PHILADELPHIA -- Imagine this: Miami -- yes, The Decision-making, premature-celebrating, shoulder-bumping Heat -- is the only title contender to have avoided drama in the playoffs' opening round. "Right now," said LeBron James after the Heat had seized a 3-0 lead over the 76ers, "I just think our comfort level's at an all-time high."
Think of all of the crises that have been created and defused going back to last July, when the newfound Heat stars were dancing on the Miami stage before they'd played a game together. Think of the seven losses within a dozen games in November, and the five-game losing streak as recently as early March. To watch them now blithely overcoming an early deficit without ever feeling threatened is to realize how dangerous they've become.
"It's night and day," said James following the 100-94 win in Game 3 here Thursday. "I remember the first game in Boston I had seven turnovers, eight turnovers -- it might have been nine?"
The correct answer was eight turnovers that night six months ago. Now a smiling James glanced at Dwyane Wade sitting next to him, as each recognized how their group dynamic has changed. On this night Wade had recovered from a painful shoulder collision in the second half -- as well as severe migraines that limited him in Game 2 -- to produce a near-triple double of 32 points (on 19 shots) with 10 rebounds and eight assists in 40 minutes against the Sixers. James had contributed 24 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, while Chris Bosh added 19 points.
"A few of them," continued James while dwelling on the turnovers he suffered opening night at Boston, "where he was going backdoor and I was throwing the ball to the three-point line ... it just took time. Everybody thought it could work right as soon as we signed on the dotted line, that we was going to play along with one another and get Chris involved also. But it took film sessions, it took practices, it took games. It took struggle for our team ... to go 9-8 in that month of November to realize that we have to play our game and be aggressive. When we started doing that, we started playing our game and we just started going off one another and reacting to one another's play."
Remember when every movement of halfcourt offense looked difficult for Miami? When it bullied the worst opponents but couldn't finish games against the best? Over the last seven weeks they've won 18 of 21 with 11 victories against playoff teams, including the Lakers, Spurs and Celtics.
This has been a particularly good playoff matchup for Miami because the Sixers lack strong center play and prolific go-to scoring. What Elton Brand (21 points and 11 rebounds) took away from this discouraging loss was the simplicity of Miami's comeback. "We're playing in halfcourt sets, scoring, sharing the ball," he said. "But theirs were so easy -- transition, putbacks, things like that."
To Miami's credit, this series has been an exception to the enthralling trend of these playoffs -- the three-game run against Philadelphia has been the least eventful and entertaining of all the NBA's first-round events. The 76ers had hopes of creating drama of lasting impact Thursday when they burst out to a 9-0 lead that forced a Miami timeout after 2:10. The home lead was extended to 24-14, but the Heat never let the Sixers run any further away than that.
The Sixers controlled much of the play, and yet Miami was never in danger, and its fourth-quarter 8-1 run (for a lead of 90-80) was inevitable. This is the one title contender that hasn't truly been threatened.
"I look at the big picture: They shot 45 percent from the floor with 20 offensive rebounds," said Philadelphia coach Doug Collins. "That was the game. (Miami had) 24 points on offensive rebounds, 48 points in the paint ... Those three guys have 75 points out of 100 and they committed two fouls in (125) minutes."
That last bit Collins let hang in the air while he smiled at a writer. "What?" he said with a big grin. "Did I say something?"
Two things stand out about Miami's performance Thursday. First was that James and Wade have come out of their self-induced shells to attack as a duo in transition. Near the end of the half James was pushing the ball between his legs and behind his back when he stumbled and nonetheless shoveled a pass for Wade to finish. "Luckily I was able to get the ball away before I traveled," said James. "I was down on the floor looking up when he dunked it."
The other lesson is that a full season of public berating has both hardened and liberated them, thereby limiting the impact when the infamous Philly fans taunted James for attempting a three-point airball. "The whole season we've been through so much, and we've seen a bunch of different arenas at their best," said Bosh. "I think that was great training to get us ready for this playoffs. Some teams, the energy affects them, the difference in the crowd affects them and their performance changes; but for us I think that's when we're at our best."
All of this could change in a likely second-round pairing with the Celtics. Will the Heat continue to flow in transition and feed off one another's strengths? Will Miami continue to benefit from the strong bench play of center Joel Anthony and Mario Chalmers in this series?
Against the backdrop of the early struggles of the Bulls, Celtics, Lakers and Spurs, this postseason start has been everything Miami could want. Coach Erik Spoelstra didn't give a minute to Mike Miller in Game 3 and Udonis Haslem remains in street clothes, and neither one was missed. This is the kind of start that at long last defies criticism. Miami has earned this bit of success.