Heat check: Ooh, tied to the railroad track, like always, huh?
It's a hard world to get a break in for the Heat, which was built on the most unpopular free-agent move in NBA history, forged in the fire that rained down on them and proven in back-to-back title runs with 29 teams dreaming of mounting Miami's crowned heads on their walls.
In year four since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, the Heat finds itself limping behind the Pacers, who took them to a seventh game in Miami in last spring's East finals and are intent on playing this spring's finals in Indianapolis, with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh holding opt-outs this summer.
If 'Bron, D-Wade and Bosh, who have survived more dire scenarios than Jason Bourne, are likely to stay in Miami (at least for one more season), there's one scenario that has them failing to three-peat and seeing the whole thing blow up ... which looks a lot like this season to date.
Here's how their doomsday scenario goes:
1. The Heat is low on energy and passion after three Finals appearances in a row.
2. Wade's knee problems, which slowed him to a halt at some points last spring, continue.
3. Coach Erik Spoelstra's commitment to resting Wade takes a toll of their play.
Wade has missed 13 games, more than San Antonio's Gregg Popovich has rested his Big Three put together. Miami is 7-6 without Wade ... the difference between the Heat and Pacers with Indiana starting the weekend at .778 and Miami with Wade at .781.
From here on it's projection, but hardly unimaginable.
4. Without resting Wade for a month -- and risk conceding first place to Indiana -- there's a declining chance of getting him to the playoffs healthy.
5. Without a healthy Wade, they don't go all the way.
6. With the inevitable bad feelings, few ways to improve the team around the Big Three with the new luxury tax, and no assurance Wade will be what he was, 'Bron reconsiders his options.
At this point, we're off the map since there are no good options.
Before the season, a 'Bron insider listed two suitors as favorites if he was to leave: the Lakers with their $60 million in cap room and the young, rebuilding Cavaliers.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, they gave almost half their cap room to Kobe Bryant, losing the ability to sign two free agents such as, say, Kyle Lowry and Luol Deng, then invite James to join them.
The Cavaliers have spun out into Young Team Hell. With Kyrie Irving and the team now looking disenchanted with each other, the Lure-Bron-Home is a bubble that has popped.
That leaves approximately nothing in the way of marquee teams with maximum slots.
The 2014 free-agent class could well turn into the one in which nobody goes anywhere. 'Bron, Bosh and New York's Carmelo Anthony could opt in for another season to see if better options present themselves in 2015.
For the moment, it's a good thing the Heat has proven its poise and toughness, because it will need it all.
Last month Wade, who had been resting for a game or two, suffered some kind of (unannounced, unacknowledged) setback, leaving for four games.
Suggesting teammates' dismay, James raised eyebrows, noting that Wade's limited availability was "tough on all of us trying to fill that."
As to 'Bron's patience with Wade's program, "I'm not a doctor. I'm only a player. Man, I don't know the program he's on. I do know that his knee, if he's feeling good, he's going to play. If he's not feeling good, he doesn't play."
That made Wade's return for last Sunday's Finals replay against the Spurs an event. Coming off the bench for the first time in six years, playing below the basket, passing off at the rim, he scored eight points in their 113-101 romp (yes, the Heat can still raise its game to championship level on a moment's notice). Instead of dismissing the reserve role as a first step in his return, Wade then suggested it might be good.
"I'm not going to make a bigger deal of it (the knee injury) than it is and I'm going to act like it's nothing," Wade said.
Three days later, he started the 2012 Finals replay against Oklahoma City as the Heat, raising its game once more, jumped out to a 22-4 lead.
The Thunder then proceeded to strip bare the twice-defending champions' limits, outscoring them, 108-73, in a 112-95 romp.
"There's no running away from it. Other than the first eight minutes of the game, they totally outclassed us tonight," said Spoelstra, looking as if he had seen an armored column roll across their grave.
"We have some work to do. We're like everybody else in the league. Nobody is infallible. We have some things to improve on. We know the things we have to improve on. We're not there yet."
One thing they have to do is get healthy. If they can't, the entire league is poised to see what happens next.
(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services