Eastern Conference

Miami Heat will face stronger teams on road to another possible title

WEB VOTE Which Heat player will be the biggest surprise this season?


As the Miami Heat embarks on a mission to claim a third consecutive Larry O’Brien Trophy, the prevailing notion in the locker room is that the team will have to be even better than last year’s 66-win juggernaut to accomplish its goal again this season.

During the current era of Heat basketball, the team has undergone a drastic evolution, even while having the same potent core. When LeBron James and Chris Bosh first joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, the overwhelming talent was evident, but the on-court mix was raw.

With each succeeding year, James, Wade and Bosh have improved their chemistry with one another, and the team has benefitted from added depth. But the Eastern Conference is as deep as it has ever been.

Miami will need every bit of the refinement and depth it has gained over the past three years — plus a little extra — to become champions again.

“We can’t play the same basketball as last year and expect to win,” Bosh said.

Wade agreed, saying, “We can’t just show up and win. We have to play to the last seconds of games to win, so there are other good teams out here, and we understand that.”

Bosh admitted that with Chicago, Brooklyn and Indiana all receiving legitimate championship buzz, this year feels different than previous seasons with the Heat.

“Everyone is pumping up all the other teams,” Bosh said. “When you’re trying to defend your title, everyone tells you that you can’t do it and that everyone else can. It’s just something else that we fight through.”

Each of Miami’s three stars has improved individually in the offseason. James has famously said he has improved every aspect of his game. Bosh was more specific, saying he’s been working on his ball handling and shooting range. And just by nature of being healthy, Wade appears poised for a strong season.

But the outcome of the Heat’s season might be decided by whether or not the three can further improve their chemistry, their coexistence with only one ball to go around.

“The easiest thing to do is to just have the ball all the time, to just be able to shoot when you want, to pass when you want — that’s the easy part of the game if you’re talented,” Wade said. “But when you have to make sacrifices, when you have to think about others first, it becomes a little more challenging.

“It takes a special kind of people to be able to do it and do it for a long time. That’s why I think this is a special group.”

That group has slowly expanded over the years with the additions of Ray Allen and Shane Battier, and the depth on this season’s team looks to be the best it has been since James and Bosh arrived.

The return of Michael Beasley and arrival of Greg Oden provide promise that an unsung hero may emerge again this year, much like Chris Andersen last season.

Coach Erik Spoelstra has said repeatedly that there are no expectations being imposed on Oden, who’s trying to salvage a once-promising career from a series of knee injuries.

And while Beasley might be able to provide more immediate contributions, Spoelstra hasn’t revealed whether or not he will consistently be in the rotation.

“We always know we can lay it all out because of our bench, and there’s no hesitation,” Bosh said. “If you get tired, you can’t be selfish — you’ve got to raise your hand sometimes. You’ve got to put your ego to the side and come on out because we have guys who can keep it going and really increase the tempo and increase our productivity when we start going to the bench.”

Every player in the locker room knows that another ring can only come from the team’s stars complementing each other even more and from trusting the surrounding cast.

“It’s going to take away some of your individual spotlight — it’s going to take away from some of the things you do,” Wade said. “But just knowing that a guy’s all about the team, that he’ll do anything to win, that’s the comfort in knowing that every night you go out there you’ve got a guy that’s going to give everything he has.”

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