For about four months, the Miami Heat had no idea what it was. A legitimate NBA championship contender? A mismatched collection of individual talents? An aging team with a rapidly closing window? All of the above?
The team Pat Riley built to beat Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals and possibly win an NBA title looked as if it was going to make the playoffs by default, with the overwhelming talent of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal allowing it to easily win a weak division, but with chemistry issues and health concerns limiting it to being an also-ran in a race with the Pistons.
Those questions still haven't been definitively answered as the Heat prepares to face the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but the insecurity of Miami's lackluster start has been replaced by the bravado of a recent Heat streak. After Miami defeated the New York Knicks on Sunday for its 15th win in 16 games and clinched a playoff berth, reserve forward Antoine Walker spoke of the far-fetched possibility of catching Detroit for the best record in the East.
"They'd be hard to catch right now," Walker said of the Pistons, who have an eight-game lead for the top seed in the East with 16 games remaining. "We're hoping for them to break down and go into some type of losing streak."
It is inconceivable, but also indicative of the confidence that now exists in Miami. Over the past 24 games, the Heat (45-22) has had the best record in the NBA at 20-4. In a similar span, the Pistons are 16-8.
But even with the Heat's recent run, it's difficult to bet against the Pistons should the teams meet again for a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference finals.
"Obviously, Detroit has played better than anybody all year," said Knicks Coach Larry Brown, who guided the Pistons to victory in seven games against Miami last season. "They got phenomenal players, both teams. And they're both exceptionally well coached and they've got guys that have been there before. It will be a phenomenal matchup."
Since stepping in for Stan Van Gundy as coach in December, Riley often has been critical of his team's lack of intensity, especially on defense. But he has softened his stance in recent weeks.
When asked if he felt the Heat could compete with the Pistons if they meet in the conference finals, Riley said after beating the Knicks last Sunday: "Absolutely. First of all, we're a very resilient team. I think we've got a lot of talent, a lot of depth, and we have veterans that know what to do."
Riley, though, wasn't ready to anoint the Heat among the league's elite just yet. After all, Miami is just 2-9 against the five other division leaders — San Antonio, Denver, Phoenix, Detroit and New Jersey — and its record against teams with records of .500 or better is just 16-16.
"I still think there's two teams that are legitimately ahead of us because they've won championships, and that's San Antonio and Detroit," he said.
The last time the Heat faced the Pistons, on Feb. 12, Miami was struggling with confidence after a 36-point drubbing in Dallas. For the Heat to catch fire, it had to find its rhythm, which began when Riley, who turned 61 on Monday, shook his hips to a Doobie Brothers song in the locker room before the game. Then Wade tap-danced all over the Pistons, scoring 17 consecutive points in the fourth quarter to propel the Heat to a 100-98 comeback victory.
"Confidence is big, not only in basketball but in life," Wade said, "and to know that we can come back against a team like that after getting beat pretty badly versus Dallas, it really helped our confidence and we've been rolling ever since."
The Heat finally is beginning to resemble the team many expected it to be — before O'Neal missed 18 games with an injured ankle and Van Gundy stepped down. Wade, the one constant for the Heat this season and possibly the league's most complete all-around player, has made a late charge for the most valuable player award.
O'Neal has rounded into form to become Wade's trusty sidekick. And a revitalized Alonzo Mourning, point guards Jason Williams and Gary Payton, and forwards James Posey, Udonis Haslem and Walker are fitting into their roles to offer solid and consistent contributions.
"We're getting there," Wade said. Miami will see how far it truly has come at Detroit tonight. (They have split the first two games and will meet one more time, in Miami on April 6.)
The Heat has collected easy wins mostly against the league's dregs. Since beating Detroit, the Heat has played only two teams with winning records (Washington and Cleveland); its only loss was at home against plummeting Golden State; and it had to sweat out ugly, close wins against Atlanta, Charlotte and Chicago. But Walker believes the Heat are ready for the next level.
"It was matter of time before guys bought into the system," he said. "It's about getting chemistry, winning games, and we've been able to do that. A lot of teams jumped out the gate and now look at them. It's a marathon."