SAN ANTONIO -- In the past two weeks, it would seem the Miami Heat’s level of confidence has gone from profound to profane.
Last week, Heat owner Micky Arison sarcastically needled the Cleveland Cavaliers with a “WTF” reference on Twitter. On Friday, Heat president Pat Riley, who normally projects an air of coolness reserved for movie stars, told Celtics general manager Danny Ainge to “shut the [expletive] up” through a spokesman.
That’s right, through a spokesman.
What has gotten into the Heat’s leading men that they would represent their organization with such brusque language? On the surface, it might appear that all the winning has made Arison and Riley drunk on success.
This is the golden age of the franchise, after all, so why not gloat a little amid the sheen of the gilt. The defending champions clinched the No.1 seed of the Eastern Conference playoffs on Friday, have won 28 of their past 29 games and are the odds-on favorites to win another championship.
But these men expected this success from the beginning — and have succeeded wildly their entire lives — so the outbursts are unlikely a manifestation of some kind of unwieldy self-confidence.
No, more than likely, it’s actually quite the opposite.
Arison and Riley are in a fight — a fight to keep LeBron James in Miami — and their recent outbursts are no doubt a sign that the business of securing the greatest player in the game is a stressful endeavor. James can’t re-sign with the Heat until after next season, but it’s never too early to protect an investment.
Do you realize how out of character it was for Riley to accost Ainge about something Ainge said on a Boston radio station?
Ainge said James should feel embarrassed that he complained about foul calls after the Heat’s 27-game winning streaked was snapped at Chicago. Now, please realize, Ainge admonishing a player for whining about fouls is akin to a master jewel thief scolding a seventh-grader for illegally downloading music.
Under normal circumstances, Riley would laugh at Ainge’s belligerent hypocrisy in a way a bank executive might laugh at a loan shark, and then call up Michael Douglas about dinner reservations at Prime 112.
But instead of ignoring Ainge — for what it’s worth, James has attempted fewer foul shots this season than at any time since his rookie year — Riley felt so irrationally threatened that he was compelled to call the Heat’s spokesperson less than two hours before a game in New Orleans and relay a statement over the phone.
But that’s how compelled Riley felt to protect his company’s biggest asset against even the most harmless and ridiculous of annoyances. Or, more specifically, that’s how badly Riley wanted James to know that the Heat has his back no matter how big or small the problem.
See, here’s what really happened in the pregame hours Friday in the tunnels of New Orleans Arena — a calculated, if not absurd orchestration of media manipulation in the span of a few minutes with an endgame of impressing James.
The Heat’s spokesman, expressionless and trying his best to appear unconcerned, walked out of the visiting locker room with his directive from Riley. Immediately upon recital of the message, the Twitter machine, as expected, went into meltdown mode.
Around this same time, James was back in the locker room running through his pregame rituals, which includes getting stretched while scrolling through his Twitter timeline.
“Oh, man. That’s awesome,” James said when he saw Riley’s statement.
Like Riley’s “STFU,” Arison’s Twitter “WTF” was also inspired by a weak-wristed threat to the Heat’s goldmine. Less than two hours before the Cavaliers’ home game against the Heat, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert posted on Twitter a cryptic message that seemed to imply the future of his organization included James.
The passive-aggressive threat to the Heat had an interesting effect on Arison, who, a little while later, took a shot at Gilbert and the Cavaliers when the scoreboard at Quicken Loans Arena sprung a leak and delayed the start of the game.
Arison later deleted the tweet and, after watching his team rally from a 27-point deficit, congratulated Gilbert on his team’s “amazing effort despite being undermanned.”
Meaningless subterfuge? Hardly. Like in chess, every subtle move to protect the Heat’s king is important.