For those who like to see patterns, the pattern is clear for the Heat: they don’t have the mental fortifications to win a championship. Right after blowing a twenty-three point lead to the Magic, they go on and get brutalized by the Spurs; to make matters worse, the Magic had just gotten beat soundly by the Bulls. The logic of transitivity does not make the Heat look very good.
Except there’s something about expectation that ends up distorting perception. Like the Bulls: people will praise the win over the Magic, and justly so—despite a good game from Dwight Howard (who neutralizes Carlos Boozer whenever they play—Boozer can’t finish against big big men)—the Bulls just shut everyone else down and beat the Magic with all of the aesthetic quality of a boot to the face. But that hides a similar failing as the Heat: they’d just come off blowing a double-digit lead of their own to the Hawks on Wednesday, and lost to the Raptors the Wednesday before giving up 118 points, a truly loose defensive performance. Perhaps not quite as embarrassing as the Heat, true, but something that hysterical scrutiny could have turned into much worse. (It’s also worth repeating here: there’s one element separating the Bulls from true contention, and that’s a sweet-shooting, good-defending shooting guard. Someone….like J.J. Redick, whose intelligence is increasingly wasted on the Magic, who have something going wrong but it’s hard to tell what. I look at the roster and it should be working better than it is.)
So who knows what the Heat will become; we do know that the hype was too much, at least for the moment. Instead of becoming a transcendental unit with contempt for all traditions, they’re the most stolid operation in the league: boring defense mixed with boring half-court offense, with occasional sparkle in transition. (Even some of the transition sparkle is dissatisfying, aesthetically speaking: you’ll see players just kind of lazily throw it in a vaguely threatening area, and then—woosh—like a movie monster Wade/James is there to sink the dagger.)
Therefore your plaudits should be reserved for the Spurs, the outfit that, incredibly, does not appear to be trying to win as often and as well as they do. Duncan only played 27 minutes, and, as he usually does now, played with an intelligent half-speed and low hops: he just sort of glided under a LeBron James block attempt for a lay in that was seriously fun. Duncan doesn’t play fast and he doesn’t play for long minutes these days—he’s averaging a stately 28.8 minutes per game—although you sense that, were the Spurs truly yet bizarrely motivated, he could go out and play 40, if he so chose. In fact, no one is really playing big minutes for the Spurs (Tony Parker leads by playing 32 a game), which should be a frightening sign for the rest of the league: the Spurs are conquering their opposition while allowing their stars to set a stately pace through the season. It’s a great combination, one that’s allowed the Spurs to play a fun brand of basketball with quite a bit of ball movement, drives, and shooting—and one that, presumably, will continue into the Playoffs and lead to the Spurs being favored to capture their fifth NBA championship.