The NBA championship banner rose with slow majesty. The ring ceremony was as understated as one can be when the ring is a sparkling riot of diamonds the size of a hatbox. Heat players dripped with the color of success from the gold trophy on their warm-up jerseys to their gold-colored sneakers. And a jammed-full arena made downtown Miami swoon with a delightful noise that sounded like appreciation, like love.
Yes, the opening night pregame ceremony was great Tuesday night.
And then the really good stuff started.
The version of it played by this city’s home team.
It is the stuff that reminds us that a trophy and a parade might come with it, but that the real reward for Heat fans should be the eyewitness seat to this.
The routine of excellence.
Miami has two superstars of such a level that each has earned the utmost respect so both share it. That’s why LeBron James’ name was introduced last in the ring line, the chants of “M-V-P!” raining down as he jabbed his index fingers up toward the rafters, while Dwyane Wade’s name sentimentally was saved for last in pregame introductions, the sonic noise swelling at its mention.
The first quarter hadn’t finished when the two made their magic, a Wade dunk punctuating a perfect, delicately arced, alley-oop pass from James. Wade seemed frisky. Fit. What knee surgery? He climbed the air on that dunk as if those gold shoes had levitating powers.
Welcome back, fellas.
Heat 120, Celtics 107.
Boston had every reason to want this game more viscerally, from the pregame ceremony its players ignored to the defection of Ray Allen.
Miami had this: the better team.
This Big 3 of James and Chris Bosh added to Wade wasn’t put together to win once, and adding Allen was evidence the franchise has grown since 2006, when the club’s first title was followed by complacency, with too much satisfaction.
Symbolically, opening night after that first crown was marked by a down-to-earth rout loss to the Chicago Bulls.
“Last time was a little different,” as Wade put it after Tuesday’s win. “Different team, different mind-set.”
Wade’s 29 points, James’ 26 and 19 apiece from Allen and Bosh had the building as loud in the closing minute as it was at the start.
(It might have been a perfect night had NBA commissioner David Stern not elicited boos before hand by referring to Hurricane Sandy as “Katrina.”)
Soon after the LeBron/D-Wade alley-oop, we were reminded that this team is so damned good partly because this Bentley can go off road, too. This team running on star power and wearing the bling-bling rings and the gold shoes also can get dirty.
Sort of likes to, as a matter of fact.
So there was good soldier Udonis Haslem, standing, waiting, hands instinctively clasped over the one area a man least likes to get hit. And the Boston Celtics’ Jason Terry, he was not stopping.
Haslem, the sacrificer, took the charge and it knocked him backward.
Then he popped up so nonchalantly, expressionless, chewing his mouth guard as usual, as the referee pointed for Miami’s possession.
We’re used to all that, though, right?
Well, we weren’t used to this.
Something is fundamentally different about this team as Year 3 of the Big 3 begins, and it is the man who defected from the enemy.
So there was Ray Allen, up off the Heat bench for the first time, peeling off his warm-up jersey, the decibels in the building rising with recognition.
The former Celtics star entered the game for the first time with 2:45 left in the first quarter, after first graciously hugging Boston coach Doc Rivers and a few others on the visitors’ bench. Celtics star Kevin Garnett, angry like most of Boston that Allen left in free agency, ignored his kindness. Allen tapped him on the shoulder just the same.
A minute later, Allen popped a three-point shot — something he does better than anyone ever — and he responded with that facial expression of his that can be so annoying if he’s wearing the wrong uniform but that fans love wrapped in the right colors.
You know it. That sneer. It is ours now.
A bit later, Allen stood on the free-throw line (he made both) and as he did a sweet spontaneity arose from the crowd. Maybe it was instant love for Allen. More likely it was meant as a knife turning in Celtics guts. Either way, I might remember it next time somebody tries to tell me how lousy Miami sports fans are.
“We got Ray!” sang the crowd, again and again. “We got Ray!”
What a couple of days for South Florida sports, right?
Our two biggest teams, cresting, preening.
The resurgent Dolphins, down for so long, winners of three consecutive games and in the playoff hunt — yes, the playoff hunt! — with Sunday’s stomp-down rout of the hated rival New York Jets up there.
And now the Heat starting back up in the bayside gym, placing a final bow on the 2012 championship, then rejoining the hard path that would make it one of many.
“The hunger changes,” as the cerebral Bosh put it. “It’s the difference between starving and greedy.”
Starving means you want so badly to taste your first championship.
Greedy means it tasted so good, you have to have more.
Miami is favored to win a second consecutive championship mostly because James — a reigning league and Finals MVP in his prime — is the best player playing his best. He has such a sense of history and his place in it, and at 6-8 and 260 pounds he is strong enough to carry a team, to lift a city.
“I know what my passion is,” James said the other day, to the notion he can relax now that the elusive first ring finally is his.
“I’m not satisfied winning just one. I want that feeling back.”
Enjoy the ride, South Florida.
It feels like maybe it has only just begun.