Andrew Unterberger was at the Dallas-Miami game. Here’s what he thought…

As I’ve related repeatedly to just about anyone who’d listen, the roster of NBA games I took on with this trip wasn’t exactly planned for maximal awesomeness. Going to 60 games in 30 days via automobile doesn’t exactly allow for much wiggle room — I was somewhat lucky to even come up with a feasible schedule at all, let alone one in which I’d be able to cherry-pick marquee matchups to attend. So over the course of my trip, I’ve gotten stuck with a lot of lopsided contests — great teams playing mediocre teams, good teams playing downright awful teams, and so on. I knew that going in, and I was cool with it. But I knew that at the very least, towards the end of my trip, I’d be getting in two headliner games that seemed like they couldn’t be lousy if they tried–Magic-Celtics in Orlando, and Heat-Mavs in Miami.

Orlando would have to wait until Christmas, so first up was the ’06 finals rematch in Miami. On the way from Atlanta, I stopped at Downtown Disney with a friend in town to enjoy all the parts of the most (second-most?) magical place on earth that I couldn’t have when I was there 15 years earlier, and got to enjoy a good deal of that whole 75-degrees-in-December thing hanging out around South Beach. (I knew there was a reason I packed a pair of shorts for this trip.) I even got to stay in one of those crazy Art Deco hotels on the beach for one of the nights, which was nice, except they were so arrogant about their temperature supremacy that my bed only came with a single sheet for covering. C’mon, you guys are cool and all, but you’re not the tropics.

The Stadium: I got to the American Airlines Arena earlier than I’d gotten to just about any of my games so far, just because I had no idea what to expect with the crowds and traffic and whatnot. I found $5 parking about a half-mile from the arena and walked up, where I saw droves of people lining out from every one of the entrances. Not since my Lakers game at Staples had I felt such a buzz just from being outside the arena — partly handicapped by the excitement of the city itself, as well as the fact that there was enough security in attendance for a Presidential motorcade road trip, but also just the sheer number of fans in Bron and Wade jerseys, waiting for a chance to root on the would-be Evil Empire of the NBA.

Unlike Staples, though, the inside of the arena doesn’t quite live up to the hype of the outside. The seats are kind of cheap-looking and weirdly colored — the same ketchup-and-mustard look that the gaudy Cavs’ and Rockets’ color schemes reflect at their worst, except their yellow is maybe closer to a golden honey-mustard. What’s worse, which seats are colored which seems totally random, a smattering of honey-mustards scattered amidst the ketchups with little rhyme or reason. Matt Moore of CBS Sports, sitting next to me at the game, said that some of the HM seats had been changed to be less glaringly unfilled on TV when no one was sitting in them, which I guess makes sense for crowds like those Miami gets. The team’s color scheme was further questionably adapted to the stadium’s hallways, where a glaring red neon light lit the way to the taco stands and barbecue pits. The red lights probably weren’t actually heat lamps, but walking through them just made me feel hot and uncomfortable.

“Ten years, and a bunch of it still looks like it’s not done,” fan Jeff said to me about the stadium. I’d have to agree — it looks like a stadium whose fanbase has suddenly and unexpectedly significantly outgrown it, and though it has the certainly has the size and location to be Staples East, significant cosmetic adjustments are needed before it can match the glitz and glamor of LA. (The pre-game intros were cool, though — dramatically set to “In the Air Tonight,” like all respectable Miami-related sports montages should be.)

The Game: Matt warned me about the Heat’s “absolutely horrible record” against the Mavs, and indeed, I had seen the first meeting between the teams this year, where Dirk Nowitzki and company absolutely dismantled the Heat in Dallas. I figured that the 12-game winning streak the team went on after their first matchup might mean that things would be a little closer this time around, and though the Mavs got out to a hot start, up 23-10 in the first, it took only till the end of the quarter (and a couple characteristically unstoppable drives from Dwyane Wade) for the Heat to cut it down to nil. The entire game was touch-and-go between the two teams, depending on which was hitting at the time.

Oddly not hitting at all was LeBron James, who finished with zero points in the first half — something I didn’t even know was possible, and which I didn’t even realize had happened until I heard similarly incredulous fans talking about it in line at a concession stand. It wasn’t until the third that he finally started sinking some jumpers, including a buzzer-beater to end the quarter, and before long, he had 19 points and had racked up a near triple-double — such is the magic of getting to root for LeBron James, I suppose. None of the stars involved were really at the top of their game all the way through, anyway — after a red-hot first half, Dirk cooled off colder than I’d ever seen him, ending just 8-21 for the game with most of his second-half shots landing uncharacteristically short, one missing the rim entirely.

Eventually, the Mavs pulled well ahead halfway through the fourth quarter — as friend of the blog Rob Mahoney put it, Jason Terry is an evil, evil man — looking like both the Heat’s and my winning streaks were about to come to an end. But the Heat battled back one more time, and had it within three with about a half-minute to go. Wade drove to the basket and had a respectable shot at a lead-cutting two, but kicked it back out, where it eventually ended up in the hands of Chris Bosh beyond the arc. His shot looked good, but just barely rimmed out, and Dirk sank some free throws at the other end to put the game out of reach. (Though not before Dwyane Wade hit my favorite kind of anti-climactic NBA shot–the buzzer-beater three to lose by slightly less.) Final score: Mavs 98, Heat 96. Like Robert Frost once said, nothing honey-mustard can stay.

