point win over a sub-par team, even if the head coach was unhappy with their poor play.
They did need an exercise in comebacks, another joyous occasion in which to keep learning to love one another, and more proof that their shared role as villains can be a lot of fun.
“We played a horrible basketball game,” was the first thing head coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “We really did.”
Still, even the process-minded, Riley-influenced young coach seemed to get that this might have been better than, say, a blowout win against Sacramento.
“These are games that great teams — good teams — find a way to win, when it’s not always going well, when you’re not necessarily outplaying the other team,” he said.
You had it right the first time, Erik. These are games great teams do indeed find a way to win.
The Heat are now on a 12-game win streak, and that is seismic enough — great enough — that it’s literally rewritten the league’s landscape.
On Saturday, in two trades, the Orlando Magic dismantled a group thought to be championship contenders and reassembled a new team built around countering the Heat’s sudden and scary surge.
The final sum of all these changes is this: Orlando says goodbye to Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus, a 2011 first-round pick and cash considerations.
Lewis heads to Washington, the rest go to Phoenix.
Orlando adds Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark.
Asked if he thought the obvious — that Orlando was responding to the Heat — Spoelstra said, “Whatever. If that’s how it’s perceived and people are viewing it that way and want to improve their teams, it doesn’t matter to us. We have enough things to worry about other than what other teams are doing until we play them.”
Spoelstra said these words two hours before his team would pulled out its comeback. At the time, his focus was on the Wizards, a team suddenly without Arenas.
“They have nothing to lose tonight and they’ll play free,” he said. “I know what that’s like being on teams like that after a trade. And there is a kind of relief, regardless of who’s involved in the trade, and sometimes teams can play with a great deal of confidence.”
The Wizards played just that way, until the very end, when missed free throws by Washington and a key steal by LeBron James turned a sure loss for the Heat into a postgame celebration few saw coming.
The Heat survived 30 points from Nick Young, a late-game air ball from Dwyane Wade that would have tied it and repeated chances by the Wizards to put them away.
A call here, a shot there, a free throw made — any of that — and this is a very bad loss.
Which says how well the Heat are running.
Instead they go back to Miami with a moment in Washington that couldn’t have been scripted more effectively for those rooting for the Heat to form a permanent bond capable of withstanding the real challengers to come.
“Good teams find a way to win,” said Wade, who added 20 points of his own.
True, but it also helps to believe they can win these games by, well, winning these games. This was another check off of the list of things the Heat should do to best prepare themselves for adversity and build confidence.
“We’ve watched teams like San Antonio and Boston and the Lakers pull out these kinds of wins and we finally were able to pull out one of them,” Wade said. “That’s what good teams do. Tonight I’m really proud of our team.”
Teams like San Antonio, Boston, the Lakers.
That is the class to which the Heat aspire (along with Boston).
We — and the Heat — won’t know if they’ve achieved such lofty status until they face those teams, starting a week from now with the Christmas Day showdown against Kobe and Co.
As the season unfolds, there will be struggles — maybe serious struggles — ahead for this team. Boston may not be as sexy as the boys from South Beach but they are certainly tougher.
It will be interesting to see how the Heat handle their next dose of adversity, their challenge in Los Angeles, even Monday’s matchup at home against Dallas.
Still, what’s happening for the Heat is a sea change worth stopping to ponder.
Less than a month ago, coaches like Stan Van Gundy were being asked to speculate on the turmoil surrounding the Miami Heat. Less than a month ago, Phil Jackson actually was speculating on Spoelstra’s job security.
Now Van Gundy is left to ponder a new team, Jackson is left trying to get his own house in order and the Heat have gone from a good joke about hubris to a scary lesson in what happens when great players get their crap together, get angry and start playing well.
Now, everything they touch seems to be turning to gold.
“As a team we found a way to win,” LeBron said. “We never gave up. We kept executing down to the very last second.”
This is how thoroughly the East has been re-written, particularly the Southeast Conference: The Orlando team that dismantled Miami early in the season is no more, and the Heat turned what should have been a snoozer of a game into another step in a building process threatening to make them into everything the rest of the league feared all along.