They shook off a slow start caused by boredom, saw LeBron James ignite a slew of "is he the greatest ever?" debates, put three players in the All-Star Game and may run the table between now and June, and what do we remember most about this Heat season so far? Maybe one of those circus alley-oops from Dwyane Wade to LeBron? Perhaps a winning streak that's now at 18 after the Pacers were thumped Sunday?
No, none of that, actually. None of those can top two moments that generated lots of buzz and plenty of replay and also triggered the kind of emotion Miami doesn't come to expect.
In the middle of a yawn-stifling win over the Pistons on Jan. 25 in Miami, a 50-year-old computer technician sank a half-court shot to win $75,000 and then managed to keep his collarbone after LeBron sprinted from a timeout huddle to tackle him.
Then last week, the Heat's Harlem Shake video dropped on YouTube and almost broke the website; the Shake is now approaching Justin Bieber territory with 40 million views and 36,000 comments.
Those are unique because lots of people -- you, me and others -- enjoyed them. They made you smile and laugh and maybe look at the Heat in a whole new light. Here in a dominant season where they have no peer in the East if not the entire NBA and are earning our full respect, is it possible Miami is finally feeling some … love, too?
That would be their greatest feat ever, by a wide margin. Not LeBron going coast-to-coast for a dunk. Not Wade snaking through four defenders for a reverse layup. Not Chris "Birdman" Andersen turning you colorblind from his 3-D tattoos. Not beating every team at least once this season. That's been done. That's now getting old and rather routine if not downright boring. OK, so the Heat punked the (insert random team name here) and LeBron went triple-double. Big whoop.
OK, so the Heat is hearing applause and appreciation and even polite cheers in visiting arenas and no longer must dodge insults that once fell like acid rain. Huh?
This can't be happening. Not so soon. Not just 20 months after redefining "hate." Not after people screamed unfair about the Big Three. Not after they got full of themselves in a welcome pep rally and bragged how many championships they were gonna win (two years later, were they being modest?). Not after all the early arrogance, both real and perceived, and how they embraced the black hat. Not after the basketball world gave them the middle finger and they shot one back.
And not after winning a championship, because winners usually inspire jealousy and animosity, not sympathy and warmth.
That was then. This is a new day, or so it appears. This is Miami, now free of drama and doing nothing on or off the court to provoke. Maybe this is the new public image of the Heat, which reflects well on Miami along with the constant winning and high quality entertainment. The more you see, the more you like about this team and what it's doing and the players who represent it. Look, you can waste time popping your neck veins at the Heat, which is very 2010-ish, or you can relax and enjoy the show. Maybe before, you didn't have a choice. Well, now you do. Now there's a lot to like about a team that's 8 ½ games ahead in the East and even -- deep, deep breath, now -- something to love.
"I think we changed perceptions after winning a championship, but it's nice to see that all that other stuff is well in the past and this season kind of proves that," said Wade. "Our goal has always been to take care of business on the court and be ourselves away from the court, be the people that you see today."
It all starts with LeBron, the guy who pushed all the code red buttons at first. He said the wrong things, acted the wrong way -- and then after hitting rock bottom in the 2011 NBA Finals did a remarkable about-face. He never asked for forgiveness, he just went about the task of earning it. He won everything in 2012 to shake the choke label, then grabbed the patriotic vote by winning the Olympics in smashing fashion, then distanced himself from his peers with a ballistic 2012-13 season so far. Along the way, LeBron matured as a person. He devoted plenty of his personal time to charity, made catchy commercials and came off a lot more humble than before. Even if he was never the devil he was made out to be (LeBron has never committed a crime, remember), his "change" seems genuine, not forced or contrived. He seems real.
When he grabbed Michael Drysch and pulled the fan to the floor after that half-court heave, that wasn't rehearsed. That was spontaneous, that was fun, that was someone who was happy for someone else. It's been a long time since the masses felt that way about LeBron. Maybe his rookie year in Cleveland, well before The Decision, while he was still innocent and fresh and a stunning revelation. Then a glacier began to form between him and the general basketball public, which reveled in his misery and pooh-poohed his success.
Well, the great meltdown is ongoing and revealing a superstar who can be embraced if you choose. The ultimate test will be next Wednesday in Cleveland, of course, but at least LeBron knows his appeal goes beyond South Florida.
The rest of the Heat is non-threatening. How can anyone get rubbed the wrong way by Wade, who placed his ego aside and allowed LeBron to blow up? Same for Chris Bosh, once a franchise player in Toronto. Here in the age of greed and me-me, three players came to Miami for less money (none are among the top 12 earners in the NBA) and play totally unselfishly and without jealousy. How can anyone hate that?
There's more to like. Shane Battier could run for office someday, he's that clean. Ray Allen is classy and professional. Erik Spoelstra, the underdog coach. Pat Riley, who stays hidden and quiet. Udonis Haslem. Mike Miller. What Heat player has been arrested for DUI, or punched the mother of his children, or trashed a South Beach nightclub or embarrassed the organization? Who's the villain here?
"We've got good guys, a good group of teammates, and that's been the case but maybe that's finally coming across to some people," said Wade.
The Harlem Shake video showed players who weren't afraid to have fun, laugh at themselves and also risk others laughing at them. That happened once before, after Miami lost the title to the Mavericks. That laughter was sinister.
"We just wanted to show another side to us and really just go out and enjoy the moment," said Wade, who produced the video. "That's part of who we are. We can be goofy and have fun and show a sense of humor. We can show how much we get along as a team."
The proof is in the numbers, which don't lie, and the No. 1 attraction in the NBA is Miami. The Heat only plays to sellouts, home and away, and drives up TV ratings. Folks want to see what LeBron does next. We also want to see where this winning streak goes, especially with a light upcoming schedule. Does it reach 20? Twenty-five? Should the 1971-72 Lakers sweat their 33-game streak?
"We know where we stand as a team," LeBron said. "We just go out and do the best we can that night. We want to play well and continue to get better."
March is supposed to belong to college basketball, and yet the commotion is being caused by an NBA team in what's typically the dead of the season. Miami is winning games and some hearts as well. The Heat have put together a monster streak and a few dozen highlight thrills and most of all, put what's left of a skeptical public in a tough spot.
It's your choice, your Decision if you will. You can throw darts or bouquets. But you'll quickly discover the darts no longer stick.