When the Miami Heat came to town in early April, they were not the two-time defending NBA champions as much as they were the next obstacle between the Grizzlies and their desired destination: The Western Conference playoffs.
So when the Grizzlies defeated LeBron James & Co., it wasn’t about King James and his court. But now that the Grizzlies are safely in the postseason and the Heat have been reduced to the No. 2 seed in the East behind Indiana, a closer look at the Heat shows they have more in common with the Grizzlies than one might imagine.
Think of it this way: Has this Grizzlies’ season gone the way anyone envisioned? No, nobody anticipated the injuries and the crazy lineup combinations. The Heat can say the same thing. In fact, as the regular season was winding down and home-court advantage was still to be settled, James and Chris Bosh sat out a game at Washington – non-San Antonio Spurs need their rest too – and the Wizards won to hand the top seed to the Pacers.
Of course, you could see this coming five days earlier in Memphis.
“We want to get healthy,” James said after the Grizzlies beat the Heat, dismissing the importance of the top seed. “That’s all we care about, going into the postseason healthy.”
Had the Grizzlies ever had the luxury of resting Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, they probably would have done so. But that was never their reality this season.
Like the Heat in pursuit of their third consecutive NBA title and fourth straight trip to the Finals, the Grizzlies, while in pursuit of their fourth straight playoff appearance, discovered the past meant little. New coach, some new players, different injuries, new challenges, same ultimate objective: find a way to go where you want to go.
Former Grizzly Shane Battier, who won an NCAA championship with Duke and has two rings with Miami, is well versed on the championship conversation. And by the way, let’s take a moment to address that phrase “defending champions.”
Although the phrase is even in the first sentence of this column, it is really a misleading description, a way of using the past to frame the present while embracing an expectation for the future.
It’s extra baggage, if you let it be.
“It’s a convenient label, I guess,” Battier said. “It doesn’t mean much to us. You can’t un-win a championship and just because you won a championship last year doesn’t guarantee anything in the future.”
Funny, but Mike Miller – he of two championships with the Heat and on his second go-round with Memphis – said the same thing about the Grizzlies this season. In other words, it’s nice they reached the Western Conference Finals last year, but it doesn’t guarantee anything this season.
No doubt, the Grizzlies learned that sooner rather later. They were, after all, 10-15 before Christmas. Ultimately, the Grizzlies found their way. At least if you believe the main part of their story became about reaching the playoffs and not how far they go in the playoffs.
For the Heat, however, there can be no happy ending short of a third straight title. That’s the bar they’ve set, even if this team looks to be less qualified to get over it than the last two. Several players have been slowed by injuries, most notably Dwyane Wade.
“There is some sense of worry,” James said in Memphis. “All of our season, we haven’t played too many minutes together.”
But then they were never guaranteed that they would, were they?
“Every year’s different,” Battier said. “It’s always different. Just like our first championship was very different from our second championship.”
And if there’s to be a third?
“As long as you know that it’s not gonna be the same path as you took last time, you can get enjoyment out of the new challenge,” Battier said. “We’re going through a whole myriad of challenges now that we didn’t face the last two years.
“But it will either forge us or destroy us. Hopefully, it will forge us.”
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.