- Tom Haberstroh
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Watching Tuesday night's first quarter between the Heat and the Pacers was a revelation. That's the Miami team that we all envisioned when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces this summer.
Over the course of those 12 minutes, the Big Three showcased their vast array of talents on the Conseco Fieldhouse floor as if we had asked them to show us what their wing at a basketball museum would look like.
James curled off a high pick-and-roll with his longtime co-pilot, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and sliced through the lane. Then, he channeled his inner Julius Erving by pulling off a silky one-handed up-and-under scoop over a helpless Josh McRoberts. Spearheading a fast break, the 6-foot-11 Bosh used a behind-the-back dribble to blow by a defender on his way to a finger roll at the rim -- and did it again a few possessions later, just for kicks. Meanwhile, Wade posted up Paul George on the left baseline, rocked left, rocked right, turned and fired off a fadeaway jumper that seemed to skim the arena ceiling before splashing through the net -- just two of his 22 points in the quarter.
To top it all off, Wade retrieved a Pacers missed shot under Indiana's basket, pivoted to the open court and threw a 90-foot bullet, alley-oop pass to a streaking James, who somehow collected the ball -- and himself -- in midair to lay it in.
There were sky-high floaters, whirlwind and-1s and bench-clearing celebrations. After the smoke cleared, the Heat were winning, 41-19. Everything we were promised finally came to fruition.
As an onlooker, what followed felt like being woken up from a dream, only to find out that what you thought was real was, in fact, too good to be true. The Heat crashed down to Earth and let the inferior Pacers back in the game. Yes, the Heat eventually won, but the feeling of disappointment was impossible to ignore.
Considering how the Heat stumbled out of the gate, the sense of disappointment is nothing new. As we head into the All-Star break, the Heat stand at 41-15. Despite having more wins than any East team, Miami's record at the break has fallen short of expectations.
There's no denying that the Heat have shown greatness this season. Although they can't match the Spurs' pace in the win column, Miami boasts the largest point differential in the NBA. The team has won games by 20 or more points on 10 separate occasions this season; no other team has more than eight such victories. The team also reeled off 21 wins in 22 games over a month-and-a-half stretch, shattering franchise records along the way.
Additionally, the Heat have shaken several monkeys off their backs. On Christmas Day, they took down the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers on their home floor and walked away with a 16-point victory. Despite having a fatally soft interior, the Heat have beaten both Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire's teams twice this season.
The Heat have experienced adversity, as well. On Nov. 20, they lost their leading rebounder and soul of the team, Udonis Haslem, potentially for the rest of the season to a foot injury. Mike Miller, the organization's fourth-highest-paid player, missed the team's first 29 games after a preseason thumb injury required surgery and missed Wednesday night's game with a head injury. Not only that, but James has missed two games while Bosh and Wade have each been tabled for four games because of injury. All in all, the Heat watched their five highest-paid players sit out a combined 83 contests, or one more than a full season's worth of games, because of injury.
For such a top-heavy team, injuries to the Big Three have been especially devastating to the club. The Heat have lost five of eight games in which at least one of the trio's members sat out, getting outscored by a total of 12 points by their opponents in those short-handed games.
There is a silver lining here. The Heat are 37-10 when the Big Three start, a win percentage that translates to a 65-win season. But that's not at all. Since the players-only meeting in Dallas that served as the team's watershed moment, the Heat are 29-3 with the Big Three intact, trampling opponents by an average of 11 points per game.
Now this might seem like an exercise in arbitrary endpoint gymnastics, but the evidence is overwhelmingly clear: After a rocky start, the Heat have been nothing short of outstanding when the Big Three are healthy.
Since the players-only meeting in Dallas that served as the team's watershed moment, the Heat are 29-3 with the Big Three intact, trampling opponents by an average of 11 points per game.
If the Heat feel like they've been living in the trainer's room this season, they have company. The other contenders can pull out the injury card, too. In a bizarre twist, the San Antonio Spurs are the lone exception this season. The Boston Celtics have been without Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett for 20 games and are 26-7 with their Big Four intact. The Chicago Bulls have only enjoyed a whopping nine games with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah anchoring the frontcourt. And the Lakers missed Andrew Bynum for 25 games.
The injury excuse only goes so far. Nonetheless, the Heat have tantalized our basketball senses, showing flickers of near perfection while mixing in some moments of fizzle. But the team's record of 41-15 understates how this team has performed over the past two-and-a-half months when healthy. With the experimental phase in the rear-view mirror, the Big Three are quickly closing the gap between expectation and reality.
The Heat, who look unstoppable at times, are still looking for consistency.