The tone among NBA analysts has certainly changed from last spring, when Magic Johnson was saying that the Heat did not know how to win, Skip Bayless was spewing his usual LeBron James venom, Bill Simmons was assuring us Miami wouldn’t win the championship and Jon Barry was announcing he was “done” with the Heat.
This time around, with Miami having won a championship and 37 of its final 39 heading into the playoffs, pundits are far more respectful, far less likely to predict the Heat’s demise.
“I would be surprised if they don’t win the title again,” TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal said by phone last week. “There is no stress, no drama, no negative stuff. They play great team ball. This was the epitome of the Pat Riley culture this season. And Erik Spoelstra has done a great job.”
So who’s the biggest threat to Miami?
“Themselves,” Shaq said. “They look damn near perfect to me. Everyone says they don’t have a big man. They don’t need it.”
• ESPN’s Flip Saunders, the former Timberwolves and Wizards coach, said of the Heat: “I don’t see anyone challenging them. I give a lot of credit to Spoelstra, my coach of the year.
“You take a team that won a championship being defensive oriented, and he came back this year and changed his offensive philosophy and they became the most efficient offensive team because of that. And then their defense caught up with how they were playing.
“There are teams that are going to be able to beat them a game or two maybe, but I can’t see anyone that has the ability to beat them four games in a row.”
Saunders noted the Bucks are 28th in field-goal percentage, “and if you don’t shoot a good percentage against Miami, you’re not really going to have a chance to beat them.”
• TNT’s Reggie Miller, who works Game 1 with Kevin Harlan, naturally makes the Heat favorite, but said San Antonio “can flat-out beat Miami in the playoffs. But here’s the problem:
“San Antonio can’t beat Oklahoma City, but Oklahoma City has no shot against Miami. It’s all about the matchups. Memphis and San Antonio — because of size, strength, grit, half-court defense and ability to pound the ball down low — would give Miami problems. But athletically, San Antonio can’t get by Oklahoma City.”
Miller added: “I know Indiana is not scared of Miami. The only problem is they don’t have a No. 1 closer. They have the size in Roy Hibbert and David West and guys to guard Dwyane Wade and LeBron in Lance Stephenson ... I would not be surprised if the Pacers pushed them, not necessarily beat them.”
• NBA Hall of Famer and longtime former broadcaster Rick Barry sees it this way: “OKC or San Antonio has a realistic chance of beating them, if [San Antonio’s] Tony Parker plays at the level before he got hurt.
“Rebounding is a concern for Miami, no question, especially if you go against Tim Duncan. If they play a team with a really good big man who can post up, how do they deal with that? But I’d be shocked if anyone but Miami came out of the East.”
ESPN’s Bruce Bowen was asked on a conference call last week whether some of the Heat’s off-court merriment — such as the Harlem Shake video — would be allowed if Riley were still coaching.
Bowen said Riley told him two years ago: “Bruce, I can’t coach today’s generation of kids. It’s just hard for me because they don’t look at things the way I do.”
Bowen said: “This is a day and age where guys are buddies even though they compete against each other, and they don’t mind hanging out with each other the night before a game.
“When you have an old-school coach that says, ‘I don’t want you doing that,’ the first thing that player thinks of is: ‘Why is he trying to control my life? I’m going to play hard anyway, [so] why is this coach doing this.’”
The fact Spoelstra doesn’t have that attitude “adds to them really respecting” him, Bowen said. “Even though he was raised under Riley, he wants guys to be focused, but at the same time understands that it’s kind of a younger generation and guys that are more jovial and having a good time.”
• An average of 7.1 percent of Miami-Dade/Broward homes with TV sets watched each Heat game on Sun Sports this season, compared with 4.9 in Year 1 of the Big 3 era, and 6.5 in Year 2. Sun can carry any first-round game that’s not on ABC.