You’re Either Lions Or Lambs

If we’re rolling on the overdramatic-mythology-as-portrayed-in-movies kick, and I always am, the Miami Heat tonight were definitely rolling as something from the historic epic movies. Somewhere between 300 and Troy. I was reminded of the line from Troy, where a very Dwyane-Wade-like Achilles’ says, “We are lions!”

Wade is very Achillian this year. Blessed by the Gods. Fearsome. Outnumbered. And fierce. He’s no longer the good hearted youngster. He’s got vengeance in his heart, and its expressed in every ferocious jam and breakneck steal.

Wade has taken this ragtag team, filled with rookies (Beasley and Chalmers), fringe players (Joel Anthony, DeQuan Cook), and veterans considered past their prime (Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem) and have turned them into a cohesive unit. That they were overwhelmed tonight was not about a fundamental flaw, alack of resolve, or a weakness borne from their chemistry. They were simply overrun by numbers. They had to hit a cold streak, and they did so at the worst time, just as the Cavs switched to the perimeter game, on a night where LeBron’s less than impressive perimeter game was in sync. James may have put more digits in the points column, but  his game was largely pedestrian tonight. A series of free throws and perimeter bombs that fell, even though you didn’t anticipate them doing so.

Wade on the other hand, was a leader of men, and a force of nature all at once. No one goes from 0 to 100 on the steal as fast as Wade. Not Ellis, not Barbosa, no one. Because he’s got a velocity that threatens the sound barrier. And versus those smaller guards, who’s finishes are like the vapor trail left from afterburners, Wade’s is the sonic boom, a high speed violent performance art. It’s killing the rim with velocity. A drive-by dunking. His turnovers are his heel, rendering him vulnerable to the perimeter trap. Wade’s passing was just as spectacular, using his quickness, touch, and a fantastic ability to create, and make, the hard pass when the defense shifts to him. There were long stretches tonight when there was simply nothing you could do. The symphony of his athleticism, creativity, his natural basketball instincts, and his veteran ability to operate within the context of the offense (something LeBron intrinsically lacks due to his identity) make it so difficult to stop him, you’re rendered in an impossible state of frustration.

Take my favorite play of the night (second play in the clip below):

He curls off the screen to receive the ball, and measures. West plays him right. Cut off his right, prevents the lane penetration and the pull-up 15 footer. Force him baseline. But with O’Neal, versus two weeks ago, he has an option to use in the post. He dumps it low, and when Wade flushes to the baseline, West has to double check to make sure he didn’t just get his ankles broken and Wade isn’t going to the strong side. Wade uses O’Neal as an on the ball screener, and it’s made worse by the fact that O’Neal is being guarded by Varejao, who’s unaware of the concept of moving if he’s not falling backwards as if shot (or as Paroxi-Wife brilliantly put it, “Varejao always looks like he’s shot.” *Replay of Varejao flopping* “Pow! Duck Hunt!”) So when Wade screams by him, getting the ball on a quick toss from O’Neal, Varejao might as well have been directing him in with flares. By the time Varejao reacts, Wade is underneath the basket, where his athleticism kicks in and he skyrockets straight up like a missile and explodes backwards. It’s somewhere between basketball noir violence and art.

Later, Pavlovic does an even better job on him. He forces him deep into the corner, and this time Z cuts off the baseline. The angles are off, and Wade knows he can’t force a pass (something he’ll eventually forget to evaluate late in the game). So Wade calmly jab steps backwards and nails a leaning, fading, 17 foot jumper as if he’s blowing out candles on a cake.

I’ve long held that this team is the one you don’t want to see in the playoffs, and tonight was a reminder. They have a great shot at the 4 seed, and as long as Atlanta doesn’t go anywhere and the Cavs maintain pace, we’re looking at a very likely Wade vs. LeBron matchup in the semifinals. Which would honestly be the best thing all year. These two go at one another in a very unique way. Maybe they’re courting one another. Maybe they like putting on a show. But there’s something that happens when these two step on the floor, the same thing that’s been missing between LeBron and Kobe. They’re friends, contemporaries, paired icons of a generation, and the idea of them battling back and forth, LeBron with Delonte at his side, Wade with Beasley, is almost too good of an idea to be true.

I’ve cooled on LeBron. He’s still murdering people, like tonight, with a more savvy approach, free throws and perimeter shots, a parting, nail-in-the-coffin dunk as if it to tease what he’s capable of. But his refusal to find synergy within his game, to focus on the post moves, to understand the inconvertible force of his penetration moves and how they render the defense powerless, has driven me to frustration. So much of his game has become folly. Too many steps in transition,too many adjustments on drive and kicks, too much incomplete force mixed with indulgence. He’s still a force of nature, and I have every hope that in the playoffs, he’ll unleash hell upon the man-help and take over like only he is capable. But for right now, he’s too reliant on calls, too indulgent of his jumper, and too swarthy without resolve.

Kobe’s a more reasonable choice, but let’s say for the sake of argument you neutralize him with the talent he’s surrounded by, the classic gunnery of his finer performances, his award last season, whatever you choose.

That brings us to Wade. He won’t clear 50 wins. But he’s brought this team from the ashes, answered his critics, has them in line for the playoffs, some quality wins, and his numbers are off the charts. Points, rebounds, assists, steals, and even blocks. He’s done more with less, and he’s doing it by setting crowds on fire and leading a young team.

I’m starting to believe Dwyane Wade may really be the 2008-2009 MVP.

Again, it says a lot for the Cavs’ playoff chances that they’re able to absorb the firepower they did tonight, buckle down, reverese momentum, and take the win. And West’s return makes this a wholly different, more volatile, more explosive team. But if we’re lucky, we’ll get to see these two go at it for seven games. It’s not just good drama, it has teh capacity, to be the kind of series no one forgets, even as Conference Finals fade into memory.

And in the playoffs, you’re either lions or lambs.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.