December 28, 2014

Beat The Heat!

Nine days ago, on a Friday night in south Florida, the Washington Wizards won their 19th game of the 2014-2015 NBA season by beating the home Miami Heat 105-103. 14 years ago, my first as a season ticket holder, the Wizards won 19 games all season. ALL SEASON!!! And no, it was not a strike or lockout shortened season; it was a full 82 games. In some ways, it's amazing I came back for more. The fact that the current Wizards won 19 before Christmas is in many ways a microcosm of how this franchise has grown over the past decade and a half. I think this team is without question the best the Wizards have fielded since I've been a die hard fan. The 19 win fiasco that was that first season was repeated by the way in 2008-2009. Not good.

About seven years ago, I started traveling to see the Wizards play on the road. It started in Minnesota in 2007 and continued as much on as off each year until last season, when I ramped my road trips up to two games, one in Philadelphia and one in Milwaukee. This year, I decided to travel to two away contests again. The game in Miami a week and a half ago was the second of my two trips this year.

Road games fill me with a certain amount of dread. There's something brash and cocky about walking into another team's building wearing the visitor's colors and applauding every good Wizards play and booing the home team. Other fans do it in our building in Washington and I hate it. And the absolutely last thing I want to have happen to me on vacation is to be mocked for being a Wizards fan after a loss to the home team. 

I assume most people around us at Verizon Center wearing Heat / Cavaliers / Thunder / take your pick of team shirts and jerseys are fair weather fans and I have to assume some road game fans view me the same way, although admittedly Washington Wizards fans or "fans" are still somewhat rare and I'm hoping the autographed Martell Webster jersey pegs me as a bit more than a bandwagonner. It's difficult to find Webster jerseys in Verizon Center; in fact, I don't believe I've ever seen another unless Martell is wearing it on court.

If you had told me before that Friday's game that Nenê and John Wall would tie for our leading scorers with 20 each; that Wall would tally 10 assists; that we would out rebound and shoot 14 more free throws than the Heat; and that both Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts would miss the game, I would have relaxed significantly before tip off. On the other hand, if you told me that we would shoot 3-14 from three point range; give up 53.3% shooting and 103 points to the Heat; and that Rasual Butler would shoot only a single shot from downtown, I'd be really worried about showing up for the game at all.

The Wizards actually got off to a good start in Miami, unlike the following two games against Phoenix (loss) and Chicago (loss). While the first quarter was tight at 29-25, I felt that the Wizards would play their traditional ramping-up-the-defensive-pressure-as-the-game-goes-on game plan and we'd end up cruising to a victory. It certainly seemed that I was right when we jumped out to a good start in the second quarter, extending our lead  a couple of minutes into the second half before a Heat timeout.

And that's just when the Wizards relaxed and let the home team start to dictate the pace, like we allowed the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic to do earlier this month. We got lucky against the Magic on a buzzer beater game winning alley oop pass from Andre Miller to Bradley Beal and managed to emerge with a one point double overtime win against the C's in Verizon Center after falling behind by seven in each extra period, but the sloppiness got us in the game in Boston and goes down as our only terrible loss so far.

From our corner seats near the top of the upper bowl at American Airlines Arena we could see perfectly the lack of defense being played in the lane as drive after drive from the Heat resulted in easy layups. On the other end, we could see equally perfectly the Wizards offense stick on the perimeter and the absolute refusal of most of our players to enter the wide open paint area possession after possession. With less than one quarter to go, the Wizards were still kicking, down only five, but showing little desire to win the game over a clearly crippled opponent.

Ultimately, our guys did manage to pull out the game behind a series of good plays from the largely absent for the first 46 minutes of the game Bradley Beal. Brad managed to hit four free throws in the last couple of minutes and his steal from Dwayne Wade sealed the deal, even if Wade did manage to hit a buzzer beating three as the final horn sounded. Too bad for the Heat that he needed four points, not three. Make no mistake, the Wizards won this game not because they played better than the Heat but because they have more talent. That's a strange sentence for me to write but it's true.

