MILWAUKEE -- They say the afterparty is always the one you want to be invited to. Late Monday night it was the show after the show that revealed everything about where the Miami Heat are in their closely watched journey.
Who knows where their 88-78 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Heat's fifth win in a row, will ultimately rank in importance over the course of the very long season. It was a solid win over a scrappy Bucks team that could've given Miami plenty of problems despite an underwhelming 7-13 record.
At the start of a difficult stretch of schedule -- nine of the Heat's next 13 games are on the road with the Utah Jazz up next on Wednesday night -- it was the kind of win that lays a foundation for a team.
Push that to the back for a moment. After it was all over, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joked with each other, demonstrating the considerable progress the Heat seem to be making. The three leaders -- they're not the entire team but they're pretty darn important -- are showing some chemistry both on and off the court.
Sharing two microphones in a makeshift interview area in a dark corner, James, Wade and Bosh put on a mock comedy show poking fun at the media and each other.
Dressed in sweaters and jackets as they prepared to head out into a frigid Wisconsin night, it felt more like three guys hanging out in a dorm room than a news conference.
"This was the first time tonight I got booed on the road, I haven't heard those boos all year," James joked after his 17-point performance.
"Luckily D. Wade and CB showed up tonight, I was very distracted. They were able to help me through the night."
Before the game when Wade was talking about his retired No. 3 Marquette jersey that hangs in Bradley Center rafters, James told Wade he remembered watching him lose to Kansas in the Final Four.
"You weren't watching the game, you were riding around in your Hummer," Wade said.
"Yeah, I know, I watched it in there," James said. "I had satellite."
After the game Wade, who had another strong performance with 25 points playing in front of his old Marquette fan base, made the mistake of bringing up the banner again.
"I took a moment earlier to make LeBron look up at my banner in the rafters," Wade said.
"Oh, you mean the one that said Glenn Rivers?" James shot back.
Up next: the topic of Wade's career-high 14 rebounds, several of which were credited to his stat line after Bosh, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds, tapped them out to him.
Wade: "I stole about one rebound from him."
Wade: "Maybe two."
James: "Uh, huh."
Wade to James: "You're not really fighting down there, either. Don't even act like you do. As I told [Udonis Haslem], he should take his time [coming back from injury]. Don't even rush to come back, there's a new rebounder in town. "
Tip your waitresses.
These sorts of exchanges may be commonplace in any locker room. But that the Heat are letting their guard down like this in a public setting is a sign the strains that appeared to be costing them game after game just two weeks ago are receding.
What does this all mean when actually playing the game? It is easier to see than to quantify. During their current winning streak, the Heat are playing with more intensity and aggression -- and comedy.
It was visible during a moment midway through the fourth quarter when the Heat's lead, which had been as many as 15 points, had been whittled down to three. The Bucks were getting some good play from Corey Maggette, who scored 20 points on a night when both Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut struggled, shooting a combined 9-of-28 from the field.
The crowd was into the game. The live band was blaring. The Heat were in some hot water.
Then James hit a jumper. Then Wade hit a jumper. Then Bosh had a putback layup. The Heat defense stiffened and the Bucks missed nine shots in a row. Game over.
That is what good teams do, but that wasn't what the Heat had been doing. They lost five consecutive road games by folding in moments like that.
"I'm not sure we could've pulled this out earlier in the year," Spoelstra said. "Our trust has gone a long way. There is a stronger connection with the group but you can never weigh how much it is. You can see it with our group. We're gaining confidence. That stuff does translate to the court."
Indeed, it could be just a phase; the NBA season is a progression of phases. But it does feel like the Heat are getting better.
So much so that James, who earlier this season complained about not having fun, has started using that word again.
"It's growing every day," James said. "Right now, we're playing good basketball and that makes it fun."