When the laser shows were done and the confetti had been swept away in the summer of 2010, we started asking ourselves, just how good could this Miami Heat team be? Would they challenge immortality? Would they choke under the pressure? How would anybody stop them?
Initially, it was a complete circus. Well, it's been a complete circus every step of the way, but in the beginning it was truly insanity incarnate. They struggled out of the gates and people pounced. With every loss, the Internet was doused in gasoline as people started flicking matches at the situation. LeBron James was never going to be good enough to lead the team. Chris Bosh wasn't a real big man. Dwyane Wade had sold out in a way. Erik Spoelstra wasn't capable of handling the egos.
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Aside from LeBron's alleged lack of ability in crunch time, the biggest problem with the new Miami Heat was their lack of size. They weren't supposed to be able to handle the bigger teams around the league. You were supposed to destroy them on the boards. And yet, the team sported the fifth-best defense in the league and the fourth-best defensive rebounding percentage.
When they lost in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, their six games were marred with mistakes. Some of them were forced by the brilliantly deceptive Mavericks defense and some of them were forced by whatever was keeping Miami from taking care of the basketball. But mistakes were a big part of the Heat team that was trying to figure out how to trust each other, when to play as individuals, when to play as a team, and how to build the necessary chemistry to become a title winner.
All of the learning they had to do became trial-and-error, and the errors were usually turnovers. This incarnation of the Heat has always been able to score and defend. They've been one of the top shooting teams and their ability to turn a long rebound, a turnover, or even sometimes a made basket into a quick highlight the other way was always obvious. But if you look at the biggest difference between the team that left doubts after their first Finals appearance together in 2011 and the current construct that has won 27 straight games heading into Wednesday night's showdown with the Bulls, it's that the Heat simply don't beat themselves anymore.
After their 27th straight win, I wrote that, "With LeBron James leading the way, the Heat seem infallible even as they're making mistakes." The mistakes now tend to be a listless defensive effort for a few minutes, or poor rotations leading to rebounding issues for a few possessions in a row. It's rarely Miami giving the opposition the basketball.
The 2010-11 Heat had the 17th-best team turnover rate in the NBA at 14.9 percent. The 2012-13 team has the fifth-best team turnover rate in the NBA at 14.5 percent. While the percentage itself has hardly changed, the league's ability to avoid giving the ball away has trended downward while the Heat have improved their control in a hopefully chaotic world.
I say the world is "hopefully chaotic" because that's really what this Miami Heat team wants it to be. That's what they create on the floor. They create doubt in their opponents, even when things are going the way of the upset. When doubt is created, panic typically sets in, if even for a moment or two. And when teams panic against the Miami Heat, the poise of guys like LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Udonis Haslem shines through to the court.
If you can stand in the middle of chaos and not blink an eye, then the world isn't chaotic to you. It is just reality. And that's the difference between the Heat we saw two years ago and the Heat we see historically surging right now. Whether or not the streak ends at 27, 28, 30, 33, 37, or whatever the number may be, the Heat have been through so much that it's hard to believe they'll be rattled by any of it.
They can be outplayed. They can be outschemed. They can be beaten. But they can't be tricked into beating themselves anymore. The understanding of what it takes is too clear now. There isn't any scrutiny they can endure from this point forward that they didn't face tenfold in their first year together. They've exorcised their own demons, in whatever form they presented themselves at the beginning of this venture together, and now it's simply about playing basketball.
And this team is really freaking good at basketball. It has the top offense in the NBA and the highest effective field goal and true shooting percentages in the league. The Heat force the third-highest percentage of turnovers. They swarm the perimeter on defense and swing the ball around the perimeter and into the paint on offense. Their coach is prepared, and he's turned the stars and role players into a bonded unit of destruction.
It's not that the Heat is unbeatable (although the past 27 games say otherwise); they're just no longer beating themselves. I don't know if the Heat have always controlled their own destiny since they brought all that talent together or if they learned how to control their own destiny by getting through the tribulations that come with trying to figure out how to be champions in the NBA.
But they seem to control it now.