The Miami game was followed by two consecutive losses by the Wizards where they allowed easy lane penetration and focused on a perimeter shooting offense. Maybe they figured out what they were doing wrong after the Chicago game because the last two games against New York on Christmas Day and the Celtics two days later looked far more polished. Or maybe it's just that the Knicks and Boston are just terrible teams. We'll see how we fare this week in Texas before making any judgements I think.

One of the things I love most about traveling to away games is laying eyes on another arena. Most folks would likely argue that the amount of individuality in arenas where the sport is played on a standard sized court or rink or field is limited, unlike baseball stadiums where the dimensions of the playing field can vary from park to park. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with the argument that baseball offers the arena designer a ton more flexibility but I know from visiting a dozen or so NBA arenas that there is enough variation between buildings to make each new visit a voyage of discovery.

I've offered the opinion in past posts on this blog that of all the arenas I've visited in the last seven plus years that Verizon Center in D.C. is one of the more space limited arenas. Squashing a building suitable for playing basketball and hockey into Washington's city grid has left the Wizards a building with tight concourse spaces with little room for expansive lobbies like Banker's Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis or the types of historical displays about the team's history like they have at the Amway Center in Orlando.

The AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami definitely does not have the type of urban constraints we have in Washington. In fact, the building is probably the most gorgeously sited building in the NBA, right on the water facing the harbor where all the cruise ships are loaded up with passengers eager to spend a week or more packed into a mobile building which allows them to get away from home but not really see anything of the world. The siting of the building and the tropical climate allowed AAA's architects to effectively expand the lower concourse of the building to a plaza facing the water on the back side of the arena. I imagine it must be great to spend halftime outside with a drink during a late spring game.

On the city side of the arena, the front facade of the building is approached on foot up a huge staircase, which gives the building even more prominence relative to the street. The steps are a necessity here. There's no way the court could be located below grade in Florida, where the water table is a few feet or maybe even less below the surface of the ground. In the case of the AmericanAirlines Arena, the court is raised over the parking garage which makes the entrance to the arena that much more spectacular. 

Inside the walls of the arena, the place is less impressive than it is on the outside. The concourses are really wide in spots which allows a dizzying array of food vendors serving the 100 level of the building. There's no question the availability of different kinds of cuisine kills the selection at Verizon Center. There are Asian, barbeque, Latin (makes total sense), burgers, chicken and frozen yogurt and ice cream food options to choose from in addition to more standard Papa John's and popcorn vendors. The arena also reflects the city of Miami being a more liquor based town than Washington's beer based sports going fans. There are huge Grey Goose and Bacardi bars on either side of the arena in addition to several smaller Bacardi bars around the remainder of the building.

The only other comment I have on the AmericanAirlines Arena is that it exists solely for the Heat as a permanent tenant. The NHL's Florida Panthers play in Sunrise, Florida, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale about 35 miles north downtown Miami. As such the Heat can afford to deck the building out in red, yellow and orange and have a sort of flame design laid out in the seating areas, which is unfortunately all too visible during the games when the apathetic Heat fans show up late or not at all for a mid-December game against a division opponent that nobody in south Florida cares about.

I will say I was relatively impressed by the amount of passion displayed by the Heat fans. There were clearly a lot of fans in Heat apparel and I think I only saw one LeBron James jersey in my roamings around the building (just get a new jersey, dude). I also got booed by two of the arena staff for wearing Wizards colors and got sarcastically welcomed to the arena by a third staff member. During the game, the fans seemed to be making a lot of noise during critical parts of the game, although admittedly, it was difficult to tell over the piped in noise from the arena's sound system. I've never heard a building so loud after a relatively meaningless mid game jumper like Shawne Williams' two point basket in the second quarter.

I'm glad I made the trip down to Miami, especially after the blowout loss I attended earlier this season in Toronto. That's one more arena checked off my list and a lot more to go. Hey, maybe it would be a good idea to write about that in this blog. Maybe very soon.

Heat fans headed for the exits with a  little time left on the clock. Pretty satisfying after a poor game.

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