MIAMI — A year ago there was no conjecture about rival contenders gaining the upper hand, little doubt about the eventual Most Valuable Player, and nothing but victories.
While the Miami Heat aren’t in the middle of another 27-game winning streak, with a loss to the Utah Jazz the only blemish on the just-completed 5-1 trip, there is a sense among the Heat that they’re getting back to where they stood last February and March.
“You can see the resolve. You can see the chemistry. You can see a team that’s gearing up for the second half of the season, as well, and understands go-time,” guard Dwyane Wade said, before the Heat took a well-earned day off Friday, idle until Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bulls at AmericanAirlines Arena. “So, knock on wood, we want to stay healthy and we want to continue to be able to give ourselves a chance to win every night, and if we do that, we can have some of those kinds of games we had in the 27-game winning streak.”
The immediate concern is the broken nose of forward LeBron James, with a blow from Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka forcing him to the locker room for good midway through the fourth quarter of Thursday’s 103-81 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Heat are listing James as a game-time decision for Sunday.
But even before making his exit, James continued his race back up the polls against Thunder forward Kevin Durant in a bid for a third consecutive MVP trophy, with his 33-point effort giving him 33 or more in each of the past four games, impressive wins against Western Conference playoff contenders Phoenix, Golden State, Dallas and Oklahoma City, after the perplexing loss to lowly Utah.
The fact that James took two blows to the face and still delivered a resounding dunk on what proved to be his final play Thursday is what most resonated with Heat center Chris Bosh.
“It takes more than resolve. It takes extreme athleticism and strength,” Bosh said of the play. “He got hit in the face and then he goes up and still finishes. He’s the best, biggest, strongest athlete in the league, and he can do that.”
While James made his statement with force, Wade delivered his best performance in weeks with a series of athletic assaults into the paint, closing with 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting and 10 assists.
It actually has been weeks now since Wade has missed time due to knee issues, the last absence that was part of that maintenance plan coming on Jan. 23. Since then, the lone absences have been for a migraine against the Jazz and a foot issue against the Suns.
“His knee and his legs were feeling great early on in the trip,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Then he had the migraine and the aberrational foot ailment. But as long as he continues to get strong, better, more healthy, better conditioned as the season goes on, we like that.”
So does Wade.
“I just felt good, being able to get to places I want to get to, reading the defense pretty well,” he said. “So I just decided to mix it up. I wanted to be aggressive offensively, but also I wanted to be aggressive but also find my teammates. And I was able to do both.”
This year, the focus is neither on winning streaks nor playoff seeding, Wade said, but rather the Heat getting back to the place that made the team so efficient over the second half of last season.
Of course Spoelstra being a coach, he would have liked more.
“I have a sick mind. I’m still thinking about the Utah game,” he said with a smile, before putting the trip in perspective. “It was a great business mentality. We could have come up with excuses. The All-Star guys haven’t been home for 20 days.”