The Fans: I’d heard ever so much about the infamous late-arriving Heat fans that I was glad to get to the arena early, to witness in real time just how well the fanbase had responded to its franchise’s cries to “Fan Up!” (I did actually see the infamous plea posted on the wall when walking around the arena — it’s even more pitiful in person.) The answer: Not, uh, well. Actually, the upper deck had filled up nicely by game time, virtually far as I could see (which was not very far, more on that in a minute), but the lower deck turnout was absolutely pitiful. “It still feels like there should be 15 minutes left,” Matt told me while scanning the empty seats seconds before tip-off, though I don’t even think 15 minutes would’ve done it. “It’s Miami,” fan Lloyd told me by way of explanation. “We’re fashionably late to every game.”

The seats did fill up eventually, though, and I’ll say this for the AAA as it relates to Staples — at least the Heat crowd, once in attendance, never forced the team to earn their cheers. Maybe this will change once Heat fans have been spoiled by stellar play for as long as Lakers fans have been, but from the very first quarter, every made three, big steal or impressive layup was met with appropriately unreserved cheering, every bit the response that a game of this magnitude (by regular-season standards, anyway) deserved. And from the audience response to the entrance of Mike Miller in the second quarter, despite the fact that the’s yet to play a consequential second of ball for the Miami Heat, was like they were yelling for D-Wade collecting his MVP trophy at the end of the ’06 finals. Not bad — if only we could get this for a full 48, we might have something here.

“Fun to watch” was the term I most often heard when talking to fans about the team — unsurprising for a squad with two of the most purely electrifying players in recent NBA memory, including one who they’re just learning to love for the first time. “As good as if not better,” answered Lloyd, if I asked if LeBron had been as good as advertised. “Definitely,” agreed David Dwork of Peninsula is Mightier, who was good enough to answer some questions for me before the game. “He has done everything that’s been asked of him … regardless of where he’s positioned, he has still managed to put up very impressive numbers and provide the great D that he is known for.” But is it still Wade’s team? “Absolutely. Always will be,” answered Lloyd. “Yeah,” answered fan George, but not without Jeff, sitting next to him, amending, “Well … it is for now.”

As for championship aspirations, answers ranged from hopeful to pragmatic. “If they play to their potential, yes [they can win],” answered Lloyd. “We may still be a center short.” David was surprisingly affirmative: “The Heat can definitely win a championship this year. When they are playing at their best, the only team they will have to worry about beating them is themselves.” The Heat weren’t the only team that people were worried about beating the Heat, though. “Boston,” said George. “Ray Allen can’t miss against us.” Ultimately, though, people seemed to acknowledge the team still was growing. “Everybody in the media’s so knee-jerk about this team,” said Matt. “Now they’re good and nobody’s saying anything.” And David thought things would only go up from here: “The Heat is still a work in progress and have a ways to go before they are where they want to be. … The more this team plays together the better they will get.”

Most Popular Jersey: Split down the middle, almost alarmingly so, between James and Wade. (Couple Boshes, but luckily not too many.) If I had to say one had more, I’d probably say Wade, but that might just be sentimentality. As for the retros, no clear standout, but I liked a pair of young’ns I saw standing in line at a concession both wearing Jason Williams #55s. It’s still crazy some of the random-ass dudes that won a championship on that ’06 team.

Also Worth Noting: A few games after having just about the best seat in the house for my game in Memphis, I had quite literally the worst seat in the house for my Miami sojourn. Seat #48 of 48 in the upper press box — and when they say upper, they mean motherfucking upper, in the 500 Level high above the nosebleeds (“Did you bring your binoculars?” the smart-ass Heat staffer on the elevator asked me.) My seat was all the way in the corner of the row, so I had to lean over the ledge a little bit just to see the full court, and whenever I got up to do anything, I hit my head on the TV hanging above me showing the game’s box score. Nice as it would have been to have courtsides or something, I suppose it was a necessary character-building experience — and it still beats Staples, where I was politely informed that the Lakers “do not credential bloggers.” Fair enough.

Celebrities in Attendance: A handful of local favorites — Gloria Estefan, Jimmy Buffett, and Dan Marino among them (the latter of which still has his jersey hanging from the Triple A rafters for reasons only slightly more explicable than Michael Jordan’s Bulls #23 jersey doing the same). Most interesting, though, was the appearance of one Dave Chappelle, who is in fact alive and well and apparently residing (for the night anyway) on South Beach. Insert your favorite “Game, blouses”-related pun here, I suppose.

Swag Acquired: Forget your Bron and Wade jerseys — I was headed to the team’s discount stand, where ex-Heaters and dudes still on the team that no one cares enough to rep now that the team has actual NBA players have their unis available for very reasonable prices. Tempting as it was to go with an old Daequan Cook or Chris Quinn throwback (I have a perverse affection for that 15-win Heat team), I had to stand up for my boy Beasley, whose #30 was available in black for $10. Couldn’t be more excited to wear it while smoking up in my next hotel room.

2010 Jam of the Day:

Nada Surf – “Enjoy the Silence.” Doubted it was possible to cover this song without sounding too faithful or not faithful enough, but the ex-jocks of Nada Surf somehow pulled off the high-wire act. Impressive stuff.

Couple days off before my first nationally-televised game in Orlando. Happy holidays, everyone.