WASHINGTON – With a compacted end to the season, the arrival of the playoffs has felt a little rushed.
Not to LeBron James. To him, these playoffs have been a long wait.
“I’ve been ready for this moment,” James said Thursday, “for a while now.”
James and the rest of the Heat showed no interest in the final game of the regular season Thursday night, losing to the Washington Wizards 104-70. They were more interested in the out-of-town scoreboard, which eventually settled that they’ll begin the postseason against the New York Knicks on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
The Heat, and James especially, are in a position that no other team faces. If they do not win the championship, they are a failure. For every other team, just reaching the Finals would signify advancement. Even for the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, who retrofitted their team after winning it all.
For the Heat, if they go 0-for-2 with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, there is nowhere to hide. They are on the clock, and with the postseason here, that reality is loud.
“We’re built to win a championship,” James said. “I’ve been preparing from that moment on to get back to this point in the postseason, so I’m looking forward to it.”
James has told plenty of stories of how the Heat’s loss in the Finals affected him. There was the two weeks of sitting in his room, not talking to anyone. There was his refusal to take phone calls offering encouragement. He didn’t even shave.
Then there was the work. His long bike rides down the Cuyahoga River Valley near his home in Ohio. The grueling sessions with his trainers in the pool. The two-a-day workouts with Kevin Durant that they dubbed “hell week.”
All of it with the thoughts of another chance in mind, a chance that starts this weekend.
“This is the biggest stage, it’s a second season,” James said. “For myself, this is a big part of my season, the best part of my season, so there’s going to be pressure, pressure moments, and you just got to believe in your ability and believe in your teammates and believe in the system, and then you live with it.”
It starts with the Knicks, a team the Heat have been eyeing for several weeks now. Miami was 3-0 against the Knicks this season. That includes an eight-point win on April 15 in New York that signified one of the most complete victories in the second half of the season.
There are intriguing matchups, most especially James on Carmelo Anthony. It will be the first time the two 2003 draft stars have matched up in the postseason. They will likely guard each other much of the time, adding an extra layer of interest.
There’s the question of how the Heat will deal with Knicks big man Tyson Chandler, the basket protector who played a huge role in the Mavericks’ victory over Miami in last year’s Finals.
There’s the showdown of the Knicks' streaky 3-point shooters, Steve Novak and J.R. Smith, against the Heat’s famously suspect 3-point defense.
Above and beyond the X's and O's, though, is this: the Heat versus expectations. That is what the Heat will fight. For the second consecutive season, Miami began the campaign as the favorite to win the title. This is not a new concept and not one the Heat deny.
“There’s only one champion; it’s a failure for every other team.” Wade said. “If we don’t win a championship, you had a failed year. No moral victories. You have to win the championship